A Matter of Conscience
Written By: James Bartleman
Published By: Dundurn Press
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was offered the opportunity to read a novel about issues facing Canada's Indigenous people, I jumped at the chance. I have Native American friends in Canada and they discuss these issues all the time on social media. I wanted to learn more – I already knew the atrocities heaped upon the Native Americans here in the United States. Studying their culture made me want to know more about Native Americans in other areas of the continent. Thus, I downloaded a copy of A Matter of Conscience by James Bartleman.
The story begins in the summer of 1972 when child welfare officials enter the Yellow Dog Indian reserve to seize twin babies from their family. The goal is to fulfill the government’s scheme of adopting out thousands of Indigenous children to white families, thereby assimilating them into society. One of the twins is a girl named Brenda who is adopted and raised by a white family in Orillia. As Brenda matures, she finds she has conflicting feelings over who she is and what her culture means to her.
Meanwhile, in the same summer that Brenda is taken, a boy named Greg is born into a white middle-class family with a secret of abuse. Greg leaves home at eighteen to earn money for schooling, but falls in with the wrong person and eventually witnesses that individual rape and kill a young Indigenous student from a residential school. In his drunken and shocked state, he finds himself helping to dump the body, assured that Indigenous women go missing all the time and that the Mounties are less than zealous in searching for them.
Guilt takes a toll on Greg and he becomes obsessed with the Indigenous culture, eventually posing as Metis to anyone who will listen. He invents elaborate stories about himself and his family. While working for the government, Greg decides he wants to date Indigenous women. It is through a dating site that he meets Brenda. They are eventually married and little by little Brenda begins to learn the truth about her husband.
In A Matter of Conscience, James Bartelman seeks to use fiction to educate his readers about history and the way Canada failed their Indigenous peoples. First, they took their land and placed them in reservations. Then, they sent the children to residential schools in an effort to assimilate them to the white man’s ways. Then came the Sixties Scoop in which tens of thousands of Native American children were stolen from their families and given to white families to raise, in hopes of driving out the culture of the Indian people. Atrocities such as rape, beatings and murder of Indigenous men, women and children were investigated with little to no enthusiasm by the law enforcement agencies.
All of these things had lasting effects on the Indigenous people of Canada: a complete distrust of government and law enforcement authorities, identity crises that led to a stunning amount of suicides amongst teenagers in the community, a sense of purveying loss amongst the people and a grand confusion regarding who they could turn to for help. Alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, physical abuse, rape, starvation, disease, death – all of these things and more are products of the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous people. I had hoped to see a difference from the United States in the way Canada treated Native Americans, but it appears that the Native American had very few allies amongst the explorers and settlers who sought not to share the land as the Indians expected, but to control it and force what they saw as savages out of it.
Though I felt the story of Greg and Brenda was a tad bit rushed, I appreciated all the author was trying to convey to his readers. I also appreciated the inclusion of actual case studies regarding Canada’s treatment of the Indigenous people. While the fictional tale is historically correct, it is also a more enticing read and a better way of teaching to a broader audience. The case studies at the end are a drier read and would appeal to only a serious history buff like myself. Including both helps the reader draw parallels between the fiction and fact and realize that there is more truth to Bartleman’s story than meets the eye. A job well done!