As a little boy, the first time I heard the story of the Ugly Duckling, I was touched by it. There was something about it, which spoke to me. The story of a bird being raised in a family of ducks, who was told he was a duck, who was even loved as much as the other ducklings by the Mother Duck, but who never felt right, and eventually finds redemption as a swan, was uplifting. I identified with him. He believed he was a duckling, and he tried hard to be a duckling, but all the other ducklings made fun of him. They kept telling him he was not as beautiful as the other ducklings and never would be as good as any of them. They called him an Ugly Duckling. He came to see himself as less than the others. No matter how hard he tried, he knew that he would never be accepted by them, and he would never be as beautiful as they were. He simply did not look like them. He felt shame.
I identified with the little ugly duckling. I used to think it was because of the shame I felt growing up because we were poor. Because of our poverty, we not only did not have the ability to carry out our wishes, we also had difficulty meeting our basic needs. You can’t buy the same clothes as others, you can’t go to the same events, or participate in the same activities as your friends. Even the lunches you take to school can be a source of shame. You make up lies to explain such failures, and you learn how to manage those lies. Shame can make you feel shy and awkward in almost all social situations. Yet when I look back at my youth, I have to admit that after a certain point, I was anything but shy. I was outgoing, brash, a jokester and not afraid to ask a question or express a thought. I challenged people. Yet I knew much of that was learned behavior – a façade to cover up a deeper lack of confidence.
When I graduated law school, and started practicing law, I continued to feel like a fraud, but on a grander scale. I felt I didn’t deserve to belong to that profession, a phenomenon written about by Pauline Clance in her book The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success. But that feeling was combined with a feeling that I really didn’t belong – that I should not be where I was; that I was participating in an ongoing process of injustice.
I was torn over my sense of what law was, and what justice and fairness meant. I was challenged by my perception of law, and the perception of law carried by Elders. They were different – yet the Elders’ perception was as deeply felt and absolutely as valid as anything taught at law school. It was an understanding of law which appealed to the core of me on the one hand, but which I absolutely could not understand on the other.
I was also torn over other personal decisions I had made. I felt tremendous stress over having brought children into this world without having the capacity to be a proper father to them. I felt enormous guilt over the fact that I was never going to be able to give them a sense of their history, and their future, as Anishinaabe. I felt that all that I had been taught to accept as being important was no longer relevant, and, in fact, amounted to immense self-deception. I didn’t lose my sense of direction, I lost faith in it. I really did feel like a failure.
I came close to quitting the law career I had chosen but was persuaded by an Elder named Angus Merrick – to whom I will always be grateful – to think instead about those things I had never been taught – things which were central to being Anishinaabe. I saw the wisdom of what he told me, and I set out on a journey of discovering Anishinaabe identity, not just for myself, but also for my children. I am in year 30 of that journey.
So the Story of the Ugly Duckling has risen in importance for me because what it teaches us still has relevance.
Like so many other Aboriginal people of my generation I had been raised like the Ugly Duckling to believe I was something I was not, and I really believed what I had been told. My family’s ambitions for me were central to accepting that belief. I strove hard to be like every other student. In fact, I was smarter and stronger and faster than most of them, and enjoyed greater success. Yet I knew that most Canadians did not, and would never, accept me as one of them. They saw me as something less than them. I could see it in the history books we studied in school, and in the images on TV and in the movies. As Willie Nelson said in the title to his song, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, mine had always been too. Yet, our cowboy heroes despised Indians, and I suspected that if they ever met me, they wouldn’t like me. I could hear society’s disrespect for me and my ancestors in the stories that were spoken and the ones that were not, in the public comments that were made and the jokes that were told. I could see it in the eyes of strangers when I passed them on the sidewalks. I felt it in the poverty we lived and the lack of opportunity that was a challenge for me to overcome and was never an issue for so many others.
Many with whom I came into contact in society tried to be fair, and I felt their love and acceptance and support, but the general treatment of Aboriginal people by Canadian society told me that because I was Anishinaabe, the stereotypes society held always would be mine to bear. I would always be an Ugly Duckling.
Yet in the story of the Ugly Duckling, hope and pride prevail. The Ugly Duckling grows into a beautiful swan and discovers that he was always a swan and never a duck. More importantly, he learned how beautiful he really was. A bird can look ugly as a duck, not because he’s ugly, but because he’s not, in fact, a duck – he’s a swan with its own beauty. The Ugly Duckling did not discover his beauty from the society of ducks, however. He learned that from other swans.
I feel the same way. I have learned, and am learning, what it means and how to be Anishinaabe. I have learned, in the process, that, just as the little ugly duckling was always a beautiful swan, I have always been a beautiful human being, belonging to a group of other beautiful human beings with a proud and distinct history and existence. I have learned that like the duckling/swan, I can still hang out with ducks, but I don’t have to try to be a duck – I can be a swan. The swan does not diminish the duck. They can all still fly together. Diversity is natural and not something that needs to be overcome. It need not threaten the unity of humanity. It was not the swan who needed to change, it was the ducks who were called upon to recognize the wrongness of their behaviour. Accepting and coping with our diversity as humans, calls for accommodation, trust and respect.
That’s in fact what reconciliation is all about.
That’s why I continue to love that story.