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Arts & CultureBooksTracking the Caribou Queen by Margaret Macpherson

Tracking the Caribou Queen by Margaret Macpherson

by Edith Cody-Rice

An historian at Carleton University once told me that a problem for Canada’s historians is that there are not enough people keeping personal memoirs. I thought of her as I read Tracking the Caribou Queen, Margaret Macpherson’s touching account of her 1960’s and 70’s childhood in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. My friend would be pleased. The book is advertised as Ms. Macpherson’s realization of her white privilege, the intrusion of her white settler culture on the indigenous population, but it is so much more than that. Reading it, I was reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird, similarly a story told in the voice of a child where, as seemingly normal events play out, the child paricipates and observes, unaware of the unspoken and even unrealized destructive elements of her society that underpin that normalcy.

But To Kill a Mockingbird is fiction and this is a memoir. Ms. Macpherson’s father was a high school principal, then an education official for the Northwest Territories. The dorm for out of town children is a significant factor in the story but not as an abusive institution, simply the residence where many indigenous and white children who live away from the capital stay during the school term.

Ms. Macpherson relates ,with impressive memory, her life in Yellowknife from early childhood through her teens: her experiences, her conversations, her feelings, her confusion about her “place” in that society and in that natural world as well as the “place” of others. Her sensitivity is acute as is her gift for metphor.

I have been to Yellowknife several times, but the Yellowknife I saw in the 80’s and 90’s was significantly more developed by white culture than the era she experienced.  I do recall, however, the distinct feeling that this was a frontier town on the northern edge of the continent,much more so that Whitehorse which, to me, seems like a small southern city transported to the mountains of the Yukon.

Ms Macpherson faces all the normal travails of growing up: friends, school, boyfriends, but her life is underpinned by the unacknowledged fact that her white culture has imposed itself upon the native culture of the north which her white community does not appreciate or understand and which it disdains.  She longs to become the Caribou Queen, the queen of the local winter festival. But the Caribou Queen has several personae. She is the sad prostitute in the local hotel who misses her son; she is also a figure in Yellowknife lore who quickly and efficiently butchers caribou, but most of all to the child Margaret, she is the teenager crowned as queen of the local winter festival. Margaret discovers that she misunderstands the  qualifications for this title, just as she misunderstands much of the indigenous culture  and what is really happening around her.

As she grows, Margaret begins to befriend indigenous children, even as she reserves these friendships for her holidays so as not to be seen as close to them by her own white culture. They may camp together in summer, but they only nod to each other in the hallways at school, an acknowledgement on both sides of the inherent  taboos against these friendships.

And gradually, Margaret comes to prefer the indigenous culture, more vibrant and alive to her, and to recognize that her attitude toward her indigenous friends has been one of superiority, even as she preferred their company. She also acknowledges that she and her white friends have no awareness of their intrusion on an ancient society with deep cultural norms and customs of its own, suitable to the geography in which they live.

One particularly searing experience is that of skiing with a white friend to Dettah, an ancient village across Great Slave Lake. The teenage girls set out on a three hour trek to the tiny village for something to do. They are totally unprepared for the long and dangerous ski across Great Slave Lake and become snow blind and effectively lost, risking freezing to death, until an indigenous man rescues them with his dog team and qamutik (a sled), takes them to his village, warms them with a hot drink and arranges for a younger man to drive them back to Yellowknife in his truck. They were effectively saved from certain death but no gratitude here. The friend is terrified her mother will “see her with this guy” a sentiment she expresses in the truck, not knowing the young driver speaks English.

This is a sensitive and well written book. It is a story, a memoir; it does not preach about white attitudes to indigenous people although it takes place in a region where indigenous peoples make up a more significant part of the population than in most southern communities. It simply tells the tale of one young girl’s experience in the unique culture that is northern Canada and her slow realization of her own racist attitudes. Few southerners ever get to the north and even fewer understand that it is definitely another country with its own norms and experiences based in its landscape, but the disdain that white culture has traditionally felt toward our indigenous peoples has been pretty ingrained throughout Canada until recently.

Published by Newest Press
291 pages
Tracking the Caribou Queen is available from Mill Street Books in Almonte

Margaret Macpherson will be a guest of Almonte Readers and Writers at its Delve session at Equator Coffee Roasters on Wednesday June 12 at 6:30 pm.





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