Two weeks ago, as part of my introduction as the 2016 PEN Canada-George Brown College Writer-in-Residence, I attended a series of meetings with faculty and leaders of the school who started by acknowledging that the college is located on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
Unexpectedly, this brief protocol of recognition ignited a powerful and personal realization of how my own heritage has influenced my career as a journalist, my life as a refugee, and how this may guide my future as a citizen of Canada.
My roots trace back to the Apache tribe, related to the Athabascan peoples in Canada, inhabiting since 1540 what is now the South-central region of the United States and North-central Mexico. Historians identified Apaches as fierce warriors, highly resilient, and loyal to their community. As with First Nations groups in Canada, Apaches were displaced, segregated and mistreated by both the Mexican and United States governments. In 1849, the congress of Chihuahua, Mexico’s Northern state located within ancestral Apache territory, passed a bylaw called “the scalping law,” which authorized the payment of 200 pesos for each apache scalp. By the end of the year, private contractors claimed and received 17,896 pesos from the government for killing and mutilating Apaches.
There were those that were determined to fight against discrimination. Sabina Mata, or Sabina Mala, was an Apache Indian, born approximately in 1833, 15 years before the land of her tribe was divided by an international border after a series of conflicts between Mexico and the United States that concluded in the annexation of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. According to family records, Sabina retained her identity by always wearing Apache clothes, except on the day when she was photographed; for such a unique occasion, she wore “civilized” attire.
Four generations later, Sabina’s aboriginal heritage of bravery, resilience and loyalty continues, and at least for me, one of her great, great grandsons, it has — inadvertently until that morning at George Brown College — shaped me on my path to settlement and integration in Canada.