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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portage and Main - 3


He walked across the 10 by 10 living room and into the smaller kitchen. He found the cleanest dirty glass from the sink and opened the fridge door to grab the water jug. It was only thing inside the gloomy and unsanitary interior other than a mummified onion and a nearly empty jar of salsa topped with a thick grey fuzz.

Is that blood? That’s blood.
The jug was empty.
“Shit.”

Ryan turns to the sink and opens the cold water tap which sputters to life as though it does not appreciate being woken from its slumber. No one has asked for the water on this day. It will hiss and sputter all the way to the top.
It chugs and vomits out rust colored liquid for a moment and soon it is urine colored and soon enough it is clear. He fills the cup and then drinks like he is gasping for air. He hacks some back up as he fills the cup a second time. It’s already working. He puts the jug under the tap and fills it to about a cup and then puts it on the counter and shuts off the water.

He heads to the shower without putting the jug back in the fridge. The shower water is lukewarm and the pressure is non existent. He squeezes a final drop of shampoo out of the bottle and stares ruefully at the full bottle of conditioner that he got a great price. As he massages the foam into his scalp mindful of working the thin and empty spots he recalls the first times he had come into the city on the bus.

It was an exciting and scary place. It was where you would meet people who were coming in and out of the city. This was before the brothers were old enough to go to the Manor and The Savoy.
It was at the bus depot where he had been busted for his first real crime. He still felt bad about it. After all these years.

He had committed other crimes since that one. But that was one he considered to be a real crime. Everything else was something that he figured he had the right to do. No man should tell another man how to live. This was what he believed.
He was sure those words came from Old Lodgeskins from Little Big Man, but he couldn’t be sure about that. Either way, he knows he heard it in a movie and that it was a Hollywood writer’s version of what he thought was the summation of Native American philosophy and as far as Ryan was concerned the writer had nailed it.

He and Laurence had stolen chocolate bars from the convenience store at the bus depot on their grade 9 school trip. It was wrong and they were humiliated. Dad was humiliated. Teased when out with the men. That wasn’t the worse part. Father Marcien preached a cruel and judgmental teaching on the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” It brought shame upon the family because it happened out there. Amongst the white people.

That’s how our communities are. No one will ever forget any mistake that you make. This was part of the ongoing history of residential school. You are either being judged or you are the judge. You are the sinner or the condemner. Make a mistake and we will never forget.

That’s how it was with the church. Poor Noah. He listens to the craziest message left by God and he follows through on it. He builds the Ark and loads the animals and saves all the creatures from the Great Flood. Later in the Bible he gets hammered and he wanders around naked and someone puts that in the book. That’s not cool. Not cool.

*

There was no bus serving the neighbourhood on Sundays. Ryan stood looking up as the words “not in service” tracked in an endless loop.  It was the same posture he held each morning as he caught the bus downtown to the Millennium Library.
He took a deep drag of his cigarette. It would be the last one until he got back up north although he was likely to bum a smoke at the stop in Lundar. If there were Neechies smoking, he would be good. If it was only Whites they would expect a toonie. One usually just held the coin out and got either a nod or a shake although someone would usually shout out “Here!” and be reaching for their pack as they walked towards you.
He took in a deep drag filling his lungs to capacity and then spewing out the obnoxious miasma.
It was a crime. It was also a shitty thing to do. But the fact was there was no bus service and it was cold as fuck outside. So he smoked his smoke inside the bus shelter with adolescent defiance. This was a good smoke. He had not had a good smoke in a long time.
A car turned left down the street and his good feeling disappeared. He cupped the cigarette into his hand like an adolescent. What the hell? He was old enough not to give a fuck but that changed when he moved onto Scotia Street. He had never seen so many cop cars patrol a street in his life. It wasn’t policing. It was security.
Some of the oldest richest homes are on this street along the Red River and some of the finest crackhouses are just a stone’s throw away.
He looked to the right.  Down this street was the Battle of Seven Oaks. It was there that the Metis Flag, the infinity flag is officially recorded in the history books of Canada. In was 1816, a generation before there was a country and almost 150 years before the Maple Leaf flew over Parliament. If you followed this street on the way to Kildonan Park you will pass a marker, a plaque on the corner. Not much. Truth be told and if you don't know where it is, you are not going to find it.
Also along this street there is a beautiful little resting area with a park bench and a flower garden and one of the few places where one can sit along the banks of the Red River. Here there is another plaque for a nuclear physicist that may have saved the lives of his colleagues or who may have caused the accident in a Homeresque error. It depends if you wanted to believe the plaque or the Wikipedia page.

It was cold that much was sure. Ryan dropped the smoke on the floor and crushed it with his feet. It would be 30 minutes if he made good time, 40 if he was slow.

***






Monday, June 9, 2014

Jonah, The Bill Collector

The bill collector had a Manitoba area code and his name was Jonah. My co-worker handed me the note and shrugged his shoulders in apology. I gave him the no problem nod and wave. I took the note home with me, this wasn't something to be dealt with at work.

I have been reading the Bible in a random manner. I thought this was a reason to read the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shorter books and that didn't hurt. From what I could recall the story of Jonah was about how the Creator had saved Jonah's life after he had been swallowed by a whale or giant fish. Jonah's faith in the Creator and his various good deeds and positive outlook was rewarded.

It turns out that the story I remembered is most likely based on the illustrated version for kids that kept the messages simple. I never did any serious reading of the Bible as an adult until I read Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis about five years ago. It is an exceptional telling of this text and the illustrations brought everything to vibrant and steamy life.

In reading the Book of Jonah, our hero runs away when the Creator has charged him with the duty of preaching to the people in the city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn't want to do this and he jumps on a ship and heads out to the sea. A storm is waged upon the ship of such ferocity that everyone aboard knows that they are being cursed by a higher power and they all pray to their various gods to no avail.

They draw lots at this time trying to decipher who has brought this cursed storm about their vessel. It is Jonah who pulls the lot and finally at this time he admits that he is fleeing the command of his God. Understandably the people on the ship don't think this is very cool and Jonah is cast overboard. Jonah is swallowed by the whale and the seas become calm.

Inside the whale, Jonah prays for forgiveness and says that he will fulfill his calling. The whale spits Jonah up on dry land and he goes about preaching the word to the people of Nineveh. He tells them that the city will be overthrown in the next 40 days. He convinces the people of the city even to their king to fast and wear sackcloth and sit in ashes. The Creator sees that many of the people of the city are repenting and Nineveh is spared. "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was very angry."

Jonah was preaching the end of days for the people of Nineveh and he was angry that the Creator did not bring it about. Jonah then goes and sits outside the city and stares at it with anger and pretty much pouts for the rest of his life. Jonah could not offer to others the forgiveness given to him by the Creator.

This is not the story that I knew. I wondered what else I had misunderstood about the Bible. That weekend a Jehovah's Witness came by the house and found me outside working in the garden. He provided the proper pronunciation of Nineveh and suggested I read the book of St. Matthew, which is the story of Christ. I said I would.

I soon came across a discrepancy that I find almost revolutionary. In the Bible, when Jesus says the Lord's prayer he says, "Give us this day our daily bread and forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors."

I had always known the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses as those who trespass against us." If someone trespasses against you that doesn't mean they owe you a debt. In the difference, the lesson is less if not lost. Jesus was anti-capitalism. He didn't just tip over the money changers tables once, he did it twice.

Not sure what all that means, but I'm pretty sure Jonah the Bill Collector is going to be disappointed.


Epilogue

I take the call the next time it comes into the office. Jonas, his real name, apologizes for calling at work and asks if I am the Mr. Morrisseau that lived on Cathedral in Winnipeg. I say no. He then adds a so to his first sorry and I hang up.

It wasn't for me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I am the Metis Nation

When I think of the Metis Nation. I think of my family and my communities. I don't think of a big office in the city and a fancy hotel room in some other city. I think of grandma and granny and grandpa and grandpa and mom and dad and my aunties and my uncles and my brothers and my sisters and my cousins and my cousins and our babies and babies and babies.

If you grew up in the Metis Nation in Manitoba this is how it was. There were Metis kids on this side of the river and Indian kids on the other side of the river. We didn't really notice that much when we were little because we just mostly played with our cousins and whoever was closest on our side of the water. At school it didn't seem to matter. When we got to be teenagers we knew we could run around with the teenagers on the other side of the river. We were not likely cousins but we were also possibly cousins.

When I took my first real job working on the gang for CN. I worked with Metis guys and Indian guys and the story checked out. There would be a Metis community near a First Nation usually across a river. I did not know that it wasn't that way for the rest of Canada until I went to the University of Western Ontario and saw the First Nations in that territory.

In our family we are connected to the two distinct Metis Nation groups in Manitoba. In Crane River our family in the south are part of the Metis Nation that are Anishinaabe (Saulteaux, Ojibway), French, Roman Catholic and affiliated with the Northwest Company. In Grand Rapids our family was Cree Scottish and Anglican and were connected to the Hudson Bay Company.

My childhood on the prairies in my father's community was a life where the living was still off the land in harvesting, hunting, fishing and farming. In my mother's community the people lived off the river, the lake and the bush and our family still lived on Metis Scrip land along the shores of the North Saskatchewan.

We were told we had no rights and Metis people who were out hunting, fishing or harvesting were breaking the law. We were raised with a pride in both avoiding the government and not being beholden to the government. It was the Metis Way. No one was going to help us but no one was going to stop us from helping ourselves.

These days our once thriving Metis communities are fading away and no one seems to care. In Crane River, it is though the community survives despite great neglect that sees few opportunities and little reason to stay for the youth.

In Grand Rapids my mother's generation saw their way of life bulldozed into nothing while Manitoba Hydro built it's first dam. Our family and perhaps others had scrip on that land and yet today there is a road and buildings on land that was once Metis Nation land. Only a fraction of scrip land still remains within the family.

Last year the Metis won their land claim at the Supreme Court and recently the Federal Court of Appeal has refused to challenge a ruling that says that Metis are the same as First Nations and Inuit and should be afforded equal rights and supports. The 1.4 million acres promised in the Manitoba Act should allow historic Metis communities the same services and rights afforded the neighbouring First Nation.

Land owned by individuals could be deemed Metis Nation land which means that it would no longer be taxed and although the land could be sold it could only be sold with the Nation. It would always be Metis Nation land. Communal lands and Individual lands would create Metis Nation Homelands similar to those in Alberta.

Once territories have been established in which Metis communities have been identified for the 1.4 million acres, economic development can occur utilizing all models available to Inuit and First Nations.

This needs to be followed by identifying fair traditional land use practices. It is a shared resource but one in which Metis right have only recently been acknowledged as equal to First Nations and Inuit. After the Powley case established that Metis do have the same harvesting rights as the other Indigenous Peoples of Canada the Supreme Court of Canada made it clear that those harvesting rights are connected to historic Metis communities.
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Revitilizing our home communities is essential to the future of the Metis Nation.

Our Metis Flag is the oldest flag recorded in Canadian history as it was flown by Cuthbert Grant at the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, a generation before Canada existed and almost 150 years before the Canadian flag flew these skies.

We are at another great moment in our history and we need to take the time to gather our voices and this should take place in our communities. We need to have Homecomings in our communities and identify our families and our connection to those historic communities. The grandmas know their children and grand children and great grand children.



*


"Appropriate a portion of such ungranted lands, to the extent of one million four hundred thousand acres thereof, for the benefit of the families of the half-breed residents, it is hereby enacted, that, under regulations to be from time to time made by the Governor General in Council, the Lieutenant-Governor shall select such lots or tracts in such parts of the Province as he may deem expedient, to the extent aforesaid, and divide the same among the children of the half-breed heads of families residing in the Province at the time of the said transfer to Canada, and the same shall be granted to the said children respectively, in such mode and on such conditions as to settlement and otherwise, as the Governor General in Council may from time to time determine."

Manitoba Act 1870





*

Who are the Metis? 
What is the Metis Nation? 
I am Metis. 
I am the Metis Nation.


***

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Portage and Main - 2

When Ryan got up that morning, he knew before his eyes were open that the math was against him. He didn’t have the cash. He had to walk. It wasn’t that far. He had done it dozens of times.

Tick tick. Tick tick.

He could smell fresh cigarette smoke rising up through the century old floor from the room below. Rooney was smoking. If he was awake, the man was smoking. He would smoke until he died.That was taking a lot longer than Ryan had thought it would. It’s weird about some people. It’s as though smoking helps them live longer. He talked to the guy once since he had moved into the unit..

His accent was English in the way that must have been very identifiable but Ryan couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t My Fair Lady. It would be like trying  to tell the difference between a Scottish and an Irish brogue or Australian and New Zealand based on movies. Maybe he was Welsh. Ryan was sure the second hand smoke was taking two days from his life for every day he stayed at the place. It was like living above an old dragon that no longer killed with violence but breathed out poisonous fire, smoke and brimstone all day long while waiting to pass away. He had the voice for it.

His eyes popped open and it felt like he had been slapped on the back of the head. 

He didn’t know why he had become such a poisonous thinker; the kind of person who looked at life with such bitterness. He shook that from his mind. 

It’s because you’re an asshole and you’re too fucking old to do anything about it.

That’s why Rooney smoked all the time. It wasn’t that he had lost his fair maiden to a prince. He just didn’t give a shit anymore. The poison became thicker.

Tick tick. Tick tick.

Who was he kidding? He had smoked far worse in this unit than old Rooney did down below.  At least as far as he knew; who knew anything about anyone these days? A chill ran through his body and he could feel the cold sweats soaked deep into the mattress lurking like a gelatinous ghost, biological and phantasm. 

His body shivered and his memory was cast into darkness. It was the days of suicide and Ryan had smoked and drank with the intention of that night being the last one. He changed his mind but when he came to his senses he had lost the sun. He would be passed out all day long until he would awaken to see the last rays of light sink away with cruelty. 

He desperately wanted to stay awake to meet the day, but he could not get through the night sober and nearly drowned in darkness. The memory roared through his body with more purpose and settled with a clammy grip in his shoulders. He shook his head as the hair on his arms rose and he felt the twinge in the broken rib that never healed properly.  

Drinking. Drinking. Drinking.  

He flashed to his brother Laurence. His face was right into his face and back into his face. He was him in that smile. And they laughed. “A man who drinks like that….He’s going to die.” Big gulp of water. “When?” 

His brother could quote all of Blazing Saddles to him it was hilarious, to Ryan it was the most honest history of the United States on film. The line, “We will take the Chinks and Niggers…but we won’t take the Irish” really had an impact on him. He recalls being offended when he first heard it. It was shocking that a White Man was put in category lower than a Man of Colour. It made him think about himself.

He smiles in the dark and shifts the blankets squeezing out whatever comfort they offer. He pulls his arms into his body and rubs his legs together until the chill of the memory retreats.

The wind picked up outside with a sharpened scream and reclaimed his attention. It was going to be wicked cold but once he got to Portage and Main he would take the underground maze into the warmth. It made the walk farther but it would be out of the wind.  

Tick tick. Tick tick.

He rolled on his side and reached for his device. It was 8:47. He had almost two hours. He rolled into a sitting position but did not touch his bare feet to the hardwood floor which would be cold as concrete. In the murk, he sighted his moccasins and reached outward delicately with his left foot. The tips of his toes felt the fur lining. He slipped in his foot pressing against the floor with the ball to secure the slipper.

The soft leather was cold but was beginning to warm as his heat connected to the life force that remained in the moose hide. The drum on the wall made a ping in affirmative and Ryan nodded his head in reflexive acknowledgement. With his right foot he hooked into the other moccasin and lifted it up and across his knee and snugged it tight with his left hand taking time to feel the comfort of the rabbit fur between his fingers.

He crossed his left foot up and snugged the other moccasin with his right hand. This time he held the fur between his fingers longer and he tried to find a memory. He spun the silk of the fur and then traveled deeper to the supple strength of the moose hide.  He ran his hand over the sheen of the moccasin bottom. It was worn smooth and thinner from the wear and weight but somehow seemed stronger and more impenetrable.

He ran his hands up onto the beadwork. The flower beadwork people. He could see his Grandmother smile. He brought his hand back to the fur trim and with practiced delicacy he grasped as much of the fur trim as possible with all five fingertips. And with gentle and determined pressure he ran his fingers back and forth along the fur trim. His thumb and middle finger rubbed and pulled upon each other on the edge of the moose hide and then were brought up to his nose and breathed in with deep hunger.

It was still there. The smoke of the hide and the life and sweat and the prayers and the dreams and the life of all and the feeling that sometime somewhere ago it was all the way it was supposed to be. He tried to reach out towards Grandpa and find that story about the days gone by that would help him get up and get on with the day. He could feel a warm hand at the base of his neck gently pushing him forward. He could picture the smile and he could smell the smoke. It was the moosehide and the smoke and something else. Something burning.

Cigarette.
“Shit.”
Ryan put his foot on the floor with a bang and then pulled his quilt around his shoulders and stood up.
“Fuck you, Rooney.” He muttered.
A long fit of coughing and hacking greeted upwards.
It was going to be a long day. 

Tick tick. Tick tick.

He could hear the monkey dancing.
There would be no sunshine on this day but the solar powered monkey on the window sill was swinging side to side.

Tick tick. Tick tick.
It danced with its little brown arms stretched upwards and reaching to an invisible sun. 

***