First European permanent settlements appeared in Canada only in the 17th-18th century, whereas Native people had already lived there for thousands of years. Traditionally, it is believed that an interaction between them was focused on trading and friendly cooperation. Still, the consequences of this process are ambivalent, especially for the Native inhabitants. The communities of First Nations people had their own customs, culture, and way of life. In his short story “A Short History of Indians in Canada” Thomas King depicts the relationships between Native and non-Native people in a sarcastic, and even tragic manner. He uses the contrast between contemporary, “civilized” world and the world of nature to show the harmful effects of the expansion of white population in Canada.
The events described in King’s story take place in Toronto and its financial district, Bay Street, in particular. The main character is a businessman, whose name is Bob Haynie. He comes to the city for the first time, which is emphasized in several parts of the short story. Bob cannot sleep, so the hotel’s doorman suggests him to take a walk: “Looking for some excitement? … Bay Street, sir” (King 62). Without asking for further explanations, Bob follows this advice and gets surprised by what he sees. The Indians fly in flocks through the air, hit the walls of the skyscrapers, being blinded by the lights, and fall down to the ground, injured or dead. Two municipal workers, Bill and Rudy, soon arrive to explain the situation to the businessman and to take care of the Indians.
“A Short History of Indians in Canada” provides a short description of how the life of Native people changes, when their natural world has to co-exist with the civilization of skyscrapers. King’s storytelling is usually filled with dialogues. Although Indians are mentioned in the title of the short story, there is no voice of the natives in the whole body of the text. According to Reingard M. Nischik, “this short piece of comical tragedy exemplifies King’s treatment of the situation of Native people without the use of a Native narrator (the story is written from a white perspective, nevertheless scathingly critical of it)” (45). All dialogues belong to the whites only. The sounds left for the Indians, on the other hand, are just “smack” or “whup”. This strategy used by King helps the readers to see that the white point of view is dangerously one-sided. In fact, it shows ironically that the rich Native history of Canada may be reduced to the few pages of a bitter text, because of such approach.
The comparison of Natives with birds in King’s story is obvious, as there are numerous illuminating details throughout the text. Native people are out of place in the big city, as they believed to be “nomadic… and migratory” (King 63) wild creatures. Bill and Rudy identify Indians by their feathers, with the help of a guide book: “Got a Mohawk, says Bill… Couple of Cree over here, says Rudy” (King 63). It is almost impossible for the Indians to survive in the world of concrete and green plastic bags, praised by the white people. Even Bob Haynie, who is a stranger and an external observer, actually, loves the sounds of skyscrapers and the look of city lights, which bring death to the birds. The action takes place at night – the time, which is uncomfortable for most of the birds. This detail makes the contrast between natural life and white civilization really sharp. The author of the story provides a clear and ironical evidence by claiming that city stands in the middle of the flyway. Herb Wyile believes that such “strategic satire” must be approached in the context of issues relevant to Native people and cultures historically and currently (121). Although there is a visible equity in the contemporary world, the issue of attitude and relationships between Native and non-Native people in Canada remains important.
King shows the gap between Indians and white Canadians in several ways. Bill and Rudy speak of injured Indians in a patronizing manner: “If we don’t find them right away, they don’t stand a chance” (King 64). By claiming that there is no chance to help the birds and to prevent their tragic death, municipal workers protect their own social significance. At nighttime, the Indians from different tribes are considered as an attraction for white people. Bob is believed to be a lucky guy, as most of the people never see this “nature’s mystery”. A family from Buffalo, for example, “came through last week and didn’t even see an Ojibwa” (King 64). In the morning, however, this tourist attraction become a nuisance, as it is necessary to start the traffic and business life. By the time the commuters appear on the Bay Street, there is no single sign of injured and dead Indians left. This is a perfect illustration of a white people’s hypocritical approach to the problems of Native inhabitants of Canada.
At the end of the story, King adds the last sarcastic remark. When Bob returns from his trip, the doorman complains that in the old days, the Indians would black out the entire sky. This sentimental but arrogant remark reveals the sarcasm, used by King as a main literary device. “A Short History of Indians in Canada” shows non-Native white Canadians as those who have made a contribution to the decline of the Native population. Officially, the relationships between Native and non-Native people are believed to be friendly and equal, but the truth is that a tragic conflict between the “white” world and the native world of nature remains unsolved.
- King, Thomas. “A Short History of Indians in Canada”. Canadian Literature, no. 161/162, Summer/Autumn 1999, pp. 62 – 64.
- Nischik, Reingard M. “Wide-Angle Shots”: Thomas King’s Short Fiction and Poetry”. Thomas King: Works and Impact, edited by Eva Gruber, Camden House, 2012, pp. 35 – 54.
- Wyile, Herb. “Trust Tonto”: Thomas King’s Subversive Fictions and the Politics of Cultural Literacy”. Canadian Literature, no. 161/162, Summer/Autumn 1999, pp. 105 – 124.