• 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.

  • 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.

  • Ready For It

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    About 90 – I guess 1992 – my wife and I at the time had the misfortune of losing our first child. It was a pretty dark time. I was selling photocopiers – Sharp photocopiers – at the time out of Duncan. I had a lot of contacts with First Nations – Mid-Island Tribal Council (which I don’t think exists anymore) and a few others as well. Continue reading “Ready For It”

  • 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.

  • Carving Legacy

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    I’ve been carving Native art, from small pieces to large pieces including: totem poles, doors, panels, for the last thirty years now. I hadn’t really got too involved with art in my younger days. I was too much involved in politics. Continue reading “Carving Legacy”

  • Wisdom

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    In 1996, I was elected the mayor of the district of Tofino in Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s territory – Nuu-chah-nulth territory. I had the opportunity to go on a five minute boat ride just across the waterway to Meares Island to Opitsaht, which is one of the communities in the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s territory. It’s actually where the seat of their government is. So I went and met with the chief councillor and his council. Continue reading “Wisdom”

  • Spirit

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    When I moved to Nanaimo, I happened to be in the old Salvation Army store, would have been the late sixties, early seventies and there were two women, in a, going through a bin and I was going through another bin and they were speaking the Kwakiutl language. Continue reading “Spirit”