My last name is McGrath. My father never shared much about where that side of my family came from, though he often joked that we burned down a town up north and had to move south as a result.
Perhaps as a result of confinement due to COVID, my father has started digging deeper into our family’s history or maybe he’s just becoming a bit more open about what he knows. Recent conversations have revealed more detail to a story I once believed to be self-deprecating but apocryphal.
In 1916, the great Matheson Fire burned through 500,000 acres in Northern Ontario killing over 220 people. The front of the fire measured 64 kilometers across and decimated the communities of Matheson, Ramore, Porquis Junction, Iroquois Falls, Kelso, and Nushka.
Settlers were clearing land in late July using slash and burn approaches. There had been little rain and several smaller fires merged into a single, massive conflagration. Some blamed the railway corridor for bringing these fires together.
What I have learned is that my family started one of those fires.
The devastation was absolute. The McGraths fled on the railway, at first on foot, and settled in Southern Ontario. Two children in my family were killed during the exodus, according to those that remembered. A few tattered newspaper clippings are all that we hold onto of that time.
The land has long supported various communities including the Wahgoshig First Nation and others of the Abitibiwinni Aki and Anishinabewaki. I apologize for my limited knowledge of the other people of the land and I am working to reduce my ignorance when I discuss these issues.
What I find most remarkable about this story is how easily my ancestors, and many others, made the trip south to start again. The relationship to land that made slashing and burning a reasonable means of making space available for human use also contributed to the sense of alienation that made possible the abandonment of the harm they had created.
The Western values system sees land as containing a bundle of rights. My family believed that they had a right to burn the dry cover and had a right to abandon it once it was no longer useful. However, other cultures and other people see land as entailing a set of responsibilities. The Indigenous people of that region did not leave to move south and I imagine the efforts to count their dead by the responsible authorities were incomplete and half-hearted. Yet they remained, to restore and return the gifts they had received for centuries.
Weeks ago in British Columbia, the village of Lytton was destroyed by wildfires brought about by climate change. National attention was on the small village and only afterward was there interest in the Kumsheen - “where the rivers meet” - the community of the Nlaka’pamux and a site of settlement for the past 10,000 years that surrounds and penetrates the tightly-packed community of Lytton.
Some of the Nlaka’pamux also lost their homes but argue that “Lytton was decimated by the fire, Kumsheen was not” and so it is Kumsheen that they want to rebuild. Events in Germany and Belgium, Canada and Kenya make vivid the fact that we should expect more and greater disasters brought about by the West’s centuries-long efforts at slashing and burning. Watching Bezos and Branson launch themselves into space while the world is on fire offers a bleak echo of my own family’s migration at a grander and more tragic scale.
The Matheson Fire led to the creation of the Forest Protection Branch of the Department of Lands, Forests and Mines and the Forest Fires Prevention Act in Ontario. To ensure that the scale of disaster would not be repeated, institutions were formed so that we might turn the duty of care to the world over to another government office. At the same time, Indigenous people and settlers unwilling or unable to move put their hands and backs into rebuilding.
Artificial intelligence and other automated systems mirror the values we place into them. A belief that the world is measurable and that nature is something to be used or taken is amplified in machines that then go about the work of making the world in that image. An area close to Lytton was ravaged by fire in 2017 and locals offer that it took years to get approval to rebuild. The work of reoccupation and restoration faces far greater barriers than the work of slashing and burning.
Community members are receiving aid from grass-root supporters cross the province and country, not from the large corporations or government institutions that delay response to the climate changes underway or accelerate the harm we do to the world around us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, decorated professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. offers that “land belongs to itself”. We work with its gifts and we offer our own gifts in return. In this system, reciprocity and gratitude form the foundation for building and rebuilding our world.
My ancestors and much of the dominant ideology of the present day hold a different set of values. Efficiency and growth are the means and the ends and technologies we develop give form to this idea. We pull more and more from the land and then move on when the economic argument for staying is no longer there.
For now, Ferment AI is much more about the questions we might ask around artificial intelligence than the solutions we might create. In considering the role of my ancestors in past devastation, how might I contribute to the development of disobedient technologies that have ideas of reciprocity and gratitude embedded deeply in their operation? How might we question the assumptions that made Matheson and Lytton inevitable?
Should the Nlaka’pamux try to restore the Kumsheen based on ideas of efficiency and growth, many technologies become available for their use. Smart cities and their annihilation of serendipity and contingency might just as easily be applied to Northern BC as Southern Ontario.
However, we are more interested in the tools that tell other stories and those making those tools and the stories they are trying to tell. My ancestors made a choice to move based on their situation and their understanding of the world. I hope to learn from those choices, and make my own in ways that allow for other narratives to inform the reoccupation and restoration of spaces degraded by our approaches to the natural world.