The big flap over a new commemorative coin is a good example of how Canadians can’t cope with their country’s past.
The Royal Canadian Mint is hawking a face-value $20 silver “plasma” coin for $250 to commemorate polar scientific studies, and the design depicts 16th-Century English explorer Martin Frobisher and an Inuk paddling a kayak.
Problem is, for contemporary Inuit this image conjures up memories of the kidnapping of their unknown ancestor by Frobisher’s crew to take him back to England as evidence their voyage had actually reached the New World. After a few weeks of being on sideshow–style display for the curious court of Queen Elizabeth I, the unlucky paddler died from exposure to his captors’ germs and diseases.
The capturing of human specimens to prove to sponsors that their investments were justified was a common, if barbaric European practice. Some 40 years before Frobisher’s gang pulled the stunt, Jacques Cartier kidnapped the sons of Iroquoian Chief Donnaconna to put on display for King Francis I in Paris. (In more recent history, North American jurisdictions loosened the rules: adventurers could claim cash bounties for producing only the scalps of Indians they had killed, instead of entire corpses or live human beings.)
In any event, Inuit objections to the Canadian Mint’s faux pas are already being pooh-poohed as politically-correct poppycock by people who think such slights are more imaginary than real. I meet a lot of these people. They tell me that names like Squaw River don’t bother them, that phrases like “Indian-giver” and “wagon-burner’ are just good fun, and that indigenous peoples are really very fortunate that Catholic priests took time out of their busy schedules to tutor us in residential schools.
Aside from the historic implications of the Mint’s Frobisher coin, one wonders if their employees ever thought to consult with real live Inuit to see what they thought of the design. Did they think it might be appropriate to treat Inuit inventions like the kayak in he same way they would respect anyone else’s intellectual property and ask for permission – or pay a royalty – for using the image to help sell a commercial product? They wouldn’t dare start cranking out coins bearing images of Chev Impalas or McDonald hamburgers or RCMP horsemen without first clearing it with a battalion of patent lawyers.
One of the usual excuses for the thoughtless appropriation of Native designs and images is for the “borrower” to say: “We were just trying to honour the – fill in the blank – Ojibwe – Apache – Navajo – Mi’Kmaq – and that’s why we put a cartoon-like image of a goofy-looking red-skinned man on our – fill in the blank – golf club crest—bobble-head doll – baseball jersey.”
If you really want to show us in what high esteem you hold us, there are much better ways. For starters, you might think about phoning your local member of Parliament and asking him to try to speed up that land claim our great-great-great grandfathers submitted to his government.
But if you truly like using our pictures on your merchandise, stop for a minute and think how you’d feel if you picked out coins in your pocket change that illustrated some other aspects of Canadian history:
• a nickel-plated quarter commemorating Team Canada’s Olympic hockey slaughter by the Czech nationals;
• a fifty-cent piece tribute to tipsy Prime Minister John A Macdonald with his nose specially-glazed in bright red;
• a dime commissioned by Ontario’s tourism industry to celebrate the SARS epidemic of 2005;
• a new Canadian three-dollar coin bearing the image of Prince Charles on one side and a giant mosquito on the reverse.
See what I mean?
History is like a coin – they both have two sides.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.