The Delta

My first memory of seeing someone who I knew was Indigenous came when I was eleven years old, in 1980. My family was vacationing in Northern Ontario that summer, and one afternoon we stopped by my Uncle Garfield’s farm in Sioux Lookout, a small town northwest of Thunder Bay. My uncle had an archery range out back, so I spent the afternoon loosing arrows with my cousins, pretending to be an early Canadian pioneer.

Afterwards, my father took me into town. Mosquitoes buzzed around us as we strolled past local shops on a humid summer evening. At one point, I noticed two dark-skinned men sitting outside, their long hair loose and flowing.

“Who were those guys?” I asked my dad once we were out of earshot.

“They’re Indians,” Dad replied.

“Indians? Like in the movies?”

Dad nodded and explained that lots of Indians lived in Sioux Lookout. My child’s mind tried to make sense of this: Indians still lived in Canada, I reasoned, but far from southern Quebec where I was from. That seemed about right, because I had never met an Indigenous person as far as I was aware. Sure, I’d seen them on the news once in a while, when there was a protest. But I didn’t imagine that Indigenous Peoples could be part of my everyday life.

A decade later, in 1990, the Oka Crisis erupted. I was on summer break from university at the time, staying at my parents’ new home outside of Toronto. Mohawks blocked a highway south of Montreal to protest a golf course development on their burial ground. Subsequently, Quebec’s provincial police laid siege to the barricade, and an officer was shot and killed. The standoff made global headlines and dragged on for months until the Canadian army intervened.

I followed the Oka Crisis with a mixture of shock and shame. Shock because I couldn’t believe that deadly civil strife had broken out in Canada in my lifetime. And shame because, contrary to what I had thought, Indigenous Peoples had been living a few hours’ drive from my hometown all along. Yet the Mohawk of southern Quebec had been invisible to me and my cultural world.

The Oka Crisis also caused me to ponder larger questions. I’d been taking Canadian history classes at one of Canada’s top universities when Oka hit the news. How could the Indigenous presence in my backyard have been so absent from my consciousness? And how could I have been so unaware of the lingering negative impact of Canada’s colonialist past?

My experiences growing up Anglo in separatist Quebec had prompted me to study Canada’s history and reflect on my own sense of belonging in the modern world. But I had neglected to ask myself whether Canada had belonged to me in the first place.


Fast forward twenty-six years. I was living in California by 2016, and I took on a consulting gig that summer to help the University of Saskatchewan plan a faculty leadership retreat. Their provost had asked me to inject some Silicon Valley perspectives into a series of panel discussions on innovation and leadership in higher education.

I stepped out on the tarmac in Saskatoon and made my way inside the terminal. After collecting my luggage, I found a blue sedan outside with my name in the window. Soon I was transported into Saskatchewan’s northern wilderness. I stared at the Prairie sky as we drove, mesmerized by the streaks of pink and grey clouds on the distant blue horizon. Partway through our journey, Saskatchewan’s famously flat landscape transitioned to a rugged Canadian Shield terrain, with lakes, rocky outcrops and windswept pines.

After a three-hour drive, the driver exited the highway and wound our car through Saskatchewan’s boreal forest. Before long we passed a sign marked “Elk Island Resort”. We continued past an imposing brick lodge, then parked by a row of log cabins tucked in the woods, with trails leading behind them to a scenic lakefront. We had arrived at the conference venue at Waskesiu Lake, located inside the Prince Albert National Park. A quintessentially Canadian place name—an Indigenous-named lake hedged inside a British-named park.

I dropped my bags off in my assigned cabin and reported to the conference centre. Around one hundred staff and faculty members were already milling about, setting up coffee stations and prepping for workshops. After lunch, the conference sessions kicked off and I jumped into action, moderating panel discussions, troubleshooting questions and collecting audience feedback. Experts shared the latest trends in higher education, such as the growth of online classes, new ways of sharing lab space on campus, and culture-change initiatives that might encourage students to try new things.

The sessions continued through the afternoon and into the next day. After the final panel wrapped up on that final afternoon, I rode a shuttle bus to a large outdoor tent nestled in the woods to attend a closing barbeque. I loaded up my paper plate with ribs and sat at a round table near the front. I was curious to see how the university’s president, Peter Stoicheff, would tie together the many exciting ideas that had come out of our discussions.

But instead of offering his own conference wrap-up, Stoicheff invited four young scholars to present an overview of their recent fieldwork in the Saskatchewan River Delta, which at greater than 10,000 square kilometres is North America’s largest inland river delta. I wasn’t sure what this had to do with our conference, but Stoicheff’s surprise certainly got my attention.

The scholars explained that before they started their ecological fieldwork, they spent a year getting to know the Swampy Cree, the Indigenous people of the delta. Only then did the scholars begin gathering data, using a blend of science and Indigenous Ways of Knowing, or IWK—a holistic approach to knowledge that sees people as interconnected with land and communities. Because IWK was not endorsed by the faculty, these scholars had risked tenure by using the method. But they persisted because they felt that the Swampy Crees’ lived knowledge of the delta should be included in the scientific record.

Next, Stoicheff invited a Swampy Cree trapper onstage. Gary Carriere had a weathered face, a moustache that curled down his chin, and a quiet charisma that captivated the room. “At first I thought these researchers were just another generation of settlers telling Indigenous Peoples how to manage their own land,” Carriere explained in a deliberate tone. “But it didn’t take me long to see that these people were different. They didn’t just talk, they listened. They really came to the Delta to bring Indigenous stories into their science.”

Carriere closed with an eloquent tribute to the scholars’ courage and dedication. Several faculty members then rose from their chairs to applaud—and to urge the university to consider IWK-informed research in tenure applications.

As I absorbed these presentations, I was impressed at how Stoicheff had deftly highlighted two of the retreat’s key themes—Indigenization and innovation—simply by letting young scholars and a Cree Elder tell their stories.


The following year, in the fall of 2017, I grabbed the microphone at an elegant hall in northern California. UC Berkeley’s Canadian Studies program was hosting a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner in collaboration with the Digital Moose Lounge, or DML, an association of Canadians in the Bay Area. I’d been invited to reperform a Hamilton-style rap that I had premiered three months earlier at a sesquicentennial Canada Day event. I had since added new rhymes and commissioned my teenage son to record a catchy beat. The music pumped and I started rhyming:

“French and English lived in close proximity.

Keeping ’em together took equanimity,

Cuz though they both believed in the Holy Trinity

They could not agree on the pope’s divinity.

Each Empire had Indigenous friends

That it used to advance its political ends.

For a while there were no clear dividends.

Throw in a pope and it was hard to make amends.”

I closed my rap with the same tribute to Canada’s Confederation that I had used in my inaugural performance a few months earlier:

“After complex negoti-ation,

And some cross-accultur-ation,

Came the gradual cre-ation

Of Canada’s great Confeder-ation!”

I finished and froze in a rapper pose, then basked in the glow of applause from this intellectual crowd.

The following week, the DML’s director at the time, Kathryn, met with me over coffee in Palo Alto to review the feedback that she had received from the event. True to form, Kathryn had sorted and entered the data into a spreadsheet, so she set up her laptop at the coffee shop and glanced down at her screen from time to time during our meeting.

“The good news is our guests loved the nice Canadian touches at dinner,” Kathryn explained. But then she qualified that one guest had complained that the DML hadn’t served any Red Rose tea, a well-known Canadian brand.

“Jeez, how authentic do we have to be?” I griped. “We had Nanaimo bars, Tim Horton’s coffee, Moosehead beer. Can’t they cut us some slack on the tea?”

Kathryn laughed, then peered down at her laptop to read the next point of feedback.

“Oh, and we also got great feedback on your rap,” she said. “Young people still love the whole Hamilton thing. Although we did get one negative comment about that too. Someone who identified as Indigenous said the rap was offensive because it celebrated Confederation.”

“What?” My brow furrowed. “OK, I get that this was a Thanksgiving dinner and not a Canada Day party. But we promoted it as part of our sesquicentennial series of events. Why wouldn’t we mention Confederation?”

“Well, this person was caught off guard by all that. And they added…,” Kathryn paused to lean over and read her notes verbatim from her screen: “Confederation was a racist and colonial event, so the very notion of Canada is offensive.”

“Wow,” I responded, shaking my head. “I’m not sure what to do with that.”

I tried to put the negative comment behind me, but over the next few days it kept cropping up in my mind. My work with the University of Saskatchewan had taught me that the first step to understanding Indigenous perspectives was to listen to their views and voices, but it was hard to hear a comment that was so dismissive of my own understanding of Canada.

But how could I reimagine my identity to be more inclusive of Indigenous perspectives, when some Indigenous people find the very idea of Canada offensive? And how could I reconcile Canada’s—and America’s—mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples with my positive associations with both countries?

As I pondered this conundrum, I recalled our closing dinner at Waskesiu and wondered if I might emulate the scholars’ use of Indigenous Ways of Knowing to discover new knowledge—about myself. Perhaps if I listened to Indigenous views on belonging, as had the Saskatchewan River delta scholars, then I might glean new insights into my own interconnection with North America’s land and Peoples.

Of course, this kind of cultural self-exploration would challenge me to remain open to starkly different perspectives from my own. I would have to reckon with the assumptions I’d made as kid, and to try and walk around in someone else’s shoes. The task was so daunting that I sat on the idea for a while.

Then, a few months later, my wife and I were sitting down to a dinner of grilled salmon and asparagus at our home in Palo Alto. No sooner had Margaret sat down when she surprised me with a tidbit of news.

“Guess what? I just signed up for an online class on Indigenous Ways of Knowing.”

“Really?” I asked as I served her a glass of Chardonnay. I was surprised that my techie-designer wife had taken up IWK. “What brought this on?”

Margaret explained that ever since I had told her about Carriere’s talk in Saskatchewan the previous year, she’d been wondering if her company’s design team might benefit from learning about IWK. Since she worked at a global tech firm, her team designed products for people all over the world.

In the weeks that followed, I started peeking over Margaret’s shoulder when she was taking her IWK course. The lectures offered Indigenous points of view, flipping the script on my Western cultural assumptions. One lesson explored how Western stereotypes of Indigenous people actually reflect westerners’ values back to themselves—when westerners imagine Indigenous people as “uncivilized,” we’re implicitly imagining ourselves as the more “civilized” people. But who decides what “civilized” means? Isn’t the term entirely relative?

A few weeks later, I signed up for an IWK course of my own. One class explained that Indigenous Peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge has accumulated over thousands of years, passed down across territorial generations. Like a river delta, “sediments” of lived knowledge are deposited by each generation, and gradually spread across the basin to form a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

Since I lack a similar intergenerational connection to one area of land, I could never hope to acquire that deep of an understanding from an online class. But if I can learn to be more open to Indigenous critiques of western ways, then I might begin to reflect a more ambiguous cultural national identity back to myself—one that is positive and negative, kind and cruel, good and bad. In the process, I can hopefully gain a richer understanding of what it means to be both a Canadian and a settler in North America.


David Wayne Stewart is a “professional Canadian” in California, helping Canadian tech regions bridge into the Bay Area ecosystem. He is currently the Advisory Board Chair of Canadian Studies at UC Berkeley, and he recently published a collection of memoir essays, “True North, Down South: Tales of a Professional Canadian in America”. His work has also appeared in Potato Soup Journal and elsewhere.