• 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.

  • 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.

  • Colonial Rescue

    Recently I learned about an event in my family history that left me reeling. Back in 1832, my ancestors were among the first families to settle in Orillia, Ontario. As they approached the area by boat, their craft capsized in the waters of Lake Couchiching near “The Narrows.” On board was a tiny baby, my third great-grandmother Eliza Bailey, and she was brought safely to shore by a kind member of the Chippewa (Ojibway) Nation. As I later found out, many of the early settlers were welcomed and dependent upon First Nations everywhere, who gave us gifts of food, medicine and our very lives. And yet I have to wonder if my family line would even exist, had Eliza perished in the water? And why wasn’t this information an important part of our family story? A member of Mnjikaning First Nation and Keeper of the Fish Fence cared for my ancestor, but what did we do to return the favour? We have a lot to examine, as we make retributions for the terrible years of land seizure, genocide, oppression, relocation and residential schools. And as we move forward together, I hope to contribute to that process.

  • Burgeoning Beard

    The summer of ’76 I was a hippie wannabe staying at a Christian commune outside Kenora, a small city in northwest Ontario close to the Manitoba border. A friend, Hans, who had spent the previous summer in Pauingassi, a northern Manitoba Ojibway community, arrived for the weekend and said there was a powwow happening in town, so we went. The MC started with a joke about three elders in a canoe. Waves were up and they were scared. First one says, “We should pray.” Second one says, “I am not sure how.” Third one says, “I’ve been to church, repeat after me: Under the B, 5 . . .” As we stood next to a tier of semi-empty bleachers watching a display of ceremonial dancing, an Aboriginal boy, three or four years old, snuck along a row toward us. He got close, ran up and slid his hand along the underside of my chin to feel my somewhat burgeoning beard. I turned to him and he bolted back to his parents. We all laughed. I asked Hans what the deal was. He said facial hair wasn’t that common on the reserve. I looked over at the family and they were still smiling.

  • A Lot Like Me

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    My very first contact with First Nations people was when I was probably about 13 years old, in the city of Toronto. Continue reading “A Lot Like Me”