His words have a ricochet. They go out, hit their literal meaning and halfway back to you, they start to make sense. By the time they arrive, you have a picture in your mind’s eye and feeling in your heart, that’s all about living here, in this landscape, this city, with your feet on the asphalt of your street, under a tree, under a streetlamp, beneath a satellite that circles around the world and back to you.
His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and he fears they will make no sense. But then you catch them in mid-sentence and save the words as you save goose feathers drifting in the field behind your house, or strands of milkweed that flutter in the sun.
This is a job for the artist. To open his hands and blow softly, releasing a butterfly of many wings and meanings. And this is a job for you: to hold out your hand and let wings brush softly on your palm as the butterfly alights.
This is the job of the reconcilers. To make themselves soft and quiet, so that like a dragonfly, an idea might emerge or alight. So that words and songs, when they take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, encounter the listeners, who hear and speak them back.
For such a long time, we have been doing the same things over and over. Refusing to share the land. Discrediting the other nations in our borders. Misunderstanding on purpose treaties we signed. Building our houses in disputed territories. Hiding the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures. If we can’t hide it, dismissing our ancestors, saying how ignorant they were; how much better we are now. And if we allow old songs and stories of this place, we try to orchestrate them. To show how kind and accepting we are. As much as possible, we settle differences our way, with the power of the Crown and our justice system that tips most often in our favour.
As we repeat the same mistakes we create a dystopia. The lakes and rivers, mountains and forests become places where we are lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands into the wild. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. This is the chasm between us. It’s spreading: the place full of thorns and dead ground.
But still, we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed; how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.
We think this place could never seep in and grow through us, green and alive. It could never be so vast. Starlight doesn’t sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves or turn deep green pine needles to shades of blue. If we dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, then it is only dreaming. If we wake from sleep and sit by the window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. If we hear someone else singing in a soft voice from their yard. If we see the golden square of another window lighting up. Hear the coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We are not the only ones awake. If we could know these things. If we wake from dreaming; if we could know what would be.
I left my country and entered another. After driving a long time on winter roads, we crossed the border. The language shifted then changed completely. When I looked out the window at endless snow, it was all familiar, roads and rooftops covered in white, but it belonged to another land. When we finished driving and stepped onto the ground, my feet sank into snow and the place joined its hands around me. We followed behind a woman wearing snowshoes until the path led us to shelter, where we sat on a bed of cedar branches and warmed ourselves by the heat of an oil barrel stove. We ate beaver, goose and ptarmigan. Beaver roasting and crackling on a spit and bannock turning golden in a cast iron pan. The Eeyou Istchee language was the lingua franca. English or French difficult to speak. Outside, winter was fierce and my coat from down south was like a sweater. I sat close to the hot barrel stove and smelled the wood smoke and fat of roasting meat; listened to the hum of people talking; felt the softness of cedar; the roar of a snowmobile in the distance. Outside, I knew the sky would be pure blue and pines and firs dark green. Elsewhere it was February, but there it was another country.
When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children practicing their language. Hear them running in and out of the house, playing hide and seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own; mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.
Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering in the windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing way up high, I saw smoke and lights; streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars; me and my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat; where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him, just after he had put the campfire out. A cabin near a place called Silent Lake; a little place not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm because summer is coming.
Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds; the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatake invited the Nothern Irish to speak of troubles and struggles, so much like home: disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire; soldiers and police guarding all rights of way; armed checkpoints on the roads. Gerry Adams spoke in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, we had a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.
Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by the campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky; it went on and on forever. Near his home, so many medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. They reminded us that we were sitting under a slowly spinning night as we listened to the crackling fire. Under a wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.
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 to find someone to hold hands with, the way he holds Pearl Wenjack’s hand. We need to find someone to hug and kiss the way he kisses his band mates and holds them close. It’s quietness, that’s his trick. A 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 her kisses with you. If you remember the feeling of arms around you, when she last hugged you. Gord doesn’t need to write those memories down. He carries them inside him; on his skin and clothes. When he passes away, he’ll still be here, walking with us. 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’s tried to reconcile with the ones he loves; tried to make this place the country of his dreams. In his heart, he holds a little girl’s hand. Helps her find her way back from residential school; home to sounds of the TV, her favourite couch and her mother’s arms around her. He’s walked with his own daughter, their arms intertwined, holding her close. You can hear their footsteps and soft laughter; see long shadows of skyscrapers at sunset as they wander 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.
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?