Hosting While Guests

I know it is a bit simple, but in Canada one is either a guest or a host. You are a guest if your ancestral roots do not run only into this place many of the hosts call Turtle Island. And you are a host, if they do.

So no matter that I need to dig back a whole nine generations before I get to the Baumans and Martins and Shantzes who sailed here from Europe, I am still a guest.

I have had the privilege of making friends with Indigenous people across much of Ontario who have no sailing in their history, and who understand their history as starting nowhere but here.

Of course there is much mixing and mingling. Finding purity is not the point.

However it is worth remembering that we guests were generally treated as just that, guests. When those Baumans, Martins and Shantzes came to this valley of the Grand over 200 years ago, the valley was shared. Over the last 20 years of visiting friends at Six Nations of the Grand River, there is an interesting story that I have heard multiple times. May I not sully the oral tradition by writing it here!

It might have been a Bauman, or maybe not – the tradition did not preserve that detail – but a guest farmer was leasing* land from a host at Six Nations. I am not sure if that person was a Henhawk or a Jacobs or a Brant – that detail is missing too. But in the first crop year, there was a drought. Harvest was scant. As he was bagging the grain the farmer realized he had barely enough to pay the lease rate. Nonetheless he piled the bags on his wagon and went to his host at Six Nations. While unloading the grain the farmer was asked about the harvest. “It was very modest,” he answered. “Barely enough to pay what I owe you. In fact everything I harvested is here on this wagon.”

The host was alarmed. “You mean you have nothing to feed your family, or your livestock for the winter? And you have kept no seed for next spring?”

And the host started restacking the grain sacks back on to the guest farmer’s wagon.

“I am not accepting any grain payment this year. We are neighbours now. You are not going anywhere and nor am I. We can settle this over the coming years as crops improve.”

Of course that valley land is now, with the exception of a 49 square mile reserve, all deeded to guests. I believe some was bought and paid for fairly. But not nearly all.

And with the passage of over 200 years those guests decided they wanted to welcome other guests fleeing troubles in their lands. And so the valley became home to Serbs, and Colombians, Eritreans and Sudanese. And in the last year to hundreds of guests from Syria. Over the last 12 months guests-turned-hosts have been practicing their Arabic and introducing their guests to everything from Canadian Thanksgiving to ice hockey.

We guest Canadians became renowned for our welcome of refugees from a viciously violent Syrian conflict. I think our renown was well deserved. But it would be more complete and wholesome if at the same time we were making fair lease payments, while maybe learning some Cayuga and inviting our Haudenosaunee hosts to feast with us, in gratitude for two centuries of friendship.

Rick is executive director of MCC Ontario, whose programs include the private sponsorship of refugees and building just relationships with Indigenous neighbours.

*One Six Nations friend who tells this story points out the importance of the fact that guests were making lease payments to the hosts. In other words, we settlers recognized some sense of our hosts’ interest in this land that required some payment for its use.