Friday, January 11, 2013

Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education

Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education
Copyright: J.M. Bridgeman
© J.M. Bridgeman

Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the centre of the universe.
. . .
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices."
– Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986.

Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education is about what we know and how we know it, about the process of learning life lessons related to identity, culture, ethnocentrism, and racism. This book focuses on some of the challenges of living together in shared territory, Canada, on planet Earth. Its intended audience is White mainstream non-First Nations Canadians who may not have had the benefit of similar cross-cultural experiences and interactions, who still live “apart” and know only what is mediated by others.
     Dancing With Ghosts began as a backlash. The Settlement Agreement has given Indian Residential Schools survivors money as compensation for their years away from home. The federal government has made a formal apology in parliament. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is listening to personal stories of abuse and is also mandated to educate the general public. Yet these progressive steps have given mainstream Canada a false impression that the past has been dealt with, wrongs have been righted, and that any dangling threads will soon to be tied and clipped. This is wishful thinking; Canadians are missing the point.
     The problem, the missed point, is that Canadians as a whole have yet to acknowledge “the issue.” Yes, the First Nations are dealing with past abuses; yes, there is much healing still to happen. But it is the White mainstream majority which has yet to accept responsibility for what was done in our name, to name it and claim it, and to demonstrate that we understand, and that we have changed. For the cause of all the pain and suffering was not residential schools. The cause of all the pain and suffering was not individuals committing physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. The cause of all the pain and suffering was and is White racism. And what is being done about that?
     Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education is not a memoir. It is creative non-fiction. Creative because liberties have been taken with the timeline for literary purposes. Non-fiction in the sense that scenes are prompted by events, stem from facts and actual occurrences. However, the opinions and interpretations, the anxieties and fears, are mine and they will differ from those of other witnesses.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful for the invaluable insight offered to me by my volunteer readers, Marilyn Meden, Nancy Dobson, my brother Harvey Bridgeman, and my old friend from long ago, Calvin Pompana.

Dedication: To all the people for whom this land is sacred.

Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education

Table of Contents


One - Oak River (how what we know starts with what we experience, at home, at school, in community)
Dancing - ESL - Bath - The Farmer's Daughter - Foul Play - Nobody's Perfect - University - Graduation - Democracy - Prejudice and Discrimination - Math Dreams - Missing the Point - Cross-Cultural Education - The Disappearance of Racism - CanLit

Two - Nelson River (how immersion in another culture helps us know ourselves)
Hot Dogs - Moving North - Staff Party - Classroom-Lesson One - Non-Denominational - Othered - Career Day - Eldertalk - No White Culture - White Culture

Three - The River Shannon (how the struggles of strangers helps us recognize what we could not see at home)
White Culture-Ireland - White Culture - Whose Rights? - My Last Christmas Holiday - Up River - Baby Shower - Party Game - You Just Don't Understand - Church Point - Grief - Missionary - Juxtapositions

Four - Kettle River (how our beloved nation is a community of communities, of nations within a nation, the same but different)
Yearbook - Cross-Cultural Communication - After the Fall - The Bait and Switch - Conflict of Interest - Shower Time - Keeping Alive - Fraser River-Coast Salish - Skeena River-Gitxsan - Return to the River-The Kettle River - Fraser River-Protocol - Truth and Reconciliation

Five - Oak River (how home, when we go back there, is a different place from the one we left because we have changed)
Oak River Indian Reserve
The Rights of Indigenous People
Beyond Faith


Dancing With Ghosts: A Cross-Cultural Education

Part One - Oak River


Part One – OAK RIVER

My grandfather Harry was a silent man. After he retired from farming and moved into town, he used to wander down to Main Street in the mornings and stand in line with the other old men in the sunshine, along the front wall of the blacksmith shop, their back to the black of the cavernous workshed. Everyone knew. You didn't look in, you could not watch, as the light from the forge or the welder's torch would blind you. The blacksmith wore a heavy metal hood like an old diving helmet, with a glass window at eye-level that he could raise and lower, to see, to breathe. The men congregated outside to visit, to keep an eye on the traffic driving by on the street, the trains on the Canadian Pacific (CPR) branch line, the grain elevators across the track, to nod to the shoppers on the sidewalk, the farmers dropping off eggs at the egg-grading station, to comment to the office workers heading into Moon's for the morning coffee break.
     Most likely it was the fire more than the socializing which attracted Harry. The fire and the ringing pound of hammer on anvil which made him feel at home, homesick even, for his own smithy, in his own big barn, where he forged the iron shoes for his own draught horses. For outside the blacksmith shop on Main Street, Harry was known as the mum one, the man who never spoke. He was a watcher, and a listener. Born "under Victoria," in the last decade of her long reign, at home, near Bradwardine, Manitoba, he died some five miles to the north, eighty-two years later. But before he died, he is reported to have murmured: "I saw Indians dance on the streets of Bradwardine."
     Bradwardine was a town where Harry's father had settled, where my father had attended school, a town to which Harry and the other local farmers drove their grain in wagons to the elevators along the tracks of the Great North West Central Railway, later absorbed as another branch line of the CPR. The town is included today on a list of Ghost Towns of Manitoba.
Bradwardine, the name, which alludes to the Jacobite Baron Bradwardine and his daughter Rose, characters in Sir Walter Scott's first novel, Waverley, was chosen for the town in1884 by an outsider, a nameless official working for the Post Office Department in Ottawa. Possibly an immigrant himself, like the prime minister of that era, or someone from Ontario with a Scottish heritage, he had never seen the post office, or the townsite, or the prairie, or an Indian dance. Bradwardine became the post office for Harry's father, my Great-grandfather Bridgeman, when he arrived with a Royal Navy pension in 1891 having responded to the advertising campaigns in Europe promoting the federal government's offer of homestead land.
     The Indians Harry remembered would have been Indians from the Oak River Reserve, twenty miles to the south, where the Oak River, when it does flow, mainly in spring, enters the Assiniboine River. The Oak River Reserve Indians are Sioux, but I only learned this later, after they re-named the reserve Sioux Valley. They have since added to that French name another by which they know themselves, the Dakota. They are relatives (but not descendants) of the Sioux people who crossed the Medicine Line with Chief Sitting Bull after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and before the Battle of Wounded Knee.
     The dancing which Harry watched was not street dancing or square dancing or line dancing but rather some form of what we think of as powwow dancing today. Men, women, and children attired in picturesque regalia, leather vests, shirts, skirts, leggings, and moccasins, decorated with feathers, glass beads, dyed porcupine quills. The men wearing colourful ribbon shirts; the women clutching fringed blanket shawls. They would have danced to the beat of a drum and had probably been invited to put on their best cultural kit and to come to participate, perhaps someone even used the word “perform,” in a local community celebration such as Victoria Day or Dominion Day. For Harry to have witnessed this dance as a child, it would have been in the early 1900s.
     However, by the time I was growing up, less than fifty years later, I never heard tell of Dakota or Sioux. There were no Indians in our home town, Oak River, some twenty-five miles upstream from the Oak River Reserve. There were no Indian children in our school. Aside from the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, the only Indians we ever saw were the reserve team who played in the senior men's hockey league, where the games were always fast and rough and violence was expected. I knew nothing about any of the people who lived on the Oak River Indian Reserve, or on any other reserve. Within a twenty-mile radius, there was Birdtail Reserve at Birtle, where there was a residential school, and a reserve at Elphinstone were Dad knew one of the fathers who managed the baseball team, a veteran like himself. Were these reserves also Sioux? I had no idea who they were, what they did, where they came from, what they used to do, what they wanted to do. Unlike my grandfather, I had never seen an Indian dance.
     It was years and years before I recognized that the plain White nature of our classrooms, our school, our town, was anything but natural. That the cultural makeup of our prairie community was a form of de facto apartheid which resulted in my total ignorance of First Nations people. It was as if they had been “disappeared.”
     My ignorance of my neighbours on the reserve was, I believe, fairly typical of my generation. There were just no opportunities for any cross-cultural interactions. What is not typical is the way, in later years, I have been able to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, to acquire an education which includes an awareness of those “disappeared” residents and an understanding of what was behind the failed attempt to separate them from our lives and erase them from our consciousness. A cross-cultural education almost like a dance in which the most difficult step of all is not “know thine enemy” but rather “know thyself.”


It is not really true that when we started school there were only White kids in the classroom. When I entered Grade One, in the early 1950s, Moon's son had just arrived in Canada. Moon ran one of the two cafes in our town, Oak River. For the first five years that I remember him, he worked alone and lived in the back of his restaurant. However, when he had saved up enough money, or the Communist government in China permitted it, or the federal government in Ottawa approved it, his wife and young son were able to join him in Canada. Mrs. Moon was a formidable woman who wielded the cleaver in the kitchen. Their son Pond was sixteen and spoke no English.
     As ESL (English as a Second Language) had yet to be invented in Manitoba, the school principal did the logical thing with Pond. The janitor moved a larger desk in from the high school and the teacher sat Pond at the back of the Grade One and Two classroom for language immersion. He was very good to us six year olds, and we looked up to him as we did to all the big kids. Not to mention his connection to the man downtown who doled out ice cream and chocolate bars. Boys used to bring in turtles that they caught in the river and give them to Pond, believing that his family would want them to make soup. In schoolwork, of course, Pond progressed rapidly, moving from ours and through the other classrooms at high speed as his English grew more and more fluent.
     Because he was already sixteen and could leave school, Pond made his way soon to Brandon, the big city, where he worked in one of the popular Chinese restaurants. Every time we drove the hour to shop in Brandon, we went there as a family, to the United Cafe, to have our lunch. Every time, after he had finished his fish and chips and before he paid the bill, my Dad would ask if “Tommy” were on shift. Whenever he was there, Tommy (Pond's chosen English name) always came out to speak to us, to shake Dad's hand, to send greetings back to his father, Moon.
    My Dad was like that. He spoke to everyone. He was a veteran and he prided himself on the fact that he had volunteered to fight, to help the people of Europe stand up against a bully. He always defended the underdogs, the marginalized, those in need of a hand. I remember him making the drive more frequently than we realized, down to Brandon, to “the North Hill,” as we called it euphemistically, the mental hospital where so many of his veteran and Legion friends were sent, for mysterious treatments of their mysterious symptoms, not then labelled post-traumatic stress. Maybe Dad identified with the men himself. He had been wounded in Italy and thought he would die. And his heavy use of alcohol in those early years must have been, besides habit and culture, a form of self-medication, most likely also linked to his physical symptoms, bleeding ulcers.
     Unlike his own father, my Dad liked to talk. I always admired his social ease with people, the way he could engage anyone, the sound of his laughter. The way, as an avid poker player, he taught us: “Trust everyone, but always cut the cards.” The way he linked the playing of games with the art of living, with “Cheaters never win.” He also expected us to communicate in certain ways. No "lip" (meaning no talking back), no smart-aleck remarks, no mimicking or making fun of others, even no talking about other people in a public setting. These ways that we were taught to "show respect" indicated one of his values: Everyone deserves respect. A person's behaviour may cause him or her to "lose respect" but everyone has it, no one has to earn it. It was only later that I realized how this attitude is not universal, how some people wait, withhold respect, usually until the other does or says something which matches the "withholder's" actions or opinions. Then he or she will say: "That's very White of you."
     Although Dad has been dead for more than twenty-five years, just last month while I was visiting after a memorial service, a man who knew him in his younger days described a scene from seventy years ago. In a local pub, Dad's drinking companion, back braced against the lobby wall, slowly slid to the floor as his “legless” knees buckled. Dad turned and, glowering at the buddy down on the linoleum, began to sing at him: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus! Ye soldier of the cross.”
     I suppose I inherited his literalness, and I too admired his irreverence, and the way he made his own decisions, based on his own values. Voting for people he thought would best represent “the little guys,” those whose voices would otherwise not be heard. The way he recognized Moon's isolation as the only Chinese person in town, and befriended him.
     The lessons we learn about living in community are lessons first introduced at home.


When I think of lessons learned, I also think of Mrs. H, one of my elementary school teachers. When faced with the question on her Health Test about the frequency and necessity of bathing, I routinely answered with our family's standard “Once a Week.” Saturday night, before going into town, was bath night. Each time I gave this answer, this teacher gently corrected me by inserting the phrase “at least.” When I failed to pick up on her subtle hint, she called me up to her desk and pointed out her edit. “ 'At least' means,” she said, “that bathing once a week is a minimum, that some people bathe more often than once a week, that some people bathe once or even twice a day.
     Really? I had no idea. (In my own defense, this was in another century, on a farm in a rural setting, before electricity and hot running water were everywhere, and we did have other ways of cleansing ourselves besides total immersion.) In spite of my embarrassment, or perhaps because of it, this lesson was eye-opening, life-changing. For it wasn't just a simple answer to a Health Quiz that she was pointing out to me. She was making me realize for the first time that the way our family did things was not necessarily the way that all families did things, that there is variety, even with basic health rituals. And furthermore, that I was in error, leaving myself open to correction, if I continued to assume that our way was the only way. Or worse. That our way was the correct way. That other ways, that others, were wrong.
     This inadvertent error on an elementary health quiz I consider to be my first formal lesson in cultural education. By pointing out cultural differences, this teacher opened my eyes to the risk of racism. For racism to me includes the idea that some people think that their way is the correct way. That their ways are superior to the ways of other people. And that by extension, they themselves are “superior.” And by definition, that other people are “inferior.” Those who believe in racism, in the superiority of some, of one group with shared beliefs or rituals, over others are racists. Racists insist that the inferior groups should correct themselves by accepting (or being forced to accept) “our superior ways.”
     Mrs. H never told me that our family routine was wrong. She never sent a note home to my parents saying our family had to change. She never called me a savage; nor did she imply that our home was somehow “uncivilized” because of our bath routine. (One common “tell” for racism is some form of that word “civilization” and/or its antonym, “savagery.”) She was just “cluing me in.” She was opening my eyes, helping me learn to see. She was opening my mind, helping me learn to think. She was pointing out to me that cultural appropriateness can vary even within one culture.
     It only struck me recently, when I was visiting a friend in an extended care ward, that if Mrs. H were to end her years in our health care system today, the staff would be assuring her that resources only permit that each resident receive a bath once a week. She was also an English teacher. At least, she would get the irony.


In the middle of the blizzard, the travelling salesman knocks at the farmhouse door and asks for shelter from the storm. “Could you spare a stranded traveller, sir, a bed for the night?”
     The farmer scratches his head and then nods, agrees. “Sure. 'Tis not a night to be on the road. But I must warn you. I ain't got no daughter.”
     “Thank you, sir. Thank you for the offer of hospitality. And for the tip. Can you tell me, sir, how far down the road is the next farmhouse?”

I grew up on a farm, and I'm sorry to say, I took the ubiquitous farmer's daughter jokes pretty personally. For “the farmer's daughter” is the butt of all the travelling salesman jokes, the innocent, youthful, female, rural, non-affluent, the subjugated, the dismissed, the disempowered, who are ridiculed and marginalized in mainstream society, by the representatives of aggressive capitalism, if you really want to push it. Farmer's daughter jokes are almost always about cross-cultural miscommunication. And before I got from that classroom of health quizzes, from that farm, to living and working on an Indian reserve, I met a few travelling salesmen of my own.


For my summer holiday, I went to the city. My twin best friends, Lynn and Lee, had moved to Brandon and invited me to visit. 1066 12th Street, near the railroad tracks, the fairgrounds, the swimming pool behind the Tyndall wall.
     In Brandon, the Town Fathers do not allow women to wear shorts in public places. We dressed up to go downtown. We wore gloves and matching pumps; we carried our vinyl purses like the Queen. We experimented with nail polish for fingers and toes, backcombed and peroxided our hair. We tried cherry-flavoured gloss and siren red at Woolworth's cosmetics counter, popping and blotting our lips in the mirrors. We fingered the satin and lace in the lingerie department, longing for boyfriends and breasts. We crowded into one curtained booth and pouted for the camera—four mugshots for a quarter. We bought two-piece bathing suits and suntanned on the dry summer grass. We played games with our shadows—imagining what we would look like with curves.
     We used our nickels to call boys from the payphone beside the bus stop. The twins' father would not allow us to date. We made secret plans to meet Mike and Danny and Little Joe at the show downtown. Psycho was Restricted. We went to see a comedy—Some Like It Hot—about a sweet blond girl-singer and two cons on the run from gangsters and police, hiding out in her all-girl band. On the beach, Tony Curtis pretended to be an oil tycoon and, when asked for details, he held up a scallop Shell. Tony and Jack Lemmon walking in heels. They shared a railway coach dressing room with the girls and often appeared to be in pain. The men in the audience laughed. We observed carefully how Marilyn made herself up in the mirror. We marvelled at her beauty, at her breasts, at her sequined gown more see-through than seen.
     The next matinée we met the boys at the bus stop and rode downtown with them. The movie was The Village of the Damned. Every woman of childbearing age was visited by some alien force. Nine months later the village was blessed with fatherless blond-haired children, strangely distant, with uncanny abilities to tap into the brains of mortals and to communicate telepathically amongst themselves. In order to protect the town, the civilization, Hayley Mills' father built a brick wall across his mind and entered the aliens' classroom with a bomb-fixed briefcase. A kamikaze mission to rid the world of the threatening cuckoos before the wall crumbled and they detected the plot.
     When the bomb exploded, Little Joe got scared and grabbed for Lee's arm in the darkness. She got the giggles and ran to the washroom; she waited for us in the popcorn lobby as we made our way back to the sunlight.
     Saturday night, we met the boys again to go for a walk. Itching for adventure, we reached over a stone wall and hawked some crabapples from a stranger's tree. But a police car cruised by and the boys vanished. We three walked on slowly, not laughing, trying to look innocent. The police did not stop.
     In the aching heat of August, sleep was impossible. We took our transistors to the front steps and sat listening in the darkness. The streetlights filtered through the canopy of American elm and masked the stars of the night. We searched for the loudest rock station, the farthest away—CKY, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco. Darkness was fading out when the newscaster's voice interrupted:
The nude body of Marilyn Monroe—movie star, sex goddess, comedienne,
actress—was found this morning at her home in Los Angeles where she
lived alone. An empty vial of sleeping pills was found near her bedside.
The telephone was off the hook. She was thirty-six years old.
Marilyn was last seen in The Misfits, co-starring the late Clark Gable,
and written for her by her estranged husband, Arthur Miller. She had recently
been fired from the set of Something's Got To Give.
The police do not suspect foul play.


In Some Like It Hot, the final scene, Jack Lemmon, still in drag, drives away in the back seat of a limo with the old old man who has become infatuated with him, who has just proposed marriage. Jack confesses his little secret and the suitor doesn't miss a beat. “Nobody's perfect,” he says with a Jimmy Durante accent and a lecherous grin.
     A perfect ending. A punch line. And so hilarious not only because of the sexual innuendo but also because such tolerance, such acceptance of the unexpected, of the unfamiliar, of the “imperfections” of another person, seems so rare as to be possible only in a comedy.
     Usually, often, the gap between cultures, in this case male and female cultures, is like a crevasse in a glacier, often invisible until you step right into it, and then, fatal. Back then, we never worried that our female role models were an American, Marilyn Monroe, and a Brit, Queen Elizabeth, and that both our “culture,” at least, the entertainment part of it, and the technology which delivered it, were imported. That crack between our local culture, who we really were, and how we saw ourselves portrayed was a canyon without a bridge. It was a cleft as wide as the gap between races, between Canadians and the invisible indigenous peoples of Canada. Both a Canadian presence and a First Nations presence were absent from popular culture.


In spite of hardship, the farmer did it. Maybe he sold a cow or butchered a pig. Somehow he scraped together enough money to send his only daughter to university. The daughter comes home to the farm for a weekend.
     “Pa. Pa. I got something to tell you! I ain't a virgin any more!”
     The farmer is taken aback. “Daughter,” he says. “Daughter, we've struggled and scraped to send you to university and you still say 'ain't'!?”

I always liked that one, even though no one in our family ever said “ain't.” And no one really had to scrape and sacrifice to send me to university. Yes, Dad did have to expose his private financial matters to another government agency, in order to prove need, and to ask for a Student Loan to match what he felt he could pay, to cover the cost of university tuition and my expenses, to move to and live in the city. It is more difficult for students from a rural area; they have double the costs of urban students, along with the stresses of moving, learning to navigate new territory, and making new friends.
     I wasn't the first in our extended family to go. Of my eight older cousins, one was a teacher and one had a degree in something related to agriculture. But none of our aunts or uncles had gone to university, and girls were not expected, way back then, to prepare to support themselves. Dad's six sisters all became wives and mothers. Of their eight brothers, four tried farming at one time or another, while others worked in the air force, the police force, as a mechanic, an electrician, on heavy equipment, in construction, and in food services. Education and career expectations spring from a combination of generational and economic factors. But schooling was a relatively touchy subject for my Dad. His father achieved Grade Four. Dad had Grade Eight. He had liked school, was good at it, still enjoyed reading, but because he was #3 of fourteen living children raised on a quarter section (small) farm, he had not been able to go further, to pay to board in another town and go to high school. Poverty impacts both personal and cultural opportunities.
     Dad had not had the option of high school because, after finishing the highest grade offered in Bradwardine, he left home permanently at age fourteen and was working until he signed up to join the army in World War II. Having Grade Eight limited the positions which were open to him in the military. What was worse, after the war, not having high school meant that he did not qualify for the opportunity offered other veterans to go to university. He did, however, qualify under the Veterans Land Act to get assistance to buy a farm. Which is how I ended up as a farmer's daughter. Luckily for me, I was the daughter of a farmer who resented not having more years of schooling, and was willing to help his children, regardless of their gender, to get it. I did not realize until many years later just what an advantage that was, to have the support of a parent who longed for, rather than felt threatened by, higher education.


Back then, finishing Grade Twelve involved two celebrations. In the spring, before writing the final provincial examinations, the school graduating class was feted with an awards ceremony, a banquet, and a dance. Later, after the marks had been tabulated, high achievements awarded, and post-secondary plans finalized, indeed after those of us at university had been there for a good month already, the school division held its own commencement exercises. Mine was held fifty miles from the farm and Oak River, in the town, Minnedosa, where the school division was headquartered. For this event, where I received the award for highest mark in the division in Grade Twelve history, I attended with my best friend Leo, stayed at her place for the weekend, and went with her to a dance in her community.
     At that dance, I met a young man from Brandon. He must have been at least sixteen because he would have had to drive the thirty miles to get there. I was seventeen, in first year at university. I had probably actually just dropped out of my first chosen faculty, Interior Design, and had picked up two new Arts courses three weeks into the first semester. (Interior Design had allowed me to enroll in Winnipeg, two hundred miles from home, rather that in Brandon which was closer, about fifty miles, in those pre-metric years.) I remember dancing with this guy in Minnedosa, and exchanging names and addresses. No big deal. The first weeks of university in Winnipeg had been a whirl of meeting many many new people. There were more people in the building I lived in than in all of Oak River. The Guess Who played at our Freshie Dance. There were five hundred men right next door in Tache Hall; we shared the dining hall and the auditorium. I thought nothing of meeting another new guy.
     Surprisingly, I received a letter from this boy from the dance. We may have written back and forth once or twice. Then he said he was coming into the city so let's do something. The Friday he mentioned, I said I was already committed to babysitting for a family from home who had just moved in to a suburb near the university. “Maybe I could just drop by,” he suggested, and me, being the farmer's daughter, with almost no babysitting experience, said “I guess so.”
     He dropped in. We watched TV. Television was a big deal because I didn't have one in my room on campus. There were no snuggles; we were just acquaintances. He went to the bathroom.
     One child woke up, came out to the living room, said: “He's in my parent's room.”
     “Oh, no,” I said. “He's just looking for the bathroom.”
     He left before the parents returned.
     I blanked this incident out for thirty years. I do know that the child's mother phoned me to inform me that jewelery was missing from her home. I could not believe it. She knew I had had a visitor and asked for details. I know I went from the phone to my room and brought back the letter and gave her the name and the Brandon address of the young man. I don't remember whether I apologized to her. Possibly not, as I was so stunned. Shocked. As if I too had been victimized. Punched in the gut. Betrayed into betraying others. Making me lose people's respect. I do not remember for sure whether the police talked to me. I may have written down my recollections of the evening and handed the paper to an officer downstairs at the desk on the main floor.
     I was horrified. Someone who had trusted me had been ripped off because I was too naïve, too innocent, too stupid, to suspect the motives or actions of another. I had failed to cut the cards. Had this stranger targetted me? Did I have a big M on my forehead? Mark?
     I was ashamed, aghast, at the way my stupidity must have embarrassed my parents, for the victims were from home, and everyone would have heard.
I would like to say that I became a little more skeptical, whenever I met a new “traveller” but I'm not really sure if that is true. I think the trauma was so great that I blocked the memory out completely. I know I never once discussed it with either of my parents. I never mentioned it to anyone.
     But how is this teen trauma related to a cross-cultural education, to solidarity with First Nations? Certainly the con man was not a Native. It's something to do with me. About me. The innocent who assumes that everyone else is as honest as she, who fails to suspect negative or questionable motives in others, is betrayed and victimized. Raised in a home where respect was demanded, and the marginalized, the underdogs, were defended, where minorities were included, yet I played a role, unintentionally, in victimizing others, of helping, inadvertently, to cause harm to others. Guilty, even though I was unaware of the crime until later, after the damage had been done.
     I was an unwitting accomplice.


University was for me years of reading and writing in a place of luxury and indulgence. Meals prepared, maid service, my own office, a room with a view of one of the bends in the Red River. Walking everywhere on the University of Manitoba Fort Garry Campus. Film clubs. Social life. The river bank. Visiting artists and speakers—Leonard Cohen, Rene Levesque. With the exception of one compulsory science credit, I could satisfy my own curiosity, study only subjects which interested me. A double major in English and history, with a focus on Canadian studies. History of Art. Political Science. Psychology. French. Linguistics. And Geology, a life-long secret passion. Now, forty-some years later, I can still remember the name of almost every professor (except psychology, which changed every month), even those professors who taught hundreds of first-year students at one time in large lecture theatres. But the one I remember most was one whose class I dropped. Canadian history with Lovell Clark. It was a third year course; I was in second year and felt out of my depth. When the professor got sick, I feared I would not be able to catch up, so I dropped it. But I bought his book. The Manitoba Schools Question: Majority Rule or Minority Rights.
     Before Lovell Clark, history was “who, what, where, and when” or “historical significance.” In Clark's class I learned to ask “why” something happened, what the impact had been, and whether what happened was “right or wrong.” It was in that class that I first heard that Louis Riel may have been more than a traitor hanged for treason, for leading two rebellions against the government. That the Metis had had their reasons. In 1869 they had presented their points as a Bill of Rights and the rights they articulated were incorporated into the Manitoba Act of 1870 by which Manitoba entered Confederation as a province, as opposed to entering as a colony, as Ottawa and London had intended. At least in a province, democratic systems offered citizens some control over local affairs. However, by 1885, as development had followed the Metis into the Northwest Territory where they had re-settled along the Saskatchewan River, the same abuses and the same protests were again ignored by Ottawa. The Metis were forced to stand up and defend their position, with tragic consequences. Shots were fired; lives were lost. Leaders were imprisoned, hanged, or exiled. The Northwest Territory remained governed from Ottawa as a colony for another twenty years.
     The Metis in Manitoba had originally achieved some successes in their attempt to maintain some control over their own affairs. The Indians were not as effective in their negotiations. The treaties they were signing with the Canadian government in the 1870s acknowledged nation status and aboriginal title and prepared for "mutual occupation." By signing treaty, First Nations permitted access and settlement in their traditional territory. In return, they negotiated something of equal value--national assistance to re-establish themselves, to replace the lifestyle they had given up, that had been disrupted, with something of equal or greater value. It was not a battle, one nation conquering other nations. It was a negotiation, an exchange. As one party to the negotiations, the First Nations would expect, based on a sense of natural justice if nothing else, that they would be better off, certainly no worse off, than they had been before signing treaty.
     Unfortunately, the other party to the negotiations saw things differently. The Canadian government saw the First Nations as an impediment to expansion and development. If the First Nations could be wooed into signing treaty, the impediments would be removed. Think of it as a courtship. Canada and the Crown are the suitors. The First Nations are the rich heiresses. "I love you; I respect you; I want you," the government negotiators whisper. But what they fail to disclose is that once you agree, once you sign that paper (according to the laws I made without your input) you become subject. What is yours becomes mine (property); nothing that is mine will be yours. I will provide food and shelter. And I will look after the children who, as the law says, are my responsibility.
     After treaties were signed, the government unilaterally asserted authority upon its new subjects, drafting and passing the laws to assert the necessary control. This law, the Indian Act of 1876, resulted in the end of life as they had known it, of dignity and self-determination in ancestral territories the First Nations had inhabited for millennia. Indians who signed treaties and accepted reserves were reduced by the Indian Act to a status equivalent to a colony, confined to small tracts of land, with every aspect of their lives controlled from elsewhere without their input. Dependent. Subject.
     The same attitudes of disrespect, of obliviousness to the rights of minorities, of "winner takes all" also allowed provincial legislators to renege on the cultural guarantees in the Manitoba Act. (Before our union, I said this, but now, I've changed my mind.) Dominated by the new majority of Canadians from Ontario, the legislature repealed the rights of French-language speakers and Roman Catholics to educate their children in their first language, the way they wanted, in separate schools, as the Manitoba Act had promised twenty-five years earlier. The province of Manitoba which had been created as “officially bi-lingual” became uni-lingual when the right to use French in the legislature, the legal system, and the schools was repealed.
     What made democracy a justification for trampling on the rights of certain groups? Why should numbers (of votes) trump rights?
     In Lovell Clark's history class, more than a dozen years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms made this the law in Canada, I first learned that democracy was a separate idea from majority rule. Well, it may have been mentioned in first year political science, but here we could see the actual impact, in the very desks and classrooms with which we were all familiar. Just because the majority says something, votes for something, or votes to take something away, does not make it right. Hitler had been elected, we were reminded, in a democratic nation, starting with a minority government and then taking over.
     If I learned one lesson in a university classroom, it was this one: Majority rule must not be used to deny the human rights of others.

After the hostilities in the Northwest in 1885, after he had been found guilty and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Chief Big Bear was sent by train to Winnipeg. It is said that officials wished to impress him with the sheer numbers of White people, to underline that any thought of continuing to stand up to the government would be useless, that his Cree would have to sign a treaty, to abandon their freedom to wander, to accept a reserve.
     A city of White people climbing all over each other, scurrying to make a living, like a hill of ants. It was the numbers argument. We outnumber you. We will overrun you. Resistance is futile. Majority rules. Might is right.
     Big Bear had resisted accepting a reserve because he had detected the plot. He tried camping out in Montana. He and his people wintered at Fort Walsh in Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills. They wandered. For he could already see that negotiations were a sham, that what the Indians said made no difference, that the promises made in existing treaties were not being lived up to. That what the negotiators said did not match what the government did. That the government was not bargaining in good faith. That it was all a “bait and switch” and the Indians were being rooked. That First Nations were already being betrayed. Even though evidence proved that he had counselled his people against taking up arms, Big Bear was convicted and imprisoned in Stony Mountain. He caught tuberculosis and was released early to avoid the embarrassment of having a proud old man like him die in jail.
     When majority rule is used to dominate, to impose the will of one group upon another, to deny the human rights of the other, to deny the right to self-determination, to take away the power of self-government which up to then the First Nations had always exercised, it is not democracy, it is racism.


Before I had the opportunity to immerse myself in another culture, before I went up north to teach, I taught high school English and history in southern communities. I always included a unit on First Nations in my English courses. We would talk about the difference between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is a belief; discrimination is an action. The class would be asked to share personal experiences. One day, the School Inspector was visiting and he chose to participate by sharing an example he had witnessed.
    It had been a Sunday morning, at a small community church, where every family has a designated pew. Members of the congregation know their “assigned seats” intuitively, unless they are new and haven't had a faux pas pointed out to them. On this one morning, an Indian woman, not a regular member of the congregation but one known to most of the townspeople, chose to attend this service. She walked up the centre aisle and chose a seat in a pew on the right hand side, near the front. Every other person who entered the church, noticed her, recognized that their usual seating arrangements had been disrupted, and took different pews. By the time the service started, the woman sat alone on the right hand side of the church and the rest of the congregation sat jumbled together in the left-hand-side pews.
     After this story, two boys raised their hands. They were best friends, both from town, one blond, one brunet, a Metis boy. They told how they had lucked into a job the summer before and how, on payday, the blond boy was paid a minimum wage rate and the Metis boy was paid $1 per hour, for all the hours they had worked together doing the same jobs.
     “What's this?” they had both asked.
     “$1 an hour is Indian pay,” the employer had explained.
     Although they both needed the money, they both quit, one in anger, one in solidarity.


Doesn't everyone have Math Dreams? Grade Twelve Mathematics? That old recurring nightmare? A letter arrives in the mail. Dear Ms B. We regret to inform you that new calculations have been made. We have found out that you actually failed your final Grade Twelve departmental mathematics examination and thus were ineligible to be admitted to university. Consequently, all your diplomas and degrees have been withdrawn.
     Diplomas. Certificates. Degrees. House. All gone?
     No? Not everyone? Maybe not the Engineers, but surely, everyone else? And the lesson is more than that general feeling of being a fraud. The lesson is really the same one, perhaps the only one I remember, from Grade Twelve Math. Sorry Mr. G. The lesson that says: If you make an error in copying the equation, in writing down the problem, everything which follows, everything, will also be wrong.
     That's how I feel, how I felt, after reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Interim Report They Came For the Children. Before any residential school was even envisioned, there was an error in the equation, in the concept itself. Consequently, everything which followed was also wrong; everything thereafter simply compounded the original error.
     The error, of course, was that the residential schools concept was based upon a racist assumption—that White culture was superior and that the children, the First Nations, and Canada as a whole would all be improved, would all benefit from helping the First Nations become “civilized,” by forcing them to assimilate into Western Civilization. And that the best way to assimilate was by total immersion, erasing the old ways and starting afresh with the new. And that the most efficient way to do this would be to start with the children.


Going back to the original problem. When you begin with an error, everything which follows will also be wrong. This simple truth motivates me to write, to add to the discussion. Because there has been so much laudable coverage of the residential schools question, of the terrible abuses encountered by some individuals, of the pain of separation, of the children who never returned, of the government's apology, of compensation, of the devastating and on-going effects of the system on individuals, families, communities, races. Yet still, everyone is missing the most important point. What started all this heartache? The racist belief which engendered the plan to “civilize” the Indians.
     What is being done to identify that prime cause, racism, to acknowledge its destructive power, to exterminate that beast? To stop racism from continuing to destroy?
     Do we really want First Nations peoples linked indelibly in our minds as “victims”? To focus on their victimization, and how they can and must overcome that? This too misses the point. Yes, certainly, victims need support and help to heal. However, it is not their fault, and they are not the ones who need to change. It is not them; it is us. Abuse is not the issue. Racism is the issue. The perpetrators of racism must be identified, held accountable, forced to accept responsibility, and to demonstrate an understanding of how what we did was wrong. If not, racists will continue to dominate and abuses of the rights of others will happen over and over again.
     Hughes and Kallen, in The Anatomy of Racism: Canadian Dimensions, cite Webster: “Racism is the assumption that psycho-cultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another; usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others.”
     In cross-cultural interactions, those “assumptions” and the belief in the “right to domination” trip us, plunge us into the abyss.


Before moving up north to teach, I took a couple of refresher courses including Cross-Cultural Education which was designed to prepare teachers from the south for some of the unexpected challenges they might encounter when moving north to work in Indian and Metis communities. Isolation. Language and second language issues, as many students do not learn English before starting school. Interpreting results of “standardized tests,” designed for urban America and used without adjustment, in rural and northern Canadian schools. Adapting the provincial curriculum to local conditions. Schools and local politics. Schools and local culture, including historic attitudes toward compulsory education. Useful information which made more sense later.
     It was in this course that I first heard the term “ethnocentrism.” The Story of the Bath, about the form and frequency of bathing, could technically be an example of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's culture, the way we do things, the way we live and grow together, is the correct way, the superior way. Ethnocentrism may simply be the result of inexperience, of living in a closed society, of never having been exposed to, or not being aware of any other ways. “This is the way we do things.” Sometimes, ethnocentrism stems from the racist belief, taught and learned, that “superior” actions are the result of superior intelligence, inherited through the blood, the genes. That superior actions (achievements) come from superior blood has been taught by many cultures for generations. What “our group” does, and what we believe, are superior. The belief that “Our way is the best way” is characteristic of ethnocentrism, as is the exclusion or rejection of alternate ways, the “he or she's not one of us” syndrome, or the “if you're not the same as me, you're not OK” syndrome. Ethnocentrism is really a failure to educate, to open eyes to differences, to teach tolerance and acceptance. Sometimes too ethnocentrism stems from an inability to empathize, to imagine one's self in the shoes of another, or an inability to identify another as a human being like one's self. Or an inability to love. “Love thy neighbour as thy self.” We do, and that's the problem.
     Awareness of ethnocentrism makes us realize that different cultures may have different ways of doing things, of achieving the same or similar goals, and that even though something may be different, it can still be culturally appropriate. Especially in the field of education, ethnocentrism leads some teachers to believe, mistakenly, that people who are illiterate are less intelligent, or that people who developed systems of writing were and are superior to people who devised complicated systems of oral communication and oral literature. The error lies in seeing the self as “the norm” and in judging others according to that false norm. The mantra that “you have to speak English to succeed in the modern world” is another oft-repeated example of ethnocentric self-aggrandizing. As is the belief that people who developed specific kinds of technology, most commonly “the wheel,” were superior to people who developed other non-mechanical methods of transportation, of telling time, of making things. Ethnocentrism accounts for the mistaken association of “civilization” as some form of more “highly developed” technology. For the way some European immigrants assume that houses and other buildings constructed of stone (the old norm) are superior to buildings made of locally available resources such as wood. For the way Euro-centric people believe that their superior “Western Civilization” arose after humans developed agriculture, settled down, began to live in villages which grew into cities. The way people in cities often feel superior to people from rural areas.
     Ethnocentrism acts as a kind of cultural blinkers, blinding us to other possibilities, making us think that the limited vision of what we can see is all that there is to see. Ethnocentrism is the opposite of cultural relativism, the belief that it is disrespectful and can be dangerous to judge an aspect of one culture by the values and expectations of another culture. Ethnocentrism, prejudice, discrimination, paternalism, abuse, bullying, imperialism, colonialism, sexism, ageism, classism are all spawns of racism, the belief in the superiority of one race, or one culture, or one group, or one individual over others.
    In that cross-cultural education class, ethnocentrism was discussed, but racism was never mentioned. Although we may have discussed alternative ways for First Nations to relate to Canada, of separation versus integration versus assimilation, there was no mention of the possibility that forced assimilation might be a form of genocide, another term that was never mentioned. “Education is the new buffalo,” the chiefs negotiating treaties in the 1870s believed, and they had negotiated for schools on reserves which would help their people prepare for a new way of life, after the buffalo were gone. Nor did I ever hear it hinted that the disappearance of First Nations people from our communities, that exclusion of First Nations people or First Nations points of view in history books, in the curriculum, in the media, might be indicative of racism. Nor the suggestion that ignoring the pleas, the requests, turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, might also be forms of racism. Nor did anyone ever say that some people might resent you because you are White.
      Because I'm White? Wouldn't that be racist?


Academics debate definitions still, which is probably why the word “racism” seems to have disappeared. Because using the word “racism” results in an argument about definition rather than a look at actions and their motivations and consequences. The word “racism” does seem to have become taboo. No one says it anymore. It's one of those pointing words--one finger points at someone else, and three point back at you.
     Making the word “racism” a taboo only serves to help avoid the issue and to help society continue to deny that racism is a problem. We seem to feel more comfortable pretending that racism doesn't exist in Canada. We hide in the definition of racism as Skinheads and White Supremacists who talk about blood and commit violence against victims who are visibly not White. So unless we're bashing or stomping or murdering others we perceive as different and thus inferior, we evade the racist label. Of course, White Supremacists are racists. But they're a fringe kind of racist. Young White males who would otherwise find acceptance as gangsters or goons or pimps or bikers, anywhere their anger and anti-social tendencies could be put to use. Charlie Chaplin said it so well: “Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.” This violent fringe group of haters are not people with whom most of us identify. They do, however, provide a convenient escape for us. I am not like that; therefore, I cannot be a racist.
     If we think that we are right and that the ways other people do things are wrong, we, for all intents and purposes, are racists.
     If we think that the way we do things is superior, and the way other people do things is thus inferior, we are racist.
     And racism is wrong.

Perhaps another reason that the word “racism” seems to have disappeared is that our understanding of and attitudes towards “race” have changed. Today we profess that races do not exist. Influenced by sociologists and psychologists, we are slowly becoming used to the proposition that there is only one race, the HUMAN RACE. Instead of the seemingly outdated ideas of racism, anti-racism, or race rights, we have learned to refer instead to HUMAN RIGHTS. Human rights counter racism and ethnocentrism. Human rights is an umbrella term which includes aliases such as civil rights, women's rights, feminism, labour rights, minority rights, equal rights, anti-bullying, or the rights of indigenous peoples.
     The Preamble to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .“ Then it lists thirty “rights.” Yes, but, you may say. Yes, but, human rights did not exist until 1948 (a very good year) and are a result of the Holocaust. Certainly the move to formalize, to write down, was a reaction to the horror of concentration death camps. But the belief in fundamental justice, and the the desire to codify and record, to document orally or literally, are characteristics of our race. And having the rights written down does make it easier to see, to hear the voices of the disappeared and the dispossessed as they call for help.
     All groups marginalized by historic injustice, exploited or ignored, help us see both the need for and the benefits of being mutually supportive, moving in solidarity with others, standing up and speaking out for rights and respect. For is it not our common goal, to figure out how we can best live together, as neighbours, as allies, as fellow human beings, in this land, on this planet?
     Yet racist attitudes thrive. Maybe some people will have an issue equating “feelings of superiority” with racism. We can accept that racism means that individuals of one race or group feel superior to people of another group. The contrary is less universally accepted—that those who feel superior are by definition racist. Think of it as a mathematical equation. An equation can be read backwards and forwards. Racism = Feeling Superior. Therefore, Feeling Superior = Racism. I offer this as metaphor. To try to argue it as logic would be an unfortunate ethnocentric reading, a cross-cultural misinterpretation.
     Or perhaps we could equate racism with righteousness, as in self-righteousness. The belief that our way is right, that “we” are right. That other ways are inferior. A word like “snobbery” makes self-righteousness seem somewhat less threatening, an individual quirk rather than a cultural characteristic. But is it not still the same thing, whether it is on the personal level, on the cultural level, or on the national level? A snob is self-righteous. Self-righteousness is feeling superior. Feeling superior is racism, however we may try to evade the truth.
     Racism is both a personal and a cultural flaw. The belief that anyone else, any individual or group, has the right to tell another person, other people, what to do and how to live their lives is a racist tenet. It fails to respect the right of the individual to self-determination and dignity.
     It fails to RESPECT.
     Think of the implications for individuals, for groups, for nations.
     It's not you; it's me.


My teen years had been bolstered by all the national pride and promotions surrounding Canada's centennial in 1967. Indeed, at fifteen, I had been awarded a summer trip, as part of an escorted group of Manitoba high school students, Centennial Travellers, to Montreal where I was billetted with a French-speaking family in Longueuil. I tasted my first slice of pizza (instant addiction) and ate my first Spaghetti Bolognese supper. Madame S taught me the proper etiquette--”Do not cut the strands. Hold your spoon in your left hand; use it as a brace and with your right hand, twist the spaghetti around your fork.” We drove to Sorel to visit Madame's relatives in a traditional farmhouse on a long lot fronting the Richelieu River, exactly matching the history book descriptions of the New France surveys. We attended smoky coffee houses with a stool, a mic, and a folk singer spotlighted on stage. We toured Old Montreal, the nave of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in the harbour and the gilded Notre Dame Cathedral, the botanical garden, Le Musee des Beaux-Arts, St. Joseph's Oratory. We visited the aquarium, the Plains of Abraham, and a nunnery displaying Montcalm's skull in Quebec City, the Parliament Buildings and National Art Gallery in Ottawa, the old building, where Tom Thomson's West Wind took your breath away at the door. I memorized the words to “Mon Pays” in French--”Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays c'est l'hiver.” And I had returned, for Expo '67. It was a celebration of Canada, with an all-inclusive slogan: “Unity in diversity.”
     But it had taken a few years for the nationalism, a bit of the pride and self-confidence, to trickle up to the university. I took my first Canadian Literature class when poet Dorothy Livesay offered a special summer course in 1972. She had personal knowledge of many of the poets and novelists, having lived in Winnipeg when her father worked for the Free Press, as well as in eastern Canada and on the West Coast. We studied Isabella Valancy Crawford's “The Canoe“ and Pauline Johnson's “The Song My Paddle Sings.” We read Margaret Laurence short stories set in Neepawa and Riding Mountain National Park, fifty miles from home. And Frederick Philip Grove, who had taught in Rapid City, twenty miles from Oak River, where we had regularly visited one of Dad's veteran friends. Grove's daughter is buried there. Although the story of his true identity, as a fugitive German, was just coming out, his stories spoke to us of our place, of snow and prairie roads and farm workers, of cultures familiar to us. In that class, the setting of Grove's novel The Master of the Mill was identified as Keewatin, Ontario, a previously unknown fact. We also read Layton and Klein and Cohen. Because I was in love with Montreal and with Cohen since his concert on campus my first year, I wrote my paper on “Suzanne” with its references to “Our Lady of the Harbour” and ”she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” I could just as easily have chosen “Dance Me To the End of Love” or “Sisters of Mercy”; his “Democracy” and “Anthem” (“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”) and “Hallelujah” came later.
     Dorothy Livesay was living CanLit, the embodiment of literature as the art of seeing your self set in your environment, your culture, a connection which had been impossible previously for Canadian students to make. In the past, literature, the curriculum, the canon, was determined in England or America and taught by outsiders who believed that everything good happened somewhere else and, if you just imported it, you could be enlightened in its reflected glory. Literature was seen as product, not process. Before CanLit, Canadian novels never made it to the "approved texts" list; reading was about strange people from unfamiliar places. The fact that none of these people were Canadian was an unvoiced insult. If Canadians did exist, they did not matter. They were invisible, lesser than, inferior. The colonized mind was as much a problem in literature as it was and is in politics.
     After the Centennial, after Livesay, I began to understand literature as the study of the mastery of language as a way to explore what it means to be fully human here and now. In CanLit, finally, we could see Canada and Canadians. Through the pleasures of narrative, we can learn how other human beings cope with different kinds of challenges in their own lives and cultures. Later I would see the impact on the students when they got hooked on Farley Mowat's Lost In the Barrens. Although they knew how some Northerners referred to Mowat as “hardly know-it” because of his imaginative liberties, they loved reading a story with Cree characters set in a landscape which they recognized, about familiar activities such as trapping and hunting, and with conflicts, man versus nature, White versus Indigenous, Indian versus Eskimo, with which they could all identify. CanLit untwists the educational misstep, breaks down the dance moves into a manageable one-two-three, and helps students learn that the purpose of literature, oral or written, is, by creating characters we recognize and plots with which we can identify, to entertain and to teach at the same time.
     I never thought of it then, how being invisible, being excluded, ignored, by the media, in the curriculum, is also a form of racism. Out of sight, out of mind; if I cannot see you, you do not exist. Invisibility sends the racist message: You're not good enough; you do not matter. Nor did I fully appreciate that helping students learn academically, watching them mature socially and emotionally, prompting them to integrate what they learn from books and from the discussion of literature depends upon how well you understand child development (physical, intellectual, social, spiritual), how well you know yourself, and how familiar you are with those all-important connections between place, culture, and identity.
     But this is getting ahead of myself. I'm not there yet. Suffice it to say that, in cross-cultural education, it is also the teacher who learns.

Part Two - Nelson River




Nowadays, two generations later, I often feel homesick for the reserve, if I flick across reruns of old North of 60 shows, or homesick for the North, watching Adam Beach on Arctic Air. In winter I miss the smell of woodsmoke, or of the tanned moosehide mittens and mukluks sold by the crafters. Snowshoes and snowmobiles give me flashbacks. If I'm in the right place, in the summer, I may slip in to one or two of the big powwows held in or near Winnipeg, or anywhere on the Great Plains, from Texas to Yellowknife, or anywhere to which plains people have moved. Now I know that an Indian dance is not a performance. That in the past, dances brought people from far away together for political, economic, social, and spiritual reasons to one pre-arranged place, at one time. And that modern powwows, although each individual has his or her own agenda, are like giant sports days, except that, instead of baseball or track, the competitions are for different types of dances—circle, hoop, round, traditional, fancy shawl, jingle dress, grass, inter-tribal. Ribbon shirts, bristle roaches, eagle feathers on headdresses, fans, and bustles abound. The drum is “the heartbeat of Mother Earth”; the drum groups take turns singing and keeping time. There's always an emcee who loves the mic, calling out the schedule of dances, the names of prizewinners, of Elders leading the prayers, gathering everyone for the Grand Entry, the Veterans Honour Dance, the Final Procession, keeping the audience entertained with his own stand-up routine.
    It was at a powwow that I first heard this story, the First Nations equivalent of a Canadian Newfie joke or the “farmer's daughter” jokes which I collect. Jokes which used to be about making fun of the “other” but are recycled today as affectionate and self-deprecating.

These two Indians, “bush Indians,” as the term goes, someone somewhat less sophisticated, less experienced, less widely travelled, these two guys from ____ (insert name of rival town) are coming to a big powwow in the city, to what would in the past have been “enemy territory.” They are excited to see all the people, all the regalia, to hear the drums beating, the emcee insulting his friends. To see the long row of tents set up as the food court, their banners competing: Real Indian Bannock. Fry Bread. Indian Candy. Fishburgers. Buffalo Burgers. Hot Dogs.
     Hot Dogs? So it's true then? These people actually do eat dogs?
     The two buddies rush up to the hot dog stand. “Two hot dogs!” they order, shaking their heads and wrinkling their noses at the proffered raw onions and green pickles.
     “Hot dog,” they say, almost in unison, and manipulate the long bun to best insert it into their drooling mouths.
     One of them, taking a little longer to bite, finally satisfies his curiosity. He opens the bun and takes a peek. His eyebrows go up, his eyes go big. He turns to his buddy who is already swallowing, and asks suspiciously, “What part did you get?”


Moving from Winnipeg north to a fly-in reserve in those years in the 1970s was a bit of a physical challenge. For one thing, there was no road. There were roads on the reserve but they didn't link to anything. Cargo went by boat up the 800-km length of Lake Winnipeg, past Warren's Landing, up the Nelson River, Playgreen Lake, to one of the docks in Norway House, either at the Fort or the government dock near Church Point in the Rossville townsite. People had to fly on scheduled flights, usually in a Queen Air, from Winnipeg. The landing strip was gravel, and there was a sign, on the road between the airfield and the river, that said “Watch for low-flying planes.”
     Flying in for the pre-screening interview was the first time I had ever been on a reserve and the first time I had ever been in an airplane. Over the years, I had to get used to the flying. Once, returning to the reserve alone, as I was the only passenger heading north, the pilot invited me to sit up front, in the co-pilot's seat in the cockpit. He gave me an impromptu lesson in VFR, visual flight rules, how to navigate without instruments from Winnipeg to Norway House. (This is many long years before the invention of GPS.) Follow the highway north to the lake at Hecla Island. North west along the lakeshore. When you can see George Island, head for it, north east, to fly across the lake. North to the mouth of the Nelson River where it begins its journey to Hudson Bay. Follow the river to the airport. With hands on the control yoke and feet on the rudder pedals, I manipulated the small plane, climbing, descending, turning. Bank. Flaps. Pitch. Yaw. Altitude. Attitude. Speed. But it wasn't enough; I never caught the flying bug. However, the experience at the controls did help reduce my anxiety. I recognized that my fear stemmed partly from ignorance of just how these machines got up into the air and what kept them there. There was also the element of fear of dying. So I was able to shrug. Whatever. We all die sometime. Just let it be quick. But I love the earth, this land, too much, to want to leave it for any frivolous reason.
    Once you were up there, on reserve, getting out of town could be just as much of an adventure. One time we sat on stools in the cavernous belly of an old World War II cargo plane, a DC-3, after heat had been pumped in at the airport from a giant Herman Nelson portable gasoline-fired heater. Then the large flexible hose from the heater was whipped out and the plane door slammed quickly, with a prayer, to keep the temperature up until touchdown in Winnipeg. One time the plane went the wrong way, north instead of south to Winnipeg, and we ended up waiting in Thompson Airport for the better part of a day. It was Academy Awards night and we were missing the broadcast. Then, when a flight finally became available, it went even farther north, to Churchill, to pick up other stranded fliers. The snow was so deep at the Churchill Airport that the only thing that was visible out our porthole window was one porch light above a drift-buried door. After new passengers were loaded, the secondhand smoke in the passenger cabin was so strong that everyone was flying high.
     People flew in to the reserve and waited for freeze-up. After the ice froze to at least a thickness of eighteen centimetres, winter ice roads were constructed across the northern end of Lake Winnipeg to connect to the Thompson Highway, north or south. When the snow had been ploughed and evergreen trees stuck into snowbanks to aid with visibility, cars and trucks could be driven in and out. One time we drove past a semi-trailer truck flipped on its side, jackknifed, along the edge of the ice road. “The driver was going too fast,” rumour had it; “he drove over his own wave and cracked the ice, and that's what caused him to jackknife and flip.” I shake my head. It is “another country,” and “there are more things in this heaven and earth” than Horatio dreamed of in his philosophy.
     So, it was all adventure--getting there, getting to know a boreal forest landscape of rock, lakes, and trees, totally foreign to me, and getting to know the people and the culture which the land sustained. “Muskeg” is the Cree word for the swampy land; “Muskego” are the people of the swampland, the Swampy Cree; “Moniyas” are the Whites, referred to as “transients.” For the Whites come from outside and leave. No one expected you to stay; you had to “learn fast.”


From the darkness of the porch as I am knocking the snow off my boots, I can hear the guys cheering. Go! Go! Go! They are pumping, egging someone on. Not me, obviously. But as I slither into the kitchen, all I can see are their backs, the whole lot of them, all turned away from the bottle-laden table, encircling one guy, his blond hair haloed in the low-ceilinged kitchen by the pot light over the sink. The boss's arm is draped over the guy's shoulders, above the pumping buttocks, the slack-seated jeans.
     At the touch of the frozen fresh air from my entrance, the blond turns out of the embrace, around, something large and meaty in his grip, showering his buddies in the chorus line, a drunken smirk on his face. Seeing it is just me, his busy hands unable to salute, he gives a slight nod of the head and turns back to his business, targetting the yellow stream in the general direction of the stainless steel kitchen basins.
     Like one of the cringing yard dogs, I slink kitty-corner to the door leading to the living room where the “girls” have flocked--the wives and dates and hopefuls lingering outside the circle, hovering close to the free booze, waiting for later, for an anonymous fumble before some poor bugger nods off or passes out.
     “Get yourself a drink,” one of the women yells, and I smile, hold up my own bottle secreted under my parka, motion for the church-key, chug-a-lug.
     “I'm not going back in there, I don't care how much you pay me!” I try to joke to the abandoned wives and girlfriends.
     “Who's the new guy?” I ask, by way of an ice-breaker. Identification. Always start with a description.
     “The blond? Friend of the boss's.”
     “Cousin, I heard.”
     “New recruit.”
     “Her boyfriend,” someone nods towards a girl new to the group.
     “My fiancé,” she offers, which makes me think, Knocked up but still hopeful.
     It would be deluding myself not to notice how he has been welcomed. How he fits right in. How he has something I don't have. That cockiness that is always interpreted as confidence.
     The next time someone yells out “Are we having fun yet?” the new blond guy yells back, “Over here. Over here.” His buddies call him by their new pet name, Dipstick or Hoser, and pat him on the back, a welcome addition to the workplace.


As an outsider moving to a northern reserve to teach, my first interactions are with other staff members. But soon, the doors open, school commences, classes begin.
     The thing I love about teaching English is the opportunity to choose the content to use to focus on developing their skill levels in reading, writing, and thinking. Literature is my favourite medium to address both the academic and the personal development of high school students. The challenge is to identify topics that will interest them, to lure them into the subject, so they don't even realize that they are learning or that what they are doing is “work.” The classroom is like a gym, a place to develop and exercise intellectual muscles, critical thinking skills. I hang a little hand-stitched sampler of my motto: “Teach them how to think, not what to think.” Challenge them. Engage them. “Is that an opinion or a fact?” is one of my favourite questions. Well, this is the romantic approach. Teaching style has to match the teacher's personal strengths. The classic conservative motto would be more like: here's the book, here's the curriculum; here's the exam; memorize; read and weep. I exaggerate somewhat--hyperbole. As a teacher alone in the classroom, you have to stand up, to believe in yourself, your years of university, your teacher training, your permanent professional teaching certificate, your previous teaching experience, your knowledge of the variety of individual learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile), your love of your subject, and your love of teaching. For, as everyone knows, no one teaches a subject. We all teach students. I loved my subject, and I loved teaching students.
     At the same time you watch them develop, mature, climb Maslow's pyramid as they learn to master, to manage their needs, from the basic necessities of air, food, and water, through safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem and confidence, to become creative, contributing, respectful human beings capable of reaching beyond. The ability to witness this growth must surely be the teacher's greatest joy.
     Yet, what I remember most about teaching on the reserve are the things my students taught me. I may have started out as a farmer's daughter, living in a de facto apartheid world, a Southerner who had chosen to work in the North as a kind of travel adventure. Sure, I loved Canada, but how much did I really know about it? Or about this community I was flying into? Those days were also a learning experience for me.
     I don't remember the exact topic of the English lesson. Maybe I tried to explain how living in new parts of Canada is interesting, exciting to me, how I hope to learn more about this homeland I love so much. I remember, two generations later, the exact first words the first student to speak ever said to me: “I'm not a Canadian; I'm Cree.” Matt was the first. (I'm going to make up names, to prevent any unintended embarrassment to the actual students.) Matt was the first First Nations person I met who rejected the idea of Canada and Canadian citizenship and identified only with his Cree nation.
     In my shock, I failed to probe him. Although I did not recognize it at the time, Matt's rejection of Canadian citizenship was a form of payback. For almost the first one hundred years of the Cree nation's relationship with the nation of Canada, from 1867 to 1956, Canada did not extend citizenship to Crees or any other Indians. If an individual wished to attain all the benefits of Canadian citizenship, he or she had to sign away their rights, their “treaty status,” their “racial identity” as registered Indians, in order to be “enfranchised,” to gain “rights” most of us never think twice about—the right to vote, to work for the government, to live where we choose, to purchase and consume alcohol if we choose, to marry whomever we choose without the threat of loss of rights, to pay taxes, to own property, to make a will, to hire a lawyer. The rejection of a new concept of “dual citizenship” is an understandable kind of reaction on Matt's part. “You didn't want us; now, we don't want you! Awas!
     Matt and most of his classmates spoke Cree at home and had been speaking solely English at school for close to a dozen years. Not everyone in the class felt the same way he did about Canada, but all were in varying degrees equally proud to be Cree or part Cree, to be part of an ancient and on-going Cree civilization. It was from Matt that I first began to get a glimmer of understanding about what the term First Nations means. The Cree were a nation before Canada ever existed, with their own language and their own culture. They were and still are a nation, and proud of it. And furthermore, that the Cree nation, every First Nation, is composed of individuals who each have their own opinions.


At that school on the reserve, I worked within a provincial curriculum, guided over the years by administrators in the nearest city, Thompson, who were in turn guided from the provincial capital, Winnipeg, through the local principal. (Over the years, I served under at least three different principals, one of them, ironically, from Bradwardine, Manitoba.) A parent advisory committee offered the principals advice, although the committee never met with teachers. It was so many years ago that every school day, we were compelled to open with “The Lord's Prayer.” At school I hesitantly spoke up to suggest that, for me, and perhaps too for some of my Cree students, I felt “The Lord's Prayer,” compulsory, was an imposition on my right to freedom of religion.
     “What the hell are you talking about?” the principal retorted. “ 'The Lord's Prayer' is non-denominational!”
     Oh my God, am I here all alone? I was in my Bob Dylan “Desolation Row” stage.
    “ 'The Lord's Prayer' is Christian,” I replied meekly, leaving him to wonder, or not, whether I was telling him I was Jewish or atheist or Buddhist. He didn't give a damn, and he didn't see my point. One of his minions spoke up, pounding the nail in farther: “And furthermore, it is the law!” I think he, being from a more easterly province, had just read the Manitoba Schools Act.
A casual conversation a few days later with one of the parents on the advisory committee met with similar indifference. “Being forced to pray doesn't hurt the children,” she assured me. Okay. She was not the parent who lead resistance to the powwow-dancing group in town, on the grounds that it reflected a pagan past that was better left buried.
     It was years later before a high school student in the South, not yet burdened with student debt or the necessity to mollify principals or employers, led the battle to oppose compulsory prayer and the discrimination against individual students who objected. They were banished from the classroom, forced to stand outside in the hallway where they could contemplate the Christian assumption that if you aren't Christian, it would be better for you and for your society if you were.

My unsuccessful stand to remove compulsory prayer and Christianity from the public school classroom did have one long-term result. For the first time in my life, I was able to say out loud, in public, “I am not a Christian.” I had no idea how liberating that stance would be, regardless of the negative career impact. I had been “raised” an Anglican, had been baptized as an infant and confirmed as a teen. I could still recite the Apostle's Creed. However, I knew that the words were in my head, memorized, but that they were not in my heart. I lived camouflaged within a Christian-dominated culture, my values mostly consistent with my Anglican heritage, but there was a line between culture and faith, a division separating my heritage and my personal commitment. I did not attend church except for weddings and funerals, I probably had not taken communion since I was confirmed. I have never attended a Bible study group, although I do confess to having read the Bible as literature.
     My personal sins of omission also speak volumes about the way culture grows out of faith, but that the two are not synonymous, at least for some people. Culture can exist without religion. Or, as I heard it phrased on the radio the other day, there can be “good without God.” Although it is difficult to disentangle all the religious tendrils clinging to laws and by-laws, and choking social expectations, the liberation which resulted from “I am not a Christian” was surprising. Without a faith which tells you what to believe and how to behave, you are forced to make choices. Private choices, which deal with the body, or with personal relationships. Concepts like masturbation, fornication, adultery, orgasm, birth control, abortion, sacrament, marriage, monogamy, polygamy, divorce, profit-making, tithing, or charity become personal rather than proscribed, personal rather than public, personal rather than legal choices. Morality becomes a constant reaffirmation, actions based upon ethical beliefs about who has the right to choose, what they may choose, under what circumstances and situations, and who has the right to know.
     In teacher training we learned to recognize the different types of reasons we use when making decisions about morality—obeying orders or expectations, fearing punishment, assessing self-interest, desiring to conform and to be accepted, respecting authority by obeying the law and keeping the peace, doing what is best for society, and following higher ethical principles such as justice and respect. [Kohlberg] The pressure to conform and the desire to be accepted by their peers, to belong, are strong in most students of high school age. Literature can open doors for discussion about options and alternatives. Situational ethics perhaps, for it is more difficult to think for yourself, to make your own decisions, than to try to live by society's dictates. Making your own decisions is more like driving without traffic lights or road signs. You have to focus on your destination, your goals and purpose. At every intersection, you have to make the assessment. Which route will take me there most directly, most quickly, most safely? You have to decide for yourself based on your own values, and act accordingly, over and over again.
     Even years later, after I left the classroom, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was being discussed in Canada, some Canadians were having trouble distinguishing between “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion,” the idea that a Canadian can not be assumed to believe or forced to believe in a monotheistic supreme being and a rewards-and-punishments afterlife. However, at the time, the monotheists had the most votes and God sneaked into the Preamble: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.”

To testify to not being Christian also led me to change some of my actions. I try not to ask students for their “Christian” names. I try to avoid using religious terms, especially the word “Christmas.” Save Christmas for the true Christians, I feel, although I insist on celebrating the yule season, the solstice, with evergreens as the pagan symbol of life amidst death which they always were, before Christianity appropriated them. Pagan and Proud, as the t-shirt says. I select greeting cards which stress the season, or ones which feature doves and emphasize Peace. I light candles and string lights as symbols of hope, of life, in the dead of winter, as they have always been. We can retain the rituals, the gift-giving, games and gatherings, threshold ceremonies, festive dances, flowers for weddings and funerals, all the little joys which celebrate our connections, to each other, to the greater Mystery. Nature and the elements, the environment, the cycle of seasons, the land itself, can bring us all together because they are shared experiences which connect us, which welcome all without imposing any one belief, while rejecting the idea that any one individual or group is superior. As Canadian artist Douglas Coupland puts it, speaking of identity, “This wonderful collective bond of landscape.”

I did not know until many years after the fact that I probably would not have been hired to teach on that reserve if I hadn't answered an interview question with “I was raised as an Anglican.” I did not mean to be deceptive. Nor did I realize that when the churches withdrew from teaching in the residential schools, they did so only after deals had been made guaranteeing a sort of equal representation on the public school teaching staffs for teachers from the different faiths. Thus, although it seems as if it should be illegal, the religion of an applicant determined whether or not there was a position available. That was why, in the community, a nun was principal of one of the three schools and teachers were slotted on the roster according to their Catholic or non-Catholic status, de facto if not de jure.
     Years later, when I was being interviewed for possible employment with the Correctional Service of Canada, the interviewer asked about religion. I believe he was trying to sniff out religious fanatics motivated to work in prisons to rescue society's rejects and save sinners. But by that time, I had a practiced answer: “I'm not religious, but I do consider myself to be spiritual.” I keep the "Pagan and Proud" to myself.


As part of a reading and critical thinking exercise for an English lesson, I clipped an article from a Winnipeg paper which reported upon the success of the local Cree-language radio station on the reserve. Broadcasting from the community, the modern technology was being used by trappers to keep in touch with home, by families to send messages from town to those who were “on the land.” As a by-product, the use of Cree in telecommunications was helping to maintain the numbers of people who continued to be fluent in the mother tongue.
     But the reaction of the students reading the article surprised me. “Who is this 'they'? Do they think we are all trappers and live in wigwams or trapper cabins?” I read the article as a news report, informing the Southerners and city dwellers of innovations in the North. The students read it as “othering,” evidence that outsiders saw them as somehow different, maybe backwards, living in almost the same way the Cree lived when the first Hudson's Bay Company traders arrived three hundred years before. “Don't people know that we also speak English, that we live in houses with telephones, drive snowmobiles, trucks, and cars, that some of us have jobs in schools and hospitals, or as commercial fishermen, whatever?”
     I sensed a certain tension in the class. Students were asserting that “We're not that different.” At the same time, there was ambivalence. They wanted to be the same. Or they wanted to be seen at least as equal to the modern people elsewhere, especially in the South.
    I also realized that living as they did in the largest reserve community in the province, going to school with their siblings and relatives, people they had known all their life, sprinkled sparsely with the fairer heads of students whose parents were teachers or doctors or police officers, these students rarely experienced any form of prejudice or discrimination by other races. They certainly did not experience the antagonism expressed against First Nations people in the cities, although one boy, sent south for medical treatment, reported that his landlady had asked him not to sit on the front porch, to avoid being centred out by her neighbours. Indeed, most of the children of White families on the reserve were sent out to school, or the parents transferred out when the children reached school age, because, they said, they feared for the development of their children's English language skills.
    How were these local reserve and off-reserve (Metis) students going to cope when they did go out, for further education or seeking employment, especially when they do encounter discrimination?
     Along with ensuring that they master the same curriculum as the southern students, along with encouraging them to read, one of my goals was always to encourage students to feel good about themselves. About their backgrounds. About their bi-lingualism. “Never be afraid to speak up, to express your opinion.” “Accents are in,” although most of the students did not really have accents. “There is something the matter with people who feel that they are superior and that you are inferior.” I wanted to make sure that they knew, the way we try to bully-proof all students, that “It's not you, it's them.”
     That there's something wrong with them, the people who bully and hate.   
     Don't be intimidated. Stand tall. Stand together. Solidarity.
     Celebrate the fact that we are all the same but different.


Another day in class, a member from the local RCMP detachment, in uniform, the yellow stripe down his pant leg, came to speak about careers in the RCMP. At that time he was speaking mainly to the males, although the class was fairly evenly balanced by gender. Also, at that time, he was happy to tell them about the newly-devised program for Native policing. The force was looking to recruit First Nations men to fill Special Constable positions on reserves.
     “Why would these students choose to apply as Special Constables rather that apply through the same channels as everyone else in Canada?” As I asked the question, I did wonder whether there was some racism involved. Were the RCMP assuming that Native students could not compete with all the other high school graduates who wanted to become Mounties? Or worse, did the RCMP assume that Native students did not have the basic academic qualifications to apply through the usual channels? This classroom should have been proof that times were changing. Native students were graduating from high schools in their home communities. Or, worse yet, did the RCMP, like so many others, including Whites in the North, believe that, by definition, the education received in northern, rural, or Native high schools was inferior to that received elsewhere? I notice only now that I failed to stress the equal opportunities for females who may have been interested in a law enforcement career, as the RCMP had already begun hiring females.
     The officer spokesperson did have an answer to my question about why a special program for Native policemen. It seemed that the proposed Native constables were seen as a sort of liaison officer position between police and community. The reason they were designated as “different” was because, for regular RCMP officers, there was a rule against policing in your home community, where you might be more likely to encounter personal or familial conflicts of interest. The Native constables would be expected to police their home communities, where they could be valuable two-way conduits of communication and relationship, like the Metis guides of old. The speaker even suggested that this idea was a reaction to feedback the force got about why Natives did not apply. Because they did not want to leave their home communities for the purposes of training or seeking employment.
    It was true, and is still true, that family ties are strong in Native communities. Employment within a capitalist system demands the willingness to sever family ties, or at least to downplay the value of familial connection and responsibilities, in order to pursue personal career and financial goals. It's part of White culture, the strong work ethic, and the belief that work comes before play. Employment contracts specify an allotted number of days each year an employee may be absent from work to attend to family responsibilities, often specifically, to attend funerals. Everyone working in a reserve school knows that family and community events take priority over school attendance. And family and community ties play a big role in student career choices.
     In the ensuing forty-odd years, the Native constable program has been fazed out and Native applicants enter the RCMP the same way as everyone else. I would feel this were a good thing, if it were not for the class-action lawsuits being filed by female officers, finally standing up, in solidarity, to protest the personal and systemic discrimination they faced in a force that was supposedly “integrated.” Every legal response from the force reported in the media seems to be an attack upon the victims, questioning the credibility of the defendants, making the force sound like a macho domain of men who feel entitled and superior. Of course, this is a by-product of the adversarial positions proscribed by our legal system. A winners versus losers attitude which, I fear, appeals to sexists, to all those who feel themselves superior. Who are also likely to feel superior toward different groups, to discriminate against others for more reasons than gender. Because the truth about abuse is that it is not about the victims. It is about what is wrong with the abusers. And with the systems which attract and protect them.
     What do statistics say about the careers of First Nations recruits in the RCMP over the last forty years? Because news reports suggest that the discrimination behind that thin red para-military line is not limited to sexual harassment.


Before moving up north to teach, I had listened to a few Native speakers and educators talk about their experiences to our “cross-cultural education” class. Then, in the school, in the community, one of those same Native educators came to present an in-service. Thinking about those mysterious Sioux on the reserve once sharing a name with Oak River, my home town, I tried to ask a question about the sundance. The Elder's young assistant, with two long braids resting on his chest, shot me down instantly. Nothing to do with the Cree in whose territory we were sitting. And my question indicated I didn't have a clue what I was talking about—dancing, sun, pain, sacrifice. Pan-Indianism, I learned, is a common mistake among those of us who know nothing. Indians are not all the same. The languages are different. The cultures are different. The rituals are different. Sioux rituals have nothing to do with Cree rituals.
     After the session broke up, I went up to introduce myself to the Elder, to remind him that I had met him a few weeks earlier at the training session in Winnipeg.
     “I'm sorry,” he smiled at me. “All White teachers look alike to me.”
     I believe he was smiling. I know he was teaching.
     Contrary to some definitions, I do not believe that Whites have a monopoly on racism and ethnocentrism.

I did understand the respect for Elders. Didn't my own Elders attempt to instruct me all the time? Didn't my BC grandmother counsel me “to dress for the weather, not the climate,” and didn't she share a story with me about the importance of passing high school mathematics? How she had failed mathematics in her senior year and thus had been denied admission to Oxford? I certainly needed to hear that one when I did.
     And didn't my other grandmother from Bradwardine stress the familiar scripts. “Do unto others the way you would want them to do unto you.” “Play nice; don't hurt.” “Two wrongs don't make a right.” “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” "Mind your manners." As children, we may argue, “That's not fair!” or we may think secretly, “That is hypocritical.” But as adults we realize that these are simple rules which help us live together. We must learn not to confuse our opinions with facts. We must learn that, although it is all right to think for yourself, it is not necessary to share all negative and destructive thoughts. That to do so implies that you think your feelings are more important than the feelings of others your words will hurt. We pretend that our values come from the Bible, from religion, from church, but the conduit is almost always through our Elders in one way or another. In the way my BC grandmother, who attended an Anglican church service three times every Sunday, wrote in my autograph book “May the Peace of Allah abide with thee.” In the way my Manitoba grandmother said she could only think of one verse, “Don't worry, Dear. An oak tree was once a nut too.” It made her laugh, but she refused to write it down. We compromised. “Love many; trust few; always paddle your own canoe.”
     “Books Are Our Elders Speaking” was one slogan I used to attempt to make a connection between “school and book learning” and the teaching methods usually associated with oral traditions. Each time we re-read something we read previously when we were younger, we see different things in it, in exactly the same way that different listeners hear different things in the same Elder's story, or listeners hear different things when they hear the same story told at different times. I wish I had thought to introduce treaty documents as appropriate tools to explore text and subtext, point of view, verbatim versus concept-based note-taking, the gaps between what was intended, what was said, what was understood, and what was written down. And between what was agreed and what was lived up to. The ethics of written documents signed by people in good faith who could not read them. The weight of oral history and alternate methods of remembering and recording.

During my years in classrooms in reserve schools, many Elders came to speak to students. Some of them were there to instruct in the Cree language. Pee Pay Po Paw, and the syllabic shapes which captured the sounds.
Peyak Neso Neyo Niyanan One Two Three Four
Atik Caribou
Atim Dog
Chaschako Pelican
Chi pay Ghost
Iskew Woman
Iskoches Spark
Kakako Raven
Kinosew Fish
Kiwetin North Wind
Kona Snow
Masko Bear
Nichimos Sweetheart
Niska Goose
Nohkom Grandmother
Okimaw Chief
Even to present such a list is a distortion, in roman orthography, informed by the tendency of the English language to begin with nouns, with the naming of things. Students have difficulties with articles (a, an, the) because Cree does not use them; they have trouble with gender because it is communicated in a different way in the Cree language. Cree divides objects into animate and inanimate. Assina, rock, is animate. The earth is alive. For an English-speaker, it's a whole new way of looking at things. An animate universe, imbued with spirit. A world view preserved in a language.
     Astum. Come here. A PeSees. A little bit. Awas. Get lost.
     A teacher's primer.

Some Elders came to class to speak of their years in residential schools. They remembered the big signs at the front door—“No Indian spoken here”—and how they were punished if they forgot, if they ran up to a sibling at recess and spoke in Cree. They remembered feeling hungry, and joked constantly about “meatless Fridays.” Some complained about the half-day system, a half day in classroom and a half day working to produce the food, bring in the wood, etc. This meant that a person could attend school for eight years but achieve a Grade Four equivalent. Some expressed gratitude for the English they were taught, and some, for the instruction in Christianity which they received in residential school. Some of them spoke of children who were hidden away, protected, not only because their parents could not bear to give them up but also because they had been recognized as gifted and their parents could not accept that they be sent to places designed to erase the Cree culture from their brains.
     Although I have never personally heard an Elder disclose being abused, I have no trouble accepting the truth of the painful stories which are finally being shared. We have already listened to and paid money to children similarly abused in church-run orphanages elsewhere in Canada and in Ireland. When children are vulnerable, pedophiles and sadists will take advantage. Some Elders remembered the homesickness, missing their families, and the difficulties of adjusting when they finally did get home.
     The actual building which housed the K-12 community school we were in had been a residential school at one time but the children who had been removed from their parents and home community to attend came from smaller reserves farther inland such as Cross Lake. Other local children attended as day students. Even if not all the families remembered the school as a residential school, the building was old and had been there for some time. Once, during a Grade Twelve discussion on irony, I asked if students could come up with examples from their own lives.
     “How's this?” one guy asked. “This classroom that we sit in for Grade Twelve is the same room I sat in for Kindergarten.”
     He got it.


Did you hear about the farmer's daughter, tap dancing, who slipped, and fell into the sink?

Back in the classroom, it was the students making the jokes, challenging the status quo. “White people don't got no culture” was another early lesson offered to me. The context must have been some sort of English literature discussion. Perhaps a Duncan Campbell Scott poem? “The Forsaken,” a two-part story of an Indian woman, shows her as a young mother, sacrificing herself, fishing to feed her starving male child, and as an old woman, left behind to die. Start with the text, the facts of the story: What happens? Who are the characters? Who made what decisions? What was that person's motivation, his or her moral reasoning? Who is the "persona" telling the tale? What is the setting? How do you know? As a reader, do you believe it? What themes do you think the poet is trying to convey? What makes you think that? What literary devices does he use to get his points across?
     Beyond the story: Historically, did the Chippewa do this to the elderly? Do you detect any anachronisms in the poem? Any culturally inappropriate details? What do you know about Duncan Campbell Scott?
     Opinion: What values are reflected by the persona telling the story? What makes you think so? Note the link between diction (vocabulary) and ethnocentrism. What attitudes are expressed in the poem, towards females, towards death, towards Indians, towards religion? How do you know, what evidence supports your opinion? Is this a story about elder abuse? What might be the attitude of a policeman or an Indian agent if they came upon this scene? Would their attitude be different from Scott's? From the old woman's? From the chief's? How and why?
     Themes: What is meant by the term “noble savage”? Cultural appropriation? Is it possible for Scott to tell a true story about another culture? What is ethnocentrism? What is racism? What about this poem makes you suspect that the writer may have been a racist? What is the difference between fact, fiction, opinion, and truth? What might be the relationship between truth and beauty? Between Chippewa culture and Scott's culture? Is this poem an example of cross-cultural miscommunication? What if the old woman volunteered to stay behind because that was best for the rest of the group? What if her action was a kind of sacrifice, the way soldiers sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the nation? Which is trump? The survival of one individual or the survival of the group?

White people don't got no culture.” I sensed that the boy who offered the challenge needed more information. He seemed to be having difficulty making comparisons between his Cree culture, the contrasting culture in the poem, and what he knew of White culture.
     Although he spoke English and most likely went to church and had been taught by White teachers for twelve years, what he knew of White culture was probably somewhat limited. Television was just arriving; the radio station broadcast in Cree. Most people did some shopping in Thompson, farther north, where they often complained about being followed around stores by floor-walkers. One Native teacher told me how her credit card was refused at one store, on the suspicion that it had been stolen. Most students knew someone, older siblings or parents, who had been sent “outside” to high school. The Whites the student had most exposure to, the transient Whites in his community, were working at the hospital, working at the police station, working at the hotel, the Bay store, the other store, the airport, working (with one exception) at the five or six churches in the community, and working at all the schools. (There were two elementary schools feeding the high school. It was and probably still is the largest reserve in the North.)
     The way these familiar Whites lived seemed to vary very little from the way everyone else lived there in the North. Those Whites who lived on the reserve felt entitled; we ordered in alcohol by mail, refusing to accept that the Band regulation making the reserve dry (an alcohol-free zone) applied to us. (After all, we had no vote on the reserve.) More of the Whites had vehicles, but that's because we had jobs, disposable income. The Whites had flush toilets and hot running water, but that's because the employers supplied housing. Locals used outhouses, and water was heated on the stoves, or with electric immersion heaters stuck into buckets of river water. Some transients voiced their feelings that this technological backwardness was outrageous and proof of the community's inferiority. I felt that what you do with your shit, especially communal shit, or how you construct and finance infrastructure, has more to do with economics than with culture or intelligence. I was somewhat defensive about outhouses since I used one at home until I left for university.
     Defensive is a good word. When this student threw down the gauntlet of  “White culture,” my first reaction was defensive.
     “Yah, but . . .” I blubbered, the first and ALWAYS giveaway of a childish response.


Let's go back to the text, use this poem as document. White culture is: the English language, poetry, story, narrative, literature; history and economics, Forts, traps; religion, God with a capital G; social roles, women as nurturer, self-sacrifice; gender roles, her son the chief, the values you've already identified.
     White culture is: Christmas, I suggested, reaching, grasping first for ritual and religion. (They celebrated Christmas gift-giving at home, and twelve years of Christmas concerts at school.) It would have been more honest to say White culture is Christianity. The poem's title is a Biblical Christian allusion, as is the repetition of "three days," making the old woman a dying god, a Christ-figure. What are the implications of presenting a story of Chippewa culture through the looking-glass of Christian imagery?
     White culture is: English (or French) language. One of the teachers was constantly snapping at students to “Speak White!” More than one or two teachers had first languages other than English or Cree, but all classrooms functioned in English. Does Scott incorporate any Chippewa words? Why or why not? Does such an inclusion change the poem in any way? For whom do you think he wrote this poem?
     White culture is: O Canada; it is parliament in Ottawa, the legislature in Winnipeg, the Band Office in town--a democratic system of representative government, with elected prime minister, premier, and chief.
     White culture is a nuclear family (father, mother, two point five kids) living in a house, a single-family dwelling. Does the poem suggest a rejection of extended or multi-generational family? An end of a nomadic way of life? The dying of a culture, of a race?
     White culture is: ancestral heritage (most often, at that time, British, or at least European) and the rituals and regalia which come with that heritage. In my case, English royalty, crowns, royal weddings, kings and queens wearing ermine-trimmed velvet robes, princes and princesses, castles, navy, army, and mounted police ancestors, farming, hunting, gardening, etc. Cree ancestral heritage includes chiefs, elders, shamans, medicine men, wigwams, shaking tents, story-telling, hunting, snaring, trapping, trading, moosehide clothing, drums, powwows, dancing. (I was not too clear about the differences between Swampy Cree and Plains Cree.)
     White culture is: medicare, a health care system symbolic of the belief that together we help each other, that no one suffers just because they are too poor to pay for medical treatment; welfare, old folks homes, day care, and schools. If these had been available to the Chippewa woman in the poem, would the story have had a different ending? So what really is dying?
     White culture is: European (or Euro-centric, which includes American) art and literature; radio, television, and movies; and classical or folk, country and western, or rock and roll music. Freddy Fender was big on the local radio station at that time, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“ and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and the local boys playing for school dances, proudly calling themselves Cree Nation, were a great rock and roll band.
     White culture is: the work ethic, working for pay, technology, and industrialization. Although most Whites owned canoes or motor boats, the only logical means of transportation in muskeg (other than snowshoes when land and water are frozen), it was frequently heard in staff rooms that “These people never even invented the wheel.” Wheels and the cogs they expanded into seemed to represent the superiority of an industrialized people and, by extension, evidence of inferiority of “Stone Age” people. I was so ignorant that I did not recognize how this was an example of judging one world by the standards of another. Or how the theory of the evolution of cultures--Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Industrial Age--was a self-serving example of European ethnocentrism, the belief that the way Europe did things is the superior way, that the way Whites see and interpret things is the right way. The very definition of racism. The Euro-centric viewpoint has tended to be applied to all other groups on the globe by the expansionist and dominating Europeans who still argue and publish books showing that because they did dominate, that is proof of their superiority. Obviously they were inferior in their ethical treatment of other human beings. And in their compartmentalizing, separating economic from environmental and spiritual concerns. And in their romanticizing, distancing "others" by placing them high upon pedestals or far away, into the forests and wilderness.
     Ethnocentrism permeates the public education system. When geology teaches that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” we use false logic to apply the mantra to human cultures, to tell ourselves that everything develops along the same pattern, from simple to complex. That complex is the best. That even when we are totally ignorant of the complexities of another culture, we assume ours is more complex and thus better.
     Do patterns recur, or do we just choose to see patterns because it makes it easier to process information? Does history repeat itself, or do we merely perceive cycles after the fact, as a way of organizing too much information? I hadn't heard Mark Twain's take on cycles: “History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.” Nor had I yet learned to challenge “the myth of progress,” the corruption of the theory of evolution. The corruption implies that everything later is an improvement upon what went before it. Not necessarily true. Natural selection simply means adaptation; adaptations are only ways of responding to specific circumstances, specific environments; they are not, by definition, an improvement, a better way, superior to all others. Are kangaroos superior? No. They are just different.
     Ethnocentrism was definitely a problem for me; I was having difficulty not judging others by my own values or by patterns I had been taught to see, in my colonized Euro-centric university-educated Canadian culture. And, I was having difficulty identifying the values of others, the invisible values which are learned assumptions seldom spoken or shared outside the group. What if the survival of the group was more important than extending the life of one individual? Who would be brave enough to say that, to risk being labelled as an “elder abuser” the way Duncan Campbell Scott's poem seems to accuse the Chippewa?
     But at the time, I was on a roll. White culture is Food! Ice cream. Chocolate bars. Potato chips. Pop. All big sellers at the Bay. White people eat meat and potato-based meals with fresh vegetables, dessert, and tea or coffee. Brilliant, I thought, thinking of the White co-op which existed on reserve in the early years, Whites pooling their resources and volunteering their time to order and fly in and sort and distribute fresh vegetables for which there was no local demand at the Bay. Once, on a school trip down to Winnipeg, one of the parent escorts was famous for her reaction when the group dined out at the Old Spaghetti Factory. When the waiter placed a heaping bowl of green lettuce salad in front of her, she proclaimed loudly in Cree to the amusement of all the students: “What? Does he think that I am a cow?” Once, as a treat for a St. Patrick's Day supper, a White friend had special-ordered in from Thompson a frozen rabbit to make Irish stew. The local girl clerking at the Bay checkout doubled over with laughter. These crazy White people paying good money for something any boy with a loop of wire could have brought to their door, still warm and fur-covered. Whites grow wheat and grind it into flour to make their bread and desserts. White culture is plain white bread and soda biscuits.
     “What?” The student who instigated the challenge cried. “Now you're even taking our bannock away from us!”
     “Well,” I asked, “what did your people use for flour? Wasn't bannock brought by the Scots fur traders and introduced to the First Nations?”
     What this debate led me to suspect is that, with the sole exception of their Cree language, these people lived a virtually White culture. That they were practically already assimilated. Of course, I was mistaking surfaces for depths. The really important things I could not see. And even if I had been able to identify the strengths of Cree culture, the students and their families would have been, from previous bad experience, suspicious. “Everything the missionaries learn about us, they tell us is wrong and take it away.” For public schools in the twentieth century, the goal was “to teach the skills for the new modern world.” The students could and did spout what they were hearing at home. “The past is the past; it is not the school's job to go there.” And the people at home divided into congregations on Sundays, attending the five or six different Christian churches which serviced the community.
    “Teach them how to think, not what to think,” I kept telling myself.
     What did the students take from this cultural challenge? I cannot say for sure. The boy who instigated the debate certainly never lost his pride. I suspect that he interpreted “culture” as the “traditions” which make people seem different. Like the ethnic costumes at Folklorama. Whereas I saw culture as including everything, the way we live and grow together. He probably realized that my list of White culture contained externals only, outward and visible signs. That I knew nothing of the invisible, the world view, the ethical and spiritual, of the way his people still thought and felt, of what truly made them Cree. Of what they accepted and what they rejected about the dominant culture which had surrounded them.
     What are you doing here? I should have asked myself.
     When students did ask me the same question, my answer was: I'm here to help prepare you to take over this job, and all the other jobs filled here by us transients, I implied.
     Not realizing that that itself was a cultural shift. From "living" to "making a living." That jobs, ways of “making a living,” are inextricable parts of capitalism. Not realizing that I was offering these students, saying it another way: To prepare you to assimilate further into the mainstream Christian Canadian democratic constitutional monarchic capitalist system.
     Again, I was an unwitting accomplice.