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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
This week’s Mohawk/Kanien’kéha word of the week is ken’niiohontésha – strawberries. We are approaching strawberry season. I wonder if you have ever had strawberry juice? I remember drinking it at powwows and at events at Concordia University, often with a side of fry bread. It is quite good with lots of sugar, all blended up. I understand that the Kanien’kehá:ka hold strawberry festivals in June in some communities. Sounds great to me!
Here is an old poem that I wrote many years ago. It’s inspired by attending the Kanehsatake powwow.
No stars tonight, but a sacred fire in the woods and moonlight in the clouds. Oomkwaihoomwai means real human beings, the way we all were once, before we lost the sounds of the fiddle and the drum when they disappeared inside a machine. Tonight we sit in a clearing, the strawberry season moon lighting our path, shadows of friends dancing in a circle round the arbour, as we once danced to celebrate the holidays, with a fiddle finding the tune, guiding our merry feet through the wedding garden of long ago. We sang songs of the old country, of ships lost at Grosse Isle, of famine that took our ancestors. The drum and the fiddle and the deep living sound of a finger-strummed guitar, here and now in the pow wow round where the Longhouse keeps the fire, our feet are guided by the drum in a dance that the fiddle led long ago; we make a path in the meadow garden of this new, old country.
We live in a world of darkness. But the colours come from the inner world to the outer world. – Norval Morrisseau
David and I lived by the river once. From shore we cast thoughts into its lights, felt its whirlpools close in. Though rivers don’t circle, the one near our town reminds me to return to the swirl of water around rocks and stones, to the stand of firs on the block, the neon-vinyl of the pizza place. Maybe David liked the blue inside the green of pines, and the wide river reaching to the other shore.
David went to my friend’s school, and she was a small, pale stranger then, wandering the halls. Her hair was so dark and weighty, you could see her thoughts moving in the strands. There is a rich, late night in her, a place without chalk dust or linoleum; a field at dusk covered in blueberries, their skins absorbing and letting out light. It is a place where night is always coming on; you never need to worry about morning.
At school we had read the poem David. You probably remember, he died in the mountains; it was the first afternoon in September; the rocks gave under his feet. He grasped for a hold and fell, later drowned. Michel Trudeau drowned too; they tried to reach him from chest deep in the snow, but it was too late to grab his parka, the curls of his hair.
That was the first I knew of the land’s intentions. Outside snug cities, it would not hold you. It would change what it wanted; make frost out of flesh, broken sticks from bones. Once David and I walked on the river ice, looking for clear, snowless stretches. Far out, the ice broke. We ran and the cracks raced ahead of us. We were soaked. Our skin went numb, our hearts slowed, thoughts broke to pieces. The snowy path, the clear blue sky filled with river holes, sloshing up black water. We found a way back. Others never felt again the tenseness of tree branches snapping in the cold, or the silent, enormous country rising up over the tops of the buildings.
David and I are small figures, bundled in coats within the cold cities, delicate as two elderly men I once saw at a wedding, twirling red roses given out by the bride, shyly, sweetly. In spite of the chill, something is still giving way. We are each passing through to the other, dragging the snow and earth behind. Our life in this land clings to us, like rain brought in to a warm café on a stormy summer day, as you remove your jacket to join an old friend.
A poem I wrote a few years ago, after a trip to La Fleche caves in late winter.
All my stories are buried under white snow. I walk over them
where they sleep, curled around the roots of red pines. In the cave
we entered, you could see bats by looking up in the darkness.
Training a head lamp on a crevice showed me a dozen, nestled
against limestone, sleeping fur sparkled with frost.
Night time butterflies, wings folded.
Small jewels of time, moving: one second, then another:
each tiny creature taking in, letting out breath. What could I find
under red pine roots if I had vision to see through white wash
of spring snow? My hands turn red as I dig beneath drifts
that have grown deeper through winter. I want to cup something,
a patience held in, and wait there with it until glistening snow turns
to water; wings know it is time to open, roots to descend.