Face in the mirror

The politicians in this place we call Canada have taken hold of the word reconciliation, using it in the House of Commons, in media appearances and in official documents, when they speak of relationships with Indigenous Peoples. The term comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on residential schools, which is in turn related to many other such commissions, in countries that include Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Congo and Sierra Leone.

But in Canada, most, if not all, politicians have dropped the word “truth” from the discussion. As if the truth telling that emerged through the commission’s work—first person testimonies, historical photographs and documents, the final report and calls to action—means that the Canadian government can dispense with the term, with truth, and move on.

The truth of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government is painful; it’s a long story to tell—more than 150 years long, with many, many voices speaking different languages, filtered through unique cultures, over vast lands. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools delved into only one of the crimes committed against Indigenous Peoples by Canada.

But focusing on reconciliation is a way for government and businesses to try and put the past behind them.

Before they understand it, people tend to talk about trauma in terms of wanting to put the past behind them; to move on, to stop rehashing things. This is because we, as human beings, want to avoid pain and fear. Yes, it’s very painful to dig up this past, the shared experience of Indigenous Peoples and settlers. It’s like cutting open the skin with no anaesthesia to drain an infection. And perhaps politicians and corporations want to avoid doing this for other reasons. Maybe it’s dangerous to go digging into history—it might de-stabilize the whole structure: the nation state, its very rich corporate allies, the stories many people tell themselves about Canada, about how everything’s turned out for the best; how we are the most peaceful nation on earth.

It’s not time yet for reconciliation because this country has not yet dealt with the pain and disfigurement just below the surface—a wound that will take a long time to heal. Every time it surfaces, there are people who act out in anger and fear, burning effigies of Indigenous People, throwing rocks, assaulting Indigenous women. Does their hatred come from a belief that their safe and wealthy way of life is actually their due and the result of their own hard work? That it is not in fact a privilege that Indigenous Peoples have paid the price for? Would understanding this make it possible to ease the pain and pour water on the raging fire that’s been burning them up for generations?

I wonder if this anger is also rooted in a misunderstanding about identity. If a person is born in Canada, then they are Canadian—there is nothing they need to do to earn their identity and citizenship. It’s a birthright that comes from being born on Canadian soil.

What if many Indigenous nations see the land where their community is rooted the same way—as the home of their nation? When they are born, they are Anishinabek, Kanienkehaka, Eeyou and so on—it is their birthright and can’t be bought or sold. It is often tied to the land where their nation is rooted.

In this case, the argument that Indigenous Peoples want land without paying for it fall apart. As with Canadian citizenship, Indigenous citizenship can’t be bought or sold. Of course, Canada, the nation state, does not recognize the other nations within its borders. And many Canadians don’t either. They see Indigenous land as belonging only to Canada. And many people believe all reserve land should become private property—broken up into lots to be bought and sold.

If Canada does not know its true history as told by all of us living in this place, Canada is doomed to repeat it. But if the true stories are told often enough, by everyone concerned, the notion of reconciliation might fall away and cease to matter. The scales could fall from eyes and ears. Hearts could open up, becoming bigger, capable of more compassion, able to hold more love. The scabs that have grown over the wound at the heart of this place called Canada might fall away.

But for the most part, Canada doesn’t acknowledge its history and so it repeats and repeats the same mistakes, getting the same results and never learning from them. Sometimes it steps out of the pattern of imposing its will on Indigenous nations and enters into true two-way relationships. Canada implements, together with Indigenous nations, agreements that are bilateral and both parties come away better off.

Some people living here are learning the history and seeing Canada differently–questioning its existence as it is today. Repudiating the pernicious ideas at the heart of Canada’s colonial history–that only Europeans were fully human and everyone else who was “discovered” was less than human. One of the earliest doctrines to articulate this idea is the Doctrine of Discovery, through which European explorers and colonists gave themselves permission to take all the land and wealth everywhere they went.

And so what, 500 years later, do we inherit from this legacy? What does it do to us as a people and as individuals, to live in a society made possible by treating the Indigenous Peoples as less than human? The legacy of this doctrine is the reserve system, the crisis in child welfare, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, multi-generational trauma caused by residential schools, alcohol and drug abuse and homelessness. And for us settlers, bewilderment, fear, anger and defensiveness at worst and at best a growing feeling that we are running out of time to save ourselves, whatever we may be–Canadians, inhabitants of Turtle island or immigrants. An urgency to save ourselves from growing environmental disaster and collapse, from living in a world solely ruled by institutions almost exclusively devoted to turning profits any way they can.

A truly depressing picture of Canada. But there is a lot of hope, although it is mostly about how things are going on the individual and interpersonal level. As individuals, Indigenous people from all nations are speaking out and transforming their own lives, their family’s and sometimes their community’s lives–pushing back against ignorance and fear. And many settlers are learning about the shared history of settlers and Indigenous Peoples—understanding better why we need to change the relationship in order to change the trajectory of our society as a whole.

There is hope that the Canadian government, under the Liberals, had the will and desire to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery by removing its influence from our laws and policies.

Even though Bill-262, an Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the UNDRIP, tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash, died in the senate, where it was delayed by Conservative senators until the House rose for the summer, it is still remarkable.

It is very rare for non-governmental bills to pass through the House of Commons and to get as far in the Senate. So the fact that this Bill made it to the senate at all is a sign of hope and an indication of the government’s willingness to change. This happened because of widespread support for its passage throughout civil society, from churches, labour unions, human and environmental organizations and Indigenous leadership.

Progress is slow and unfolds along a twisting, difficult-to-discern path. But at least many people are on the path, catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror of truth and seeing the not just beauty but also the ugly parts. And starting to make room for the story that Canada has always wanted to forget. A story that told in its entirety, is breathtaking in beauty, courage and hope. By opening themselves to this painful history, they begin to recuperate the joy and wholeness they’ve been seeking all along.

The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

Sk’elep speaks

Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…

– Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. Picture in your mind’s eye an Indian agent driving through town, opening the door of his truck and snatching a child from the road, to spirit him away over a thousand miles to residential school. As you imagine the scene you may be in a safe place, such as your home or a café. Or on a train taking you to school or work. Unlike the child, you board the train willingly, whether following a familiar route or going on an adventure.

When the children board the train, it is icy cold and strange. They are all alone, without Mum or Dad or Grandma. The train conductor knows this—he’s done this run before, driving the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of frightened children, crying for their family. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into moonless sky. The train conductor hears the small voices and remembers them always1.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. Sound the alarm. Send out search parties and shine lights in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communication lines growing taut with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high running through darkness of the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see sk’elep howling. I can’t tell if he feels rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Sk’elep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at powwows, as fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but sk’elep always sings at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977. Sk’elep or coyote is the traditional trickster figure in the pantheon of Secwepemc mythology.

What is reconciliation? The stranger

Don’t worry, he’ll still be here, walking Toronto’s sidewalks in ten years’ time. Stopping to hug a stranger who puts a hand on his shoulder and opens her arms. Like her, we need someone to hold hands with, the way he held Pearl Wenjack’s hand. Someone to hug and kiss the way he kissed his bandmates and hugged them close.

It’s quietness, that’s his trick. Silence where you hear soft voices and gentle breathing, the first opening of trust. You might not know it’s arrived. As you may not realize that Gord’s walked by. Just another guy in a jean jacket and toque. Scraps of paper in his hand and spilling out of his pockets. His brother walking beside him, arm around Gord’s shoulders. Sound of boots on the sidewalk, air moving aside as they pass.

It won’t matter that time passes if you carry the memory of his kisses with you. How he kissed his bandmates on the lips. If you can still imagine how it would’ve felt if he hugged you – he gave so many hugs. Gord didn’t need to write those memories down. He carried them inside of him and on his skin and clothes. He’s passed on, but he’s still here. You’ll have to watch and listen for that friend you used to know ten years ago. He might be downtown. A guy walking by. You don’t want to mistake him for a stranger.

In his time, he tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he held a little girl’s hand, a child needing help finding her way back home, from being lost; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. In Toronto, he walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You could hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wandered home.

You’ll run into him one day outside a café perhaps, and he’ll wrap you in his arms. You’ll feel rough denim on your cheeks and his jacket’s buttons pressing in. Your tears will fall on his sleeve and his hat’s feather will brush your hair. It will be as if you’ve just returned here from a long time away, to this sidewalk, this bright window, the cool softness of his cheek.

What is reconciliation? Beginning again

The country we call Canada began as illusion: with the story that Canada was an empty space. A space to be opened up and taken over by settlers looking for new homes; by traders looking for riches. Canada rests upon a surface of illusion and disinformation. Beneath that surface is another place. It has survived the force our lies. A place we’ve damaged and disregarded.

I say this next part tentatively: Canadians need to learn the Indigenous stories and ceremonies and make them our own. Or better said: We must allow ourselves to be overtaken by the deepest part of this place, its ways and stories. If not, we shuffle and slip along a hard and brittle surface that prevents us from sinking down. Under the hardest ice are seeds waiting for spring; roots lying dormant; old leaves turning into new soil.

When we came, we brought stories with us, our plants and medicines too. But they are fading and dying off. They belonged to another place and time. My ancestors were poor Irish Catholics 200 years ago, but that doesn’t help me now. Some drops of the old time still cling to me, evaporating, long passed.

To know what this place is, its deepest roots, its oldest stories, what must we strip away? How do we arrive at the beginning?

What is reconciliation? Don’t just do something, stand there

At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

When I was a student, I was an Indigenous rights activist. I made friends with people from nations across Canada, and got to hear their stories. That’s how I learned about residential schools more than 25 years ago, and about the sixties scoop. I met people who experienced these things and told me about it.

Our student group organized demonstrations, panel discussions, film presentations, fund-raisers; even poetry readings. I wrote for the student newspaper on local and national Indigenous issues.

The goal was to DO something. To make a difference and get the broader society to recognize and respect Indigenous people and their rights. Our activist group had lots of success when it came to doing things. We put up posters and organized events. Raised funds, screened films, attended demonstrations, signed petitions.

After a few years however, I began to see that “doing” things wasn’t having the effect I expected. Strangely, the sum total of everything I did to “help” or make a “difference” seemed to have been handed back to me one-hundredfold as gifts, both tangible and spiritual.

These gifts were in the form of kindness and trust. People who had been hurt, sometimes deeply, by Canadians, offered me their trust and friendship and told me their stories; people with little money and humble means offered me meals and made me welcome in their homes. I was given thank you gifts: a Haudenosaunee flag; a hand-made Abenaki basket. To be honoured and trusted outshone everything I had ever “done”.

Mainstream Canadian society believes, deeply and unconsciously, that we are most important in this country. We tot up our accomplishments as if they will change the world. We want to solve problems, even if we have to invent them. We invented the Aboriginal problem so we could be helping and fixing. It is so much easier to be doing than it is just to be here, in this place we call Canada.

And anyway, how do we solve the problem of ourselves?

The myth of the vanishing Indian

“To the extent that the Indian was on his way out, [colonial society] created reserves, they created little wardship statuses, they created situations to manage the problem while it went away. In the meantime, the colonial society arrogantly assumed everything that the Indian had. Her land, his power, all of these things. In Canada in the 1950’s, the people and their rights were assumed to be…fading away, the vanishing Indian. But then, you had this boomerang effect where the Indian comes back, and it was ‘Indian’ at that time. The Indian comes back, physically, culturally, intellectually: that culture, that society, that power begins to re-emerge.”

–Taiaiake Alfred on Canada and its indigenous peoples, Dec 29, 2003

The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as peoples die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light goes out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. People in the thrall of this myth look down through a narrow space of the present and see only worn-down reserve houses; broken bottles of booze; grey, cold streets with old men hunched on city sidewalks.

In this story, you don’t hear the piercing sound of singing and the pounding of the pow wow drums coming towards you under the earth, through the soles of your feet and up into your guts. Drums you hear all summer long on the pow wow trail, or in night clubs, where the electric pow wow beats of A Tribe Called Red bounce off the walls, and voices like a high wailing wind swirl across the dance floor. In that story, you can’t feel the intense heat of sacred fires, burning all over this land. Where you can sit with tobacco and cedar in your hand before tossing the medicine into the fire, sending your prayers to your creator.

Mark how the face and voice of Chanie Wenjack’s sister Pearl rise in stark relief against that faded and tattered story of the Indian. Hear her voice travel to us across CBC’s airwaves as she retells how her little brother died escaping residential school. Ever since she started speaking to us, Pearl’s voice has been whispering in our hearts, whether we hear it or not. She has the voice of my grandmother and your grandmother. She had a brother who could have been my brother or yours. Feel it, a connection growing, deep within your sense of country.

It is time for those blinded by the myth of the vanishing Indian to find our roots in this land, to let ourselves be changed. To let the spirit into our blood.

Image from CBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016.

A bucketful of sweat

Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

Recently, I posted a question on Facebook about doing art, whether it be writing, visual arts, music, theatre–anything creative. My question was, how do people deal with feelings of intimidation, discouragement or even paralysis when it comes to their art?

I was humbled by the thoughtful responses I received from musicians, fellow writers, photographers, actors and other artists. If I didn’t know before, now I am certain that being an artist is the same struggle for everybody, with minor variations. Some folks don’t feel worthy, others find it hard connecting to an audience–but we’re all the same.

I should have known this, since there is struggle mixed into the joys of every other area of life. Why would artistic endeavours be any different? At times writing can be magical, when you experience what is now called “flow”: everything else falls away and you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the only thing you could be doing. But since it’s magical at times, we forget that writing, playing music or acting is mostly a workaday kind of thing. There are only a few drops of inspiration, mixed in with a bucket of sweat. And maybe a few tears.

When I was younger I wrote poetry and put together a chapbook called Gathering Medicine which I launched at the Tree Reading series here in Ottawa, and gave away to many friends. But I stopped writing poetry, because I found it was so much work, done in isolation, and in the end, only a few hundred people (at most) would ever read any of the poems. As Chris Bose, a multi-media artist and writer says, in this country, you’re a hit if you sell a 1000 copies of a poetry book.

My biggest thrill was getting a single poem published in Prairie Fire magazine and one in Arc poetry magazine. I found it depressing.  I thrive on social interaction, and I have political activism in my nature, and poetry didn’t fulfill either.

So, instead I wrote reviews of poetry books, including some by Indigenous poets, for a couple of journals. I enjoyed doing it. I wrote art and book reviews for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. My favourite is a review of Gail Valiskakis’ book Healing Traditions. It’s a collection of essays on Aboriginal mental health, and I was so happy to profile it for medical doctors, since I am sure at least some of them went on to read the book, and perhaps improved their practices as a result.

I have also written a series of profiles of Indigenous artists for Rabble.ca, as well as a review of an exhibit at the National Gallery on Indigenous identity. Then I forayed into online privacy, because I was inspired by Ed Snowden’s actions. I ended up writing two articles for Rabble.ca, while exploring the issue through reading and learning about technologies for encryption and privacy. I asked a question when Glenn Greenwald spoke in Ottawa, and he retweeted the video recording of the question and answer, because he liked it. That was really a thrill! He has over 700,000 followers. That moment, the question and answer, fit perfectly with the sociable activist within me.

Last year, I reviewed The Red Post exhibit, which marked the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis. Then a year of relative silence, until I wrote a stream of consciousness essay inspired, among other things, by driving through southern Ontario on the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, swimming in Lake Huron and reading Downie’s lyrics, which are also poetry.

Writing “On the adventure” was special for me, because it was so liberating to write. Words, images and joy poured forth. It was also gratifying to have a close friend and editor make it better by working on it with me.

It hasn’t been published anywhere except my blog, and I don’t really know what to do with it, to be honest. It’s not an essay or a poem, but something in between. I’ve had maybe a hundred viewers for it and a few nice comments. It’s a quiet piece, not a quick read, and not topical. But writing it led me to ask that online question of other artists, and come to the conclusion that like all artists, I need to maintain a quiet, warm corner in my heart; a place welcoming enough that I can write in stillness and feel inspiration when it passes through me; see it surfacing among the words.

I am not prolific, and I am often frustrated by the lack of an audience and feedback. I write mostly for free, and only outside of working full time, having a family and maintaining a martial arts practice, which is another kind of creative endeavour–one that plays a big role in maintaining mental, emotional and physical balance.

But whether I write in obscurity, or have a big audience–I don’t know how much it matters. Nobody does art for others. We need some feedback and community, but it doesn’t have to be a stadium full of people.

I now see that if you cultivate your creativity, and respond to your readers, both will grow. It’s as simple as that.

Gord Downie’s Secret Path shows: Did fans or scalpers get the seats?

When we tried to buy Gord Downie tickets, we were stunned to find that all of them sold out in about four seconds. Were scalpers to blame?

In Ottawa and Toronto this  October, Downie will launch his reconciliation project, the Secret Path, to raise awareness about residential schools and raise funds for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

My friend and I tried to get tickets the Ottawa show, which will take place at the National Arts Centre. The Ottawa show will be held at Southam Hall, which only seats 2300 people.

Given how many people were probably trying for the general admission tickets, we knew our chances were slim. Especially since half the tickets were sold in a pre-sale, which I think was for NAC members.

However, when my friend tried to buy tickets, she was stunned to find that all of them sold out in about four seconds. She wondered if scalpers were to blame, since they use bots that take up all the connections on the Ticketmaster’s servers so no one else can buy tickets.

I was thinking maybe not, since for this show, Downie requested that all the tickets be “paperless”, meaning that you buy them with your credit card, and in order to enter the venue, you present your credit card along with government-issued photo ID at the ticket booth. This way, only the actual owner of the ticket and his or her party can enter. All tickets are non-transferable. This makes it more difficult for scalpers to profit from artists who are in high demand.

I also figured that around 30,000 people where probably all clicking furiously away at their computers and mobile devices at the same time, hoping to score one of maybe 1200 tickets.

I did some research,  because I wondered if the paperless method actually lowers the number of scalped tickets, and because if I was wrong, and it was scalpers scooping up all the seats, well, that is just infuriating.

In my research, I learned that to get around the paperless method, scalpers purchase tickets using gift cards from credit card companies and send the gift card to the purchaser. At the venue, the gift card is swiped. And many venues don’t bother checking ID. I also read that in some cases, scalpers will send someone to the venue along with the purchaser, and that person has the credit card and required photo ID. He walks the group into the venue and then leaves. I could see doing this for a few, very  expensive scalped tickets. But hiring someone to do this for thousands of people would be really expensive for the scalpers and a logistical nightmare.

To find out more, I opened an online chat session with a customer support rep for Vivid Seats, an American ticket “reseller”.

Here is part of that conversation:

Jennifer: Hi, I was wondering about buying tickets for the Gord Downie show in Ottawa, Ontario this October. How do you guys handle paperless tickets? I was told that you have to have the original credit card, plus photo ID to get in.

Lauren, from Vivid Seats: For the paperless tickets, the venue does not check IDs, they only scan the gift card and then you receive your seating voucher. We have not had any venues check IDs when scanning the gift cards.
However, our sellers will make sure you receive all of the necessary information to enter the venue.

Jennifer: The NAC says they do check. It’s a small venue. [I was just making this up, since I hadn’t spoken with the NAC yet.]

Lauren: Our sellers have special relationships with the venue and would not sell the tickets if they could not be used by someone else. If there is any other information or anything else required to enter the venue with the tickets, our sellers will make sure you receive that information.

Jennifer (losing my temper): Wow, that is so awful. Downie is doing a fund raiser and you are exploiting his efforts and artistry, while shutting out fans who can’t afford your prices.

Lauren ends the live chat.

I guess I blew my cover as a potential buyer.

After that, I called the NAC box office and asked them what information they require when processing paperless tickets (I did not ask if they accepted gift cards, or if they asked for credit cards or ID, because I did not want to provide any leading questions).

The woman I spoke to said that for Downie’s show, they will be checking credit cards and photo ID for every purchase. And they won’t accept gift cards. She also said they have never done paperless tickets before, and that Downie requested it because of the high demand for tickets.

I told the woman I was glad to hear this, and mentioned how apparently many venues don’t other checking for ID and accept gift cards. She assured me that the NAC would not be taking this approach.

In the end, I expect that there will be people at that show who did not purchase their tickets in a way that is fair to the artist or his fans, but I guess there won’t be very many. I also wonder if some people with scalped tickets will be turned away, because the NAC will not accept gift cards.

Ticket scalping is so unfair to everyone who cares about music, fans and artists especially.

I wonder if we should stop selling tickets online and go back to requiring fans line up and buy them, like we did when we were kids. And limit the number you can buy to four, and still require a credit card and photo ID at the show.

I’m sorry I won’t be sharing an evening in October with Gord. But I really hope those who have the privilege bought their tickets fair and square.
secret-path-2

On the adventure

I think it was Algonquin park
It was so cold and winter dark
A promised hibernation high
Took me across the great black plate of ice

From “The Bear”
—The Tragically Hip

In the weeks leading up to the final Tragically Hip concert, I’d been reading the band’s lyrics, watching the frontman, Gord, on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hanky, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans. On the day of the last concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day long, every radio station played the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people celebrating the band at the stadium, in the parks and on the streets of their hometown.

Gord was reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the north’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and pelicans that fly overhead like an air force squadron in a prairie summer sky. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer just north of here—two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think this country could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly in open fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land we settlers mostly can’t live on, where we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.

Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above, fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities, more highways with line after line of cars. Our country was under the power of a pinched, stodgy and secretive government, casting a grey pall.

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs rising up along Highway 7, north to Peterborough and Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns? No one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living. For us city dwellers, these towns among the wild, open spaces represent our dreams—of living differently, leaving behind traffic and the grind of work, day after day. But maybe there, the wind that feels so fresh to us is nothing special. The pines and firs not worth thinking about. The wild strawberries for the birds. Maybe in a quiet little town north of here, you’d be looking for a signal from the shiny cities, a new transmission and current of life.

This country was meant to provide food and furs to the Empire, which sent off its traders and factors; merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees, indentured servants, slaves and immigrants from eastern and western Europe, Asia and Africa. Is that our heritage? Along with beaver pelts and fish? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

What about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?

What about Mi’kmaq, Innu, Haudenosaunee—league of six nations? Algonquins, Saulteaux, Dakota, Siksika, Dene, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and the shiploads of people searching for a home, people who mistook the land for an empty place. People who saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of for hunting and fishing or for gathering medicines. People wanting fences and roads, deeds for their land, cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution, smug multiculturalism or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.

Gord travelled along this way, living each day, as best he could, as an adventure, travelled between the towns and cities strung like pearls along the country’s border. He happened upon wonder in roadside motels, dug up miracles hidden in shells on the shores of Lake Ontario. I think of Gord and I’m reminded of the Canada I used to love. It reappeared after a long absence: a place that listened to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tuned into a concert.

In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper, their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.

Perhaps Gord didn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He wrote about it anyway and found himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He held hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba—she was so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He met polar bears, black bears and black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one-third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.

The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest. The adventure is driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up here? What do they hear in the wind?

August 26, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

Impossible Things

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –Doris Lessing.

This quote from the British novelist sums up how I feel about the martial arts. Except, I don’t know if karate is what I am meant to do. It’s just something I started, and have kept close to my heart since the beginning. I am not the best, and don’t bring to it any special talent or physical advantages.

I was really meant to be a famous Canadian poet. Except I’m not. But I probably have some special talents and abilities in that direction. Writing is for me, at times, an act that satisfies a deep need to communicate about essential things, like love and art. But it also carries with it the heavy baggage of expectations, since I was groomed from a young age to succeed as a writer. (For example, there are all kinds of awards I should have won by now, like the National Magazine Award, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Archibald Lampman Award, the CBC poetry contest, etc., etc.) Writing’s a good and essential thing, but despite being a great gift, writing is my job.

Karate, on the other hand, is a gift that I received unexpectedly. My husband and son had been doing it, and I finally decided to try it out, because I liked the atmosphere of the dojo, and the attitude of the teachers. So one day I found myself kneeling on the dojo floor, reciting the student creed.

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

I liked doing it, so I kept going, and since I was mostly working contract, I was able to attend a lot of daytime classes, which made it easier to continue. And so I kept on learning, becoming more fit and getting new belts, until I arrived at the brown belt, with three stripes.

Karate is a gift to me because it’s offered me a space to unfold and transform without pressure. I have worked mostly with Sensei Fortunato who teaches the daytime classes, and his gentle, non-judgmental approach to his students has helped to create this positive atmosphere. And every chance he gets, Sensei Dom reminds us that we are trying to achieve our own personal best, and not to compare ourselves to others. Neither of these outstanding sparring athletes is ever judgmental or impatient with their students. Their approach has helped create a special environment where renewal and self-discovery are possible.

In this place, I’ve been inspired, as I watch people with serious medical conditions become some of the best karateka, and even saw my teacher recover from a potentially career-ending injury with grace and patience. And I know almost everyone who comes to the dojo has their own difficulties, worries and stresses, even if they’re not necessarily obvious.

I suppose I was meant to do karate, because I have done it, and continue to do it, against all my expectations and preconceived notions. And I’m glad I didn’t wait until I was fitter, or weighed less, or had more money. The conditions do seem impossible at times, so it’s important to just show up, however you are feeling, and join all the other miracle workers on the dojo floor.

 

 

 

 

 

Apple vs. the FBI

The US government has asked the court to force Apple to create a “back door” that bypasses its iPhone encryption technology, making it easier for spy and police agencies to access information stored on password-protected phones. The FBI is specifically seeking access to information on an iPhone 5c used by the San Bernardino shooter.

Right now, the information stored on password-protected iphones is effectively encrypted, and if the user configures it, all information on the phone can be made inaccessible after 10 failed password attempts.

This does not meant that organizations like the FBI, with their extensive technological knowledge and resources, can’t get access to the information stored on an iPhone. By copying the phone’s flash memory before trying to hack the phone’s password, anyone trying to hack an iPhone would then be able to retry the password indefinitely.

So why is the FBI fighting Apple in court when it can already access the information it needs? The FBI wants Apple to make its job easier by building into Apple technology ways to circumvent iPhone security. If it wins the case, what technology companies will be next on the FBI’s list?

Some might think that it’s okay to give the FBI access to personal information, because the FBI can be trusted not to use the information in harmful ways. Even if this is true (and it probably isn’t), once iPhone security is compromised, the back door will opened to any hacker who understands the technology. Hacking into iPhones will then be much easier and quicker.

Imagine if the government went to court to ask a judge to force a safe manufacturer to make its safes weaker so that the FBI can get into them more easily. Everyone would know that doing so would weaken the safe’s security for everyone, and thieves could potentially get into those safes much more easily. I wonder how the public would react to such a case?

If I were the judge in this case, I would tell the FBI to find another way to get the information it needs (or use the means already at its disposal). Making the work of spy agencies easier is not Apple’s job, and it does not benefit citizens of the United States, much less citizens of other countries, who have no say at all in the outcome of this case, even though their personal information may be at stake.