Indigenous Culture and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I attended my first CanCon (The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature) in Ottawa last month (Oct 13 – 15, 2017)  and was very much impressed by the level of programming offered. It went beyond a lot of the rehashed 101 SF & writing topics I have seen at some other conventions. One of the panels that I wanted to talk about in particular was “The End is the Beginning: First Nations Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” .

The panel description reads:

Join author and journalist Waubgeshig Rice and writer, artist, and television producer Jay Odjick as they discuss how to end the world – only in writing, we swear!  – and the intersection between First Nations issues and post-apocalyptic fiction.

I wanted to try to recap / review the panel and share it with a larger audience. During the panel I had tweeted one particular insight by Jay Odjick that garnered some attention and had people asking if there was any recording / transcript of the session. Having said that, I caution that this is my imperfect recollection of the panel and I don’t try to claim its completeness or verbatim retelling.

Brandon Crilly, an organizer and programmer for the con, was the third person on the panel. Technically, the moderator, Brandon did a terrific job of playing host and giving the floor to the two guests. The panel started with Brandon having to stick his head into the hall to locate Jay Odjick who had been waylaid talking to other con goers as happens at these gatherings. Jay entered apologizing for being late and announcing in a booming jovial voice “Welcome to Big Fucking Indians with Tattoos” as he took his seat at the table, cracking up the audience and making a grand entrance.

Introduction were made. As an illustrator / writer Jay developed the graphic novel  Kagagi: The Raven which was later adapted for television on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) as an animated series with Jay producing and writing. Jay also recently illustrated a children’s book by Robert Munsch called Blackflies. Jay has also illustrated and written The Outsider which he described as a post-apocalyptic meets grind-house type of comic with lots of cussing and gore. The introductory issue is available for free download through his site.

Waubgeshig Rice is a journalist working for the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) formerly out of Ottawa, but recently relocated to Sudbury, Ontario. He’s also a writer with several books to his name – Midnight Sweatlodge and Legacy. His yet to be released (2018) book from ECW Press called –  Moon on Crusted Snow – deals with a post-apocalyptic world from an indigenous character’s POV.

(What follows is my recollections and paraphrasing of what was discussed. It may be far from chronological in what was discussed when during the 50 minutes of the panel discussion).

Jay talked about how in end of the world movies like Independence Day it’s always the  Americans swooping into save the day. Everyone in the movie is standing around saying “About time the American’s showed up”. How that these stories always American-centric and that no one else can survive without their intervention.

Jay also talked about how America is already filled with post-apocalyptic like landscapes stemming from economic collapse and that you only need to look at towns such like Rochester, New York (where he was born) where the main industrial employer Kodak has been obliterated from the landscape leaving economic devastation in its wake.

At one point Jay posed the question: “Are we talking about the world as a whole ending or YOUR world ending? Because I know of some people are already living in a post-apocalyptic world”

Personally, I felt the statement threw into focus the topic in a way that many of us white privileged people sitting in the audience hadn’t considered fully. Sure we’ve seen the news reports detailing life on Canada’s reserves and the inadequacies that First Nations people are forced to live with daily, but I think few have first hand knowledge or realize what lead directly to these conditions.

At one point Waub elaborated by discussing the history of the Wasauksing First Nation people. Traditionally they migrated up and down the eastern shores of Lake Huron hunting and trading. With the signing of the Robinson Huron Treaty in 1850 between the First Nations chiefs and the Crown, they quickly found their movement greatly restricted and they were moved off the best land. Economic interests in logging and prime forests kept them contained in places like Parry Island near Parry Sound Ontario.

Both men also gave the audience (some of whom weren’t Canadian) a bit of background in other issues affecting First Nations people in Canada such as Residential School System and what’s been in the news lately of the “The Sixties Scoop”. Jay mentioned that his family was unaffected directly by the abuses of the Residential School System, but went on to tell a harrowing tale about how his father (as a young child) and his father’s siblings narrowly avoided being taken from their parents by Jay’s grandfather standing his ground with a rifle. (I could recount more of the details of the tale, but I think they’re Jay’s to tell not mine.)

Both Jay and Waub talked about how they always thought in the case of an apocalyptic world ending event that they would both retreat to the familiarity/safety of the reserve despite both being self described urban Indians. Both men joked about becoming “soft” living in the city and that their fishing and hunting skills were not up to par. Jay recounted how his brother was a regular Native Indiana Jones type that put him to shame. Jay said the best plan in case of an apocalypse was to stick close to his brother. Waub said that he knows of several First Nation communities that have disaster plans in place with assigned roles and caches of supplies.

Waub talked about living on the reserve as a kid during the wide-spread power outage in 2003 and how not knowing what was going on at first was pretty scary. It got him to thinking about survival skills and world ending events.

Both men were asked how they thought the world might end. Jay was convinced it would be something “unsexy” like a economic collapse. Jay said that few people realize how close we came to having a societal collapse during the economic crisis of 2008 all because of a bunch of bankers. Waub said that he felt the apocalypse might be brought on by failing infrastructure.

When asked if they were optimistic or pessimistic about civilization’s chance for survival in the event of an apocalypse (I think) both said they were relatively optimistic that we could survive if we pulled together. Jay recommended people watch the TV show Jericho to see what he thought one version of a post-apocalyptic society could look like. Jay said he thought society in general could learn a lot if they just looked at the history of First Nations people and how their civilization was destroyed by colonists and settlers.

When discussing his forth-coming book Moon on Crusted Snow, Waub said that every time the power would flicker or go out while he was working on the final draft he would nearly shit himself thinking the end was here. He had immersed himself that much in the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world.

There was probably more discussed, but those are the highlights as I recall them. It was the panel where I took the least amount of notes this weekend, just because I was engrossed that deeply in the conversation.