• Snapshot

    Ironically, I owe the moment and the memory to ethnic intolerance. That’s what drove my Greek mother to flee her community, elope with my non-Greek father and hide out in a small mining town in the heart of Ojibwe country—northwestern Ontario. There my father found an entry-level job as a teacher. He also got to know the Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, who at the time was painting huge canvases on butcher paper in brooding, dark colours. So my father’s “first contact” story, featuring a difficult, brilliant, aesthetically germinal figure, is surely more interesting than mine. My story is a mere snapshot—though unlike most old photos it’s not faded and discoloured. It’s brilliantly lit up by what must be a spring sun, May or June, the day warm and windy. I’m five years old. Kindergarten has let out. A girl and I are walking along holding hands. Her hand is brown. The memory includes the knowledge—possibly layered onto it after the fact—that the town has fallen behind us and I’m in an unfamiliar place, approaching a red tarpaper bungalow among birch trees. Quivering leaves cast dense, animate shadows. A lake shimmers behind the house. The girl’s mother is hanging white sheets (maybe shirts?) on a line that runs from the side of the house to a tree. She’s smiling broadly as we approach. And that’s it. The whole memory. I struggle to let more light into the moment—to push the recall both backward and forward. A meeting in the schoolyard before we walk to her house? Playing by the lake afterward, or having a snack in the kitchen? Later days when we did the same things? I’m left not with a story but a fragment, which for some reason I’ve retained, vividly, while forgetting almost every other moment I experienced up north.

  • First Day

    In 1966, a couple weeks after I turned 18, I moved into the women’s dorm on my first day of university and met the other dormies, including Paula. She was tall and loose and smart. She smoked Marlboros and wore stylish brown jeans and phoned her mum every Sunday. She had dark hair and dark eyes, also dark skin, which I assumed was a great suntan. The girls in our wing studied and ate and hung out together, and one day Paula said she was an Indian— Chippewa, now known as Ojibwe. Those were the days when middle-class WASP kids like me were finding out what a load of codswallop we’d grown up on—systemic racism, sexism, classism, the corruption of the Vietnam War, etc.—yet Paula was the first Indigenous person we had ever seen, let alone known. Suntan! Gawd. All of my “knowledge” of “Indians,” living their simple, primitive lives, in tepees, close to the earth, dressed in rawhide with beads and fringes, and speaking in crude bits of English (“How!”), began to give way.

  • Two Solitudes

    Soon after I moved from Poland to Canada, I was sent to the Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital as part of my pediatrics training. In the bare white examining room I explained to an Indigenous couple that we needed to catheterize their daughter’s bladder. She had had several infections and just finished a long course of antibiotics. “We need urine straight from her bladder to make sure that all the bacteria are killed in there,” I said. The father left the room after I had finished describing the procedure; I assumed that he meant to give his daughter privacy. His wife stayed behind, and, as I retrieved the sterile medical tray from the cupboard, she stroked the girl’s long hair. I covered the girl with a white linen sheet. Her brown eyes stared up at me. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said and patted her leg. I washed her hairless perineum with a brown iodine solution and spread a blue sterile paper towel over her lower belly. I scrubbed my hands and just as I was to insert the lubricated catheter into the tiny pink shell of her urethra, the door slammed open and the husband barged through. “Did I tell you that you could do it?” he snapped. He hadn’t. But he didn’t tell me that I couldn’t, either. “This is my little girl,” he said, pulling up her panties and yanking down her skirt. He scooped her into his arms. “You violated her. Who do you think you are?” I thought I was a doctor. I was performing a medically necessary procedure indicated under the circumstances. But something seemed to have gone wrong and she now was not going to get it. Neither before nor during my rotation did anybody teach me how to talk and listen to First Nations peoples. I was an immigrant to Canada, figuring out the vocabulary of body language and in-jokes and the social niceties in which Canadians engaged as part of their verbal exchanges, my own attempts at banter flailing and failing. It was 1994 and I had no idea about the abuse that Indigenous children had suffered at the hands of government doctors and nurses for several generations. As a medical student and resident in downtown Toronto hospitals, I had met homeless and indigent First Nations patients, but knew nothing about the root causes. In medical school, an Asian professor had delivered a lecture on Chinese folk medicines, but the only teaching on Canadian First Nations was received in passing: Indigenous people were taciturn and had a high level of tolerance for physical pain, make sure to account for that during physical examinations. Later that day, my supervisor warned me against interpreting Indians’ silence as assent, to always obtain verbal acknowledgement for any procedures. “They don’t talk unless you ask a direct question,” he said. As I was leaving, contrite and chastised, he attributed the father’s behaviour to “troubles with the band council,” and advised me to take it easy.

  • Andy the Indian

    1974. I was nineteen, living in Radium Hot Springs and working in a bar in the National Park Hotel, which is gone now but stood at the junction of the highways where a trucker had let me off—I’d hitchhiked down from Golden. It was a bar frequented mostly by loggers and hippies, and people like me who didn’t know where they belonged. I walked into the worn hotel lobby, where an Indian man—that was the right word back then—was sitting on a wooden bench beside the front desk, also the Greyhound station, looking down at the ragged old carpet. He raised his head, looked up at me with a shy, toothy grin. “Hey, little big fella!” he said, and laughed. “Hi,” I said, wondering what he meant. “That’s Andy,” said the crippled man behind the counter. “Don’t mind him. Don’t you have something to do, Andy?” Apparently not. Andy worked for Kirk’s Christmas trees, I later learned, and there was no work for him right then so Andy was killing time in the hotel. I landed a job, and saw him often after that, in the lobby, the bar, the café. Andy hardly ever spoke. On a Friday or Saturday night if he was liquored up and I was liquored up we exchanged laughs and jokes—“Why is under a bridge the best place to fish when it’s raining? Because the fish go under there so they don’t get wet.” What a groaner. Andy was the love interest of a waitress who worked in the coffee shop—waitress was the right word then—and she lived up the street in one of the motels. Hummer, as she was called, though her name was actually Maureen, was a small and chipper woman, nuts about Andy, and she wasn’t about to let anyone else wait on him, either. There she was with the Pyrex coffee pot the minute he sat down. There she was straightening his collar, and offering to do his wash, and she was a little suspicious of Andy and my exchanges. I had just turned nineteen. Had never hitchhiked so far; had never worked in a bar; had never met an Indian. I liked our casual friendship. He called me “Jilly Con Carne.” He didn’t want anything of me. He was so shy, doubly so when he was sober. In retrospect I see how vulnerable he was, how damaged, gentle, and completely without malice toward anyone. He’s stayed with me all these years.

  • When I was a child, everyone I knew spoke Cree

    I grew up in Misipawistik (Grand Rapids, Manitoba), an Inninew village of about 400 people. The village was separated by the Saskatchewan River, the reserve was on the south bank and the Métis community was on the north side. But at that time, we never identified as status, non-status or Métis. We were Inninew, Cree-speaking people. Our language identified us. In all the time I spent with my nookum (grandmother), I never once heard her say a word in English. People who dropped in to see her, spoke to her in Cree. She would not acknowledge a visitor if the person didn’t speak Cree to her. That was how she was: her home, her terms, her language. There were two families in our village that were Caucasian: the store owners. In those families there were three boys, blond as blond could be, and they spent as much time with us as they did at home. They all spoke Inninew, Cree with us. To us, their friends, they were just a whiter shade of Inninew. We never knew that outside of our isolated village we were different, until Manitoba Hydro arrived to build the Grand Rapids Generating Station. Manitoba Hydro created a tiered system in which they were on top, the workers they brought in were second, the Métis third and at the bottom were status and non-status people. The dam flooded more than 200,000 hectares of our land. Worst of all, we nearly lost our identity, our language.

  • Change

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    My mother, and her nephew and niece were heavy drinkers, living in this site here on Number 3 Reserve, Nanaimo First Nation. They drank every week, much to their own destruction and pain. But low-and-behold, one time they’re listening to a religious station – person called Don Gauset. 1960 – I think it was January of 1960. He’s a pentecost evangelist (whatever you want to call them): very vibrant, very vociferous, and commanding in his presentation; and had affected my mother, Harry, Johnny, and Sally Paul. Continue reading “Change”

  • First Time

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    When my daughter was eight months old we caught a cab to our home in Prince Rupert. It was about a ten-minute ride. And the guy turns around and says “Where you wanna go?” It was a black man. It was the first time she saw a black man. And she screamed. And cried and screamed all the way home. Every time she looked at him she cried again. And she grew up and ended up marrying one.

  • Pallor

    When my mother and father were first married they spent three years on Baffin Island where my father was the only doctor. During their first year my mother looked after a newborn Inuit boy who was not well enough to go out on the land with his family for the winter. When my oldest brother was born the following September, my mother was disappointed and even repulsed by this pale little thing who was so different-looking from the brown baby she had grown to love. This was one of my mother’s favourite stories and there were many others, from both my mother and my father, which, along with an album full of photos, a collection of ivory carvings, a narwhal tusk and a few Inuit words that my father would utter, were an integral part of my childhood.

  • Our Treaty And Our Wishes

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    We’ve got so many stories that I can go for at least hours and hours some days. Just a couple of things we had in our treaties is one of the whaling rights, we had given up, right around 275,000 acres of land, specifically for whaling, sealing, hunting, fishing, and gathering of shellfish. We were the only ones in the US that have a treaty that says so, and possibly even in the world. I’m not sure how exactly many countries have a treaty that give them a right to go whaling. But our treaty was very specific in what we wanted. Continue reading “Our Treaty And Our Wishes”

  • Herring Roe

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    I remember my first time really coming into contact with the aboriginal culture was in elementary school. And a young boy brought in a 5 gallon bucket full of herring roe on seaweed… Continue reading “Herring Roe”