What is reconciliation: The open door

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.

What is reconciliation? Memory of stones

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.

What is reconciliation? Skelep 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. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in 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 sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. 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 skelep has always howled 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.

What is reconciliation? The circle

They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life

-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn

I picture a fine, interwoven web that begins and ends inside of a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in webs of life.

To our simple minds, a circle is a mystery – we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges. The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines – strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto a mystery and disturbance; freezing in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night; stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would pin it all down.

This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky; all our rivers and oceans flow within its firmament of waves. It keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.

On the adventure

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, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

“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.

Round Lake, Killaloe
Round Lake in Killaloe, Ontario

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?

With love,
Jennifer

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Indian Country

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Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow in  1991, the year following the Oka Crisis.

When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met ‪‎Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.

During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited ‪‎Cree‬, ‪‎Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.

Kanehsatake Spiritual Gathering, early nineties
Kanehsatake traditional pow-wow, 1991. Rebecca Belmore’s art piece,  Speaking to their Mother, is pictured. © Jennifer Dales

Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake‬, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat. 

Being in Indian‬ country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.