Monday, June 15, 2015

What I saw in northern Manitoba




This is an incomplete attempt to spill out a small portion of my experiences in Northern Manitoba this past week. It is a personal reflection as much as anything and I am sharing it because I am not going to have time to have every conversation I would like to. My heart is full to bursting.

All the background you need on this piece is to understand that since the 1960s, Manitoba Hydro has run roughshod over the treaty rights, human rights and wishes of indigenous communities across northern Manitoba. They have flooded hundreds of square kilometers of Cree territory, destroyed sacred sites and polluted the waterways of the province. The Cree are doing their best to confront this situation but the greed, rapacity and dishonesty of Manitoba Hydro and successive provincial governments (many of them NDP) has made it a difficult task. For more information, watch Green, Green Waters.


                There are really no words for what I saw in Northern Manitoba, which is awkward, because I was engaged to come on the trip in my capacity as a writer. Unlike words like ‘self-involved’, ‘pretentious’ or ‘alcoholism’, ‘humility’ isn’t a word generally associated with writers. For me personally, it’s also a word I might know socially but rarely have into my home unless I am making a general invitation and it would be rude to exclude it. But this is a trip that humbled me. So I guess that’s the first word I have for it: humbling.

                I know the kind of poverty porn that people expect to read about the north. I am sure I could do a very credible imitation of George Orwell writing ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ if that’s what I wanted to do. Why not wax poetic about the evils of modern life and how it has ruined the pristine wilderness? If so inclined, I could tell a tragic tale about a simple, honest folk ruined by the sinister machinations of industrial civilization. But I have another word for that: no.
                That is not the story I am going to tell because it is not what I saw in the north. That isn’t to say things aren’t bad in ways, up there. But it would be a faithless thing to spin a sad story for guilty southern consciences. People in the north live for themselves, after all, not to provide fodder for human interest stories. So here is what I saw:

                Hope. I can’t count the ways that this is the word I have carried south with me. I am the kind of person who, if confronted with a stubborn jam jar, will give up on croissants altogether. In northern Manitoba I met people who were fighting their own band councils, the provincial government, the provincial hydro utility and the federal government all while coping with the legacy of the residential school system and the damage caused to their way of life by the flooding of the north. Croissants were not even on their radar.

                I will say very plainly that I saw more fight in any given pair of eyes up there than I usually see at a year’s worth of protests and demonstrations in Toronto. For me, determination is when the liquor store is closed and I have to walk the extra few blocks to the Beer Store.

                If I am in the process of applying for a job and I see that their ideal candidate has a qualification I don’t possess, I get discouraged and lie down to nap in a pile of comics books. If animals returned to my trapline after a long absence only to be driven off by Hydro cutting another fucking power line corridor through the heart of the boreal forest, I'd be done. I would not keep fighting.  If my cousin was out on the lake my family had fished on for generations and died when he hit a tree left there by the ecological disruption caused by hydro dams, I would never go back on that lake. If there was an international scientific debate raging about whether or not the level of mercury in the fish I caught would kill me, I would likely pre-empt it by drowning myself in a river of gin. I would not keep fishing. I would not keep trapping. I would not keep fighting. But there in the north, so many are doing exactly that. How, I can’t help but wonder, do they do it?

                So there’s another word for you, though it’s just my pet theory: community. When I was a little boy I would see my aunts and uncles, my nana and papa, at Christmas, Easter, etc. I did not live every day with them. They were not a part of my immediate family or community. In the north I saw older children minding younger ones, grandparents caring for grandchildren, elders treated with the quiet reverence that they’d earned in their long lives.
               I come from a world where many people couldn’t tell you their grandmother’s maiden name. I came across a collective memory that stretched back almost to contact, where family was an essential fact of life in the same way as food and shelter. In some of these communities, food and shelter were less of a given than family. When you are living in a world where the state is pursuing a deliberate policy of kidnapping your children, severing their ties to the community and sending them to grow up with strangers, I think family must take on an importance it is difficult for us to understand – especially when that genocidal policy has been in place for generations.
                
        This has been an emotionally exhausting trip, but it has also been very encouraging. When we filed into a school auditorium to hear fiddling, watch square dancing and subsequently cram our faces with moose stew and bannock, it was a comfort. There were parents and grandparents attending the assembly, held indoors due to inclement weather. The kids watched eagerly and as attentively as kids can manage. The adults beamed with pride. I felt at ease and there wasn’t even an open bar!

                At another school, we watched a keen music class work their way through the Cree Hymn (I think?) on violin. They begged the teacher to be able to perform, maybe because their former pottery teacher and all around art world rock star K CAdams had made a triumphant return to their lives. She was practically mobbed by eager children as we made our way around the school accompanied by the the acting chief and a councilwoman. I have spent more time smiling in the past week than the rest of the year to date.

                Truthfully, I think the kids had a lot to do with that. They were everywhere we went, in people’s homes and public buildings, playing and swimming and ever in abundance. Even where they weren’t, the children and grandchildren occupied a place of importance in political discussions. There was mourning for what had been lost, and acknowledgment of traumas endured. But nothing seemed so important to elders and activists as the future, and the children to whom it would belong. In our society I think that ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ is a sneer at moral panic. In the communities we visited it was a sacred trust. I wish I could have brought it south with me.

                There’s a word for all that, even though it’s awful old fashioned: love. So mostly that is what I saw in the north, because it filled my eyes in a way that made all the pain and hardship and crimes of the south seem ephemeral. I did my best to bear witness and maybe I got the wrong idea but I that I sincerely believe that the love I saw in those communities – love for each other and for the land – is going to win out over whatever bullshit the south ships north. Do what you want with that.
                So that’s what I saw in the north. If you want to know what I heard in the north, there are two things I’d suggest. The first is to wait for us to publish our comic on hydro-impacted communities in the north, so you can read what I heard elders, activists and damned decent people say about their communities and the history there. The second is to listen for the sound where you expect a waterfall to be, but hear only silence.