Story seen through wrong eyes

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special 
  • October 24, 2008
{mosimage}Cibou: A Novel by Susan Young De Biagi (Cape Breton University Press, softcover, 256 pages, $19.95).

In her back cover biography, Susan Young De Biagi claims no Mi’kmaq ancestry. Yet the Cape Breton native, who has a master’s degree in history from the University of New Brunswick, has an obvious, abiding interest in the indigenous people of her home province. She has brought both these things to her first novel, Cibou (the territory her fictional Mi’kmaq inhabit) and puts her abilities as a historian to particularly good use.
Central to the story is Fr. Antoine Daniel, the Jesuit missionary who came to Mi’kma’ki from Normandy in the 17th century. (Mi’kma’ki is Mi’kmaq land, which extended from the island of Newfoundland through to Maine and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula — although Young De Biagi makes the common mistake, even among academics, of omitting Newfoundland from the description of Mi’kma’ki in her reference section.)

{sa 1897009291}Many Canadian Catholics will recognize Daniel as one of the eight Canadian martyrs. He died at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in central Ontario during a raid by the Iroquois Confederacy (known latterly as Six Nations or perhaps most properly as Haudenasaunee).

Daniel’s death was memorable and has become legendary. Young De Biagi’s portrayal of it is vivid and reflects the received wisdom: “When the shrieking began, he ran outside, shouting encouragement to those around him, telling them to flee. But some were too old to run. To them he called out, ‘Brothers and sisters, today we shall meet in paradise.’ And holding aloft a black cross, he ran toward his attackers. And they cut him down.”

Daniel is now St. Anthony Daniel, of course, and few of us understand the Iroquois’ failing attempt to resist subjugation and the complete theft of their lands. It is still happening today, at Oka, at Caledonia, at somewhere else next.

Not everyone resisted. According to most Mi’kmaq lore, the Europeans — and Roman Catholicism especially — were welcomed by the Mi’kmaq. In some ways, the messianic message of Christianity matched Mi’kmaq beliefs. Their choice might also have been the result of a prophecy that encouraged such a welcome. Or it might have been realpolitik, since the Mi’kmaq saw the growing numbers of newcomers and realized they needed allies to survive.

Cibou takes place at the intersection of Mi’kmaq and European Catholic lives. The story is told in first person from the perspective of a young woman whose mother was indigenous, born in Newfoundland, and whose father was a French fisherman. The narrator is called, variously, Marie-Ange and Apukji’j or Mouse. Her blue eyes make her an outcast in the Mi’kmaq community in which she lives. Because of her blue eyes, the chief chooses her to help Daniel settle in the village. She finds herself drawn to him, especially after the murder of Bright Eyes or Kesaset, her mentor and guardian.

Daniel tells compelling stories: “ . . . the Creator watched, grieved. For there, in a prison of their own making, they could no longer come to Him. And so He had to find a way to go to them.” Later as an adult, Marie-Ange or Mouse finds her voice through Christianity, specifically the story of St. Anne, so beloved by the Mi’kmaq.

Young De Biagi has a feel for Daniel and his brother, Captain Charles, who established a French trading post in Cape Breton. The Daniels were real and as portrayed by the author, they feel real. Mouse, a fictional character, does not have such an authentic voice. Nor do the other Mi’kmaq.

The main reason for this is the stiff, stilted language put in their mouths. For instance, at one point a Mi’kmaq woman says: “Let there be no more battles! Let it stand instead as a promise of peace. For the eagle symbolizes harmony among all things.” Phrases like “in the way of our people” belong in Assembly of First Nations speeches. They don’t roll off the tongue in everyday life.

To try to understand the early colonial Mi’kmaq experience is laudable, even more so from a Mi’kmaq woman’s point of view. The story would have been better served, however, had it been told through Daniel’s blue eyes. It is the priest and his brother with whom the author has a genuine intimacy.

(Hanrahan is an author and works as a consultant on aboriginal issues across Canada and is a member of the Sip’kop Mi’kmaq Band on Newfoundland’s South Coast.)

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