[021] " 'Who Are Your People?' He Asked."

NEIGHBOURS v4: On one reporter's confrontation with the ways she put her trauma on Indigenous communities, and the sore tiptoe of grief.

Hello, Tired Ones,

Another week, another sign of life, another reason that showing up’s still worth it.

In my work as a writer, designer, and white-saviour-in-recovery, I come across important stories about progress that people are leading on their own terms.

These are stories that help me to remember: before there was bureaucratic care, or self-care, there was simply, well, care.

So come on in, sit down. For the next few minutes at least, I got you.

February’s care workers: Neighbourhood storytellers

“I sit with my grief. I mother it.“
Sourcing notes: Photo via Steinar Engeland, with an excerpt from this week’s poem by Callista Buchen.

I couldn’t stay away, it seems. Sometimes the work comes into my life, in the words and art of others, and how can I not share it?

Thanks for sitting with me, still. Even when we don’t have the time.

Some ambience, for pairing

"Miroirs: V. La vallée des cloches" written by Maurice Ravel, performed by André Laplante, from the album Ravel: Miroirs, J’Eux D’Eau, Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte (1994).

Stirring footsteps. Hesitant. Seeking for light. Listen to more.

A healthy practice, to chew on

Pathfinding: It took years for journalist Jody Porter to see that writing about other people’s pain can be a way of hiding from your own. By Jody Porter for Maisonneuve, quarterly magazine. Oct. 20, 2020.

On one senior reporter’s lifelong efforts to hide from childhood trauma, and what it took to confront her role in re-traumatizing Indigenous communities:

By the time I was a teenager, I was imagining a future where I could kidnap my little sister and whisk her away to Toronto, the only big city I knew…

The soundtrack of this fantasy future, played loud on my Sony boombox, was always the Tragically Hip.

While I never made good on my plan to save my sister, I did establish myself as the gatekeeper of her music choices. This itself seemed like an important survival skill. In our extremely white, small town in central Ontario, music was the only kind of identity politics we acknowledged. It influenced your choice of friends, where you sat on the school bus, who’d consider asking you to the prom. If I couldn’t get her out of our house, our town, I would at least ensure that Jen landed on the right side of pop culture: No heavy metal for my little sister! No Top 40 trash! No hair bands! No New Kids on the Block crushes!!! I would cultivate in my sister more refined taste. She would know real rock music, solid Canadian rock.

For me, that was the Tragically Hip. […]

I left my sister behind as I headed north to Sioux Lookout, my daughter strapped into her car seat, my music collection packed in the car. I’d been reading about Sioux Lookout, a small town halfway between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, in Robertson Davies’s novel The Cunning Man and had taken it as a sign, a calling of sorts, when I saw a help-wanted ad for an editor at the newspaper there.

At twenty-six years old, little else qualified me for the job, aside from the scant time I’d worked as a reporter in the Northwest Territories…

“I got a job, I explore,” I smiled to myself, singing along with Downie on the cassette player during the two-day drive, the car laden with second-hand furniture and a fictitious version of my destination. […]

The newspaper I’d be working at was part of the Wawatay Native Communications Society. The organization was created by Elders in the 1970s to preserve and promote the languages and cultures of the Cree, Ojibway and Oji-Cree communities in Northern Ontario. Soon after I arrived, I was invited to go on the Wawatay Radio Network and talk a bit about myself. I offered a fumbling introduction that was translated into Oji-Cree for the audience by the host of the show.

“Where are you from? Who are your people?” he asked.

I didn’t have a story of my own. I didn’t think I needed one. I was Canadian, a small-town girl if you wanted to be more specific. Go back a few generations and my family, I thought, was British. It had never mattered enough to me to look it up. I was a nobody, with a college diploma that I’d been taught was a ticket to telling stories about anybody I met. Surely that was what mattered. […]

The First Nations people I met during my time in Sioux Lookout—people from the Anishinaabe, Nishnawbe and Inninuwug nations—rarely spoke of the schools directly. […]

I remember the first time I heard a survivor’s story in detail. An Elder recounted the horrifying day when a float plane landed in his remote community and a curious group of kids ran down to the dock to get a glimpse of the mechanical beast up close.

Too quickly, a man clutched at their sleeves and collars, their hands and hair, gathering them up, packing them into the belly of the plane… Gone.

I didn’t register how very young this Elder had been when he’d been taken away until later that evening, at home, bathing my daughter, my baby, whose hair I was gently washing, careful not to get suds in her eyes, whose every bit of skin I knew, whose tiny body could so easily be lifted up out of the tub and wrapped snugly, disappearing in a single towel in my arms…

I had no words to explain the meanness of people like us, not so long ago. […]

Twelve-year-old Chanie Wenjack left his favourite sweater behind the last time he was sent away to residential school, in the fall of 1966. He left his beloved dogs as well, for his little sister Pearl to care for.

Less than two months later, Chanie died of exposure while trying to walk back home, more than six hundred kilometres away… An inquest was held after Chanie’s body was found on the side of the railway tracks. His family wasn’t notified and so could not attend the proceedings to share their version of Chanie—the playful boy who loved to dance—with the all-white jury. […]

A generation later, in 2012, I happened to be in Ogoki Post, also known as Marten Falls First Nation, where Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie’s sister, lived. I was on assignment for the CBC—by then I had landed my dream job, reporting nationally about Indigenous affairs. Pearl graciously agreed to meet with me. […]

I was unprepared for the raw quality of her grief, a wound kept open with the salt of unanswered questions. Nearly fifty years later, Pearl was still looking for clues as to why Chanie had run away. She and her other siblings, who also spent time at residential school, had endured homesickness and brutality there. What had pushed Chanie out into the cold in his desperate attempt to make it home? Pearl still wanted to know. […]

I made a documentary in 2012 with Pearl Achneepineskum and Ian Adams, revisiting Chanie’s story. It caught the attention of Mike Downie, Gord’s brother, when he heard it on CBC Radio. At the time, Mike’s son was around the same age Chanie had been when he died. As I once had, Mike considered the horror of residential school from a parent’s perspective. He told his brother Gord about Chanie’s story, and the two vowed to do something.

They dug up Ian’s old piece in Maclean’s. Gord wrote the poems about Chanie that would become the album and a graphic novel: Secret Path. Gord Downie’s friend, the novelist Joseph Boyden, whose claims that he was Indigenous had not yet been publicly questioned back then, had written a novella about Chanie. They created a marketing plan: they would release the books and music near the fiftieth anniversary of Chanie’s death, for maximum impact.

As the Secret Path project neared completion, a month before its release, the Downies visited Pearl and her family, in Ogoki Post, to show them the work. […]

And I was too starstruck to question Downie’s claim to Chanie’s story on behalf of a country that failed to notice the many other times it had been told.

I’d first heard Chanie’s story as a song by Mi’kmaw folksinger Willie Dunn. Back in the early 1970s he sang about Charlie Wenjack as a freedom fighter, a rebel warrior, a little boy who saw the wrongness of residential schools and chose, at all costs, to resist, to head home to his family.

In 1976, after asking Dunn for permission to reinvent his song in story, Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle wrote Charlie back to life again as an insightful boy, full of spirit and cynical about residential schools, making wisecracks quietly to himself in class.

In 2016, however, the Secret Path struck a much different note, one Canadians seemed more willing to hear. […]

But on the night of the show, I was a reporter, not a fan. I was filled with a sense of foreboding as I surveyed the crowd. It was an unlikely mash-up of residential school survivors, Ottawa bureaucrats scrambling to be on the right side of history now that it was the Hip thing to do, and Tragically Hip devotees, mostly hosers, who saw the show as another chance to say farewell to their bro, Gord.

That the music was about the death of Chanie Wenjack was no surprise to some in the audience. Many others didn’t have a clue who Chanie was.

When the lights went down, the darkness felt overwhelming.

It was a show in which a dying man acted out the dying moments of a child who froze to death, alone.

Animation on the screen above the band showed Chanie’s terrifying experience at residential school, his fateful decision to run away (as imagined by Downie), his thin body racked by hunger, his wide eyes filled with loneliness and fear on cartoon railroad tracks. The tragedy was drawn up for maximum effect on the big screen. Sadness hit me with the force of the train: Chanie’s story told in this way, without ceremony, devastated me.

I wasn’t the only one who felt such pain. The next day, Hayden King, an Anishinaabe academic who’d also been at the concert, reached out to me to talk over how it felt. King later published a critique called “The Secret Path: Reconciliation and Not Reconciliation.” It was a relief to read it.

At the end of the concert, Chanie’s sister Pearl had been called up on stage at the National Arts Centre with the Downie family. King recalls this moment in his paper, and what Pearl told the crowd: “‘My father died not knowing why Chanie died. My mother still does not know why.’ After a silence,” King writes, “someone in the middle of the theatre, perhaps inspired by the reconciliatory theme of the postscript shouted, ‘to bring us together!’

“In that moment,” he recalls, “I could not imagine a more grotesque thing to say, shocking and predictable at the same time. Because I suspect that individual would not, for one second, sacrifice their son or daughter for our unity.” […]

In the months after the Secret Path release, I doubled down on my reporting on Indigenous issues, documenting tragedy after tragedy, injustice after injustice. It was the kind of work I’d always done, but now that Gord Downie had told Canadians to pay attention, there seemed to be a growing appetite for it. I didn’t stop to consider whether that appetite was healthy. […]

I didn’t stop until the day my body made me, until the night I drove myself to the emergency room, puking in the hospital parking lot from the pain in my belly, the pain that I’d been ignoring for months.

Driving home from the appointment with the oncologist, surging with rage, I pounded the dash. The pain in my belly was a tumour the size of a cantaloupe. Cancer. The odds of survival were against me.

“But I’ve been so good!” I screamed. “I’ve been so good!”

I didn’t know until the words flew out of my mouth that I believed in a god who rewarded good deeds, in a universe with a scorecard. […]

I thought my years of engaging on Indigenous issues had protected me from the white saviour complex. (I’d been so good!) Instead, I was blindly galloping around on my white horse, not seeing the wholeness of Indigenous lives and experience. Not seeing my own brokenness. In focusing so much on the hurt in other people’s lives, I’d missed the lessons they offered about healing. I failed to imagine the possibility of writing stories with this kind of headline: Residential school survivor helps aging rock star confront death—and failed to consider how such a story might help me. […]

Almost more than death, I feared becoming the object of pity. I desperately did not want anyone to do to me what I was just realizing I had done to so many others. I did not want to be cast as a victim. I did not want someone else to tell my story as though it was a tragedy.

I did not want someone else to tell my story so they could feel better. […]

By the time Pearl came up on stage at the Secret Path concert, the show most people had come to see was over. They knew that Chanie was dead and Gord was clearly dying.

Facing out into an audience larger than the entire population of her own community, Pearl began to sing in Anishinaabemowin, the language she wasn’t allowed to speak at residential school. Her sweet, strong voice filled the vast space, her presence a stick in the spokes of Canada’s ongoing genocide. Her singing, the secret for how to go on.

Pearl said she was glad the Secret Path got made. But she was under no illusion about what happened behind the scenes. “Gord Downie is a man,” she told the hosts of As It Happens on CBC. “I knew he was sick and I appreciated what he was doing to make life meaningful. Maybe he thought, ‘I’m not having it so bad.’”

The project “would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the Creator,” Pearl told the Anishinabek News in 2019. “He knew I wanted to tell the story right after Chanie passed, but in his wisdom, he held on to it until fifty years later. I still don’t really understand why, but I think it was because that was when people would grasp the idea.”

So this, then, is really the story of a sister whose love for her brother shone so brightly that the world came to know him, fifty years after he died.

“Who Are Your People?” He Asked.—The Secret For How To Go On.

Read the whole thing.

Sourcing notes: via Canadaland podcast, #347 The Brayden Bushby Trial And Pity Porn. Nov. 8, 2020.

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A poem, to cleanse the palate

Taking Care by Callista Buchen, from Poetry Daily, Sep. 30, 2019.

It begins:

I sit with my grief. I mother it.

On a slow day for soreness, and the gentle tiptoe of “one big shadow and one small”:

I hold its small, hot hand. I don’t say, shhh. I don’t say, it is okay. I wait until it is done having feelings. Then we stand and we go wash the dishes. We crack open bedroom doors, step over the creaks, and kiss the children. We are sore from this grief, like we’ve returned from a run, like we are training for a marathon. I’m with you all the way, says my grief, whispering, and then we splash our face with water and stretch, one big shadow and one small.

Sourcing notes: via @ullaakkut, and my sister, Amy.

Something sweet, to top it all off

And now, a very happy babyahhh, with the confidence of youth.

That's all for this week.

Remember: Drink when you're thirsty, nap when you can.

Kind regards,

Chris Connolly

Manager, Personalized Care
(Acting Director, Standardized Care)

Humane Resources Division
The Dept. of Emotional Labour