Sometimes in this life, I’ve felt a touch, soft and faint against my skin; the quiet whisper of cloth. I look up, and there it is: an endless blanket of twinkling lights rippling above; big sky flowing over; the round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, I have walked at night in a stand of pines that I love; the forest is small, but its trees become tall and endless in darkness, and I wander there. I once found a clearing where women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under the branches of the jack pines, ground covered with their soft, scented needles; round and round, to the distant sound of drums.
Specks of light flow in my blood, like tiny clouds of silvery fish, flickering, sending me back and back, far into the past, until the constellations change and my head swims in the humid night, and my fingers drip with sweat from holding hands in endless rounds of dances, circles within circles. Sweat mingling and steps crossing over onto each other’s paths, until our way is one. My way and your way, at unexpected times, one foot on asphalt, one foot on pine needles; soft, bronze needles, smooth under me.
I’d be willing to give up this Canadian life, the small world of cities clinging to the southern border, full of houses huddled for safety; the friendly faces, the order and good government, the satisfaction. I’d give it up and cross over, just to follow the silver current in my blood. I’d extend my hands, feel the weight of wampum beads pressing onto them, white and purple, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship. I’m wandering each day further away from my old home and into the forest; out of Canada and into the world, a wide open land, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.
Once a man said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.” He mentioned my creativity to shove in the knife and twist it. But he’s a politically correct man; used to saying the right things to the right people. Helping to lift the world up through his righteousness. He’s not quiet and doesn’t seem soft.
Each year, delicate creatures migrate across the hemisphere to arrive here. They know how to find safe places to rest. They avoid his hands and shoulders; never land on the top of his head. Too much risk to their paper-thin wings.
I meet men who say the wrong things and don’t know it, but still, try to make offerings. Open themselves to being on the wrong side of the argument, though they are baffled by this world. In their uncertainty, they stop and notice. Something light and hesitant has landed, just for a moment before flying away.
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; 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 covered in sage and short grasses. 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?
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?
“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.”
The myth of the vanishing Indian is the story about what’s left over as the people die off, leaving behind a faded imprint. As they fade away, their voices become faint; their cultures dim; a light going out. A light that shone brightly in the distant past. We 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 around 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 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 Charlie 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 you to find your roots in this land, to let yourself be changed. To let the spirit into your blood.
“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.” – The Tragically Hip
On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.
Gordie’s been 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 where pelicans fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.
I used to think that place could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land you mostly can’t live on. That 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. A pinched, stodgy and secretive government casting a grey pall.
There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs that rise up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and along 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 where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? Maybe there, the wind is nothing. Pines and firs not worth thinking about. Wild strawberries are for the birds. You’d be looking for a signal from the cities, a new transmission, currents of life.
This country was meant to provide gold and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Iceland, China, Japan, India; folks from Africa who came to escape slavery and fight for that Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and gold mines? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?
But 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 the east coast Mik’maq; the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins of Ontario and Quebec? The Mississauga? The Cree of Quebec, Ontario and the prairies? The Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Siksika, the Dene, the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place, and friends for enemies; saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of wide-open space. People wanting fences and roads; treaties and land deeds; cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.
Gordie makes me think of a Canada I used to love; one that listens to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tune into a concert. I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution; or 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.
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.
Gordie doesn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He writes about it anyway; goes on the adventure, and finds himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He holds hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba; so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He meets polar bears, black bears, 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; driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up there; what do they hear in the wind?