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Rock Reject

Rock Reject

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : political
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Excerpt

In the morning Peter opened the curtain to six inches of snow piled up on the window ledge. He felt empty as he remembered how it had been the year before in Toronto. Mid October, warm sun, red and yellow leaves falling. He and Rose with their guitars, on a bench by the playground in Christie Pits. Children watching as they made music together. Without thinking his hand came up and slapped the side of his face, startling him away from the memory. He turned from the window and began to dress for work. His miner’s boots looked huge with their thick felt liners and bulbous steel toes. They’re like clown’s shoes, he thought as he clumped through the snow to the cookhouse for breakfast, anxiety knotting his insides. He made himself eat, hoping the food would settle his stomach, then followed a group of men to the Mine Dry. A toe of his boot caught the edge of the stairs up into the wood frame building and he fell on his outstretched hand, sending a stab of pain through his wrist and his hard hat into the snow. Three men passed him as he got up and brushed himself off. He avoided their eyes, nothing was said, and he entered the building behind them. Inside was a large room that smelled of sweat and machine oil. Men stood by rows of benches lowering grimy coveralls and heavy jackets that hung from baskets suspended by pulleys attached to the high ceiling. They were changing out of their clean clothes which they put into the basket, then hauled on a rope to hoist the basket back up. Peter pulled a tag from his pocket with the number of his basket on it, but as he had unknowingly changed into his work clothes in his bunkhouse room, he edged to the wall by the entrance and leaned against it to wait. Beyond the benches an opening revealed a tiled shower room. A door to Peter’s left said “Management Personnel Only,” and a window next to it looked into a room where men in white hardhats leaned over a table covered with charts. A few men stood waiting in front of the window and others joined them as they finished dressing for work. The window swung open. “Alright, listen up.” Peter wondered about the accent. English? Australian? He edged closer to see. “Mine Superintendent” was on the front of the man’s white hat, a sharp nose, clipped moustache and starched brown shirt underneath. He flipped through pages on a clipboard. “We’re falling behind on our production targets for the month, and things better pick up this week. There’s too much goddamn lag time between drilling, blasting and mucking-out. I want to see the machines moving in quicker between each operation and I especially want to see you goddamn truck drivers haul ass up out of the pit to the crusher. I want things moving up there. Understand?” There were muttered obscenities from the crowd of miners. A strong voice boomed from behind Peter’s shoulder. “Piss off, De Vleit. I know the mine regulations as well as you do, and we move at the speed that’s allowed.” Peter glanced behind him and saw a man a head taller than himself. His moustache was long and ragged, and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. He wore rimless glasses and a red hard hat with a Union logo on the front, above the words Shop Steward. He pointed a thick finger at the superintendent. “You’re telling us to risk our fucking lives up there while the Company negotiators are telling us to go screw ourselves over a wage increase.” The superintendent’s face hardened. “You and your goddamn Union aren’t running this mine, McGuinness. I’m running this mine and you do what I tell you to do.” He paused and his fingers went to the collar of his shirt, then smoothed across his moustache. “And that goes for every goddamn one of you. Now, here’s today’s assignments, and let’s get mining.” He called each man’s name with their orders. Peter’s was last. “It’ll be Rock Reject for you, Stevens.” He looked Peter up and down. “See how you like swinging a shovel. Look for Clarkson, the foreman, he’ll show you what to do. Get going, the man-haul bus is here.” Peter hurried out of the building. Men were filing out of what looked like an old school bus and they passed him going into the Mine Dry, their faces dirty and bleary-eyed after working the night shift. Peter’s shift began boarding the bus and he joined the line. A few steps away he saw Koopman looking his way and he half-raised a hand in hello but Koopman ignored him. Peter dropped his eyes to the beaten-down snow on the ground, stuck his hand into the pocket of his new work coat and waited for his turn to climb onto the bus. He found an empty double seat in the back, sat and stared out the window. The bus bounced along the potholed road to the foot of the mountain then began to climb, slowing to a crawl at each sharp switchback where muddy snow was piled high. As they gained altitude he could see all of Stikine: the Administration Building, the Mill and a dozen other buildings clustered at one end, all dwarfed by the massive bulk of the tailings pile, and all partly obscured by the haze of dust drifting from it. A strip of forest stood between the plant and the townsite, with the bunkhouses, the cookhouse, the store, the bar, and then rows of streets with single houses. They climbed higher and soon he could see far down the valley and the mountains stretching to the horizon, their peaks glowing in the low morning sun. He remembered a family trip to the Rockies, sitting in the backseat looking out at a wilderness valley, the hum of the road running through his twelve-year-old body. The smell of his mother’s perfume and his father’s aftershave filling the car. Wanting the trip never to end. He was startled when McGuinness sat down beside him. “Dave McGuinness, your Union president.” He offered a hand that dwarfed Peter’s. “I’m Peter,” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Peter Stevens.” “Good to meet you. Where are you working?” “He told me to go to Rock Reject to shovel.” McGuinness shook his head. “There’s a futile fucking job. I did my share of it before I started driving truck.” He glanced down at Peter’s hands resting on his legs, at his long thin fingers. “I hope you’ve got good gloves with you. Shovelling that shit all day will tear up your hands pretty quick.” Peter curled his hands into fists and slipped them into his coat pockets. “I got a pair in the store yesterday.” McGuinness smiled and his moustache draped over his top teeth. “Most guys do fuck all in Rock Reject, so don’t bust a gut trying to get much done.” “Won’t that piss off the superintendent?” Peter asked. “De Vleit. Don’t get me started on that asshole. The Company brought him here from their operation in South Africa, and he’s been trying to treat us like he treated the miners there. I think it drives him crazy that he can’t have us whipped.” Peter smiled. He felt like laughing out loud to release the tension he felt, but he stayed quiet. The bus pulled to a stop in front of a battered plywood building. “We’re here,” McGuinness said. “That’s the Mine office. There’s a heater in there if you need to get out of the cold.” He handed Peter a booklet. “Here’s the contract with the Company, the collective agreement. It’s got all your rights in it. We’re bargaining for a new one with a wage increase but the Company’s taking a hard line. Come to the meeting next Wednesday and you’ll hear a report on the negotiations. The more we’ve got the membership behind us, the stronger we’ll be.” Peter followed him off the bus. McGuinness pointed to a white pickup truck parked across the road. The driver wore a white hardhat and was talking on a radio. “There’s Clarkson. He’ll show you what to do. If you’ve got any problems with your job, come find me.” Peter tried to think of something to say, a question to ask that would keep McGuinness with him longer but nothing came into his mind. He stood for a moment watching him head towards a line of immense dump trucks parked along the edge of the rock-strewn roadway with their engines running, then he turned and walked over to Clarkson’s pickup. The foreman was still talking on his radio so Peter stood to the side and waited while snow swirled around him. A horn blared behind him and he turned to see one of the dump trucks bearing down on him, its tires far taller than he was. The truck thundered past as he ran to the edge of the roadway, then two more followed behind, the roar of the engines and the crashing of the empty boxes on the truck beds vibrating through him. He watched as the trucks disappeared down a steeply sloping road, then took a deep breath to try and calm his shaking insides. A mound of earth and snow four feet high ran along the edge of the road. He put one foot on the mound to brace himself and looked over it across a pit, the far side two hundred yards away and just visible through the blowing snow. The top of the mountain had been sliced off and its centre hollowed out. He leaned forward to look down, staring in amazement into the massive hole in the earth. The pit narrowed as it deepened, with five huge benches ringing the inside. A steep roadway went from bench to bench and he saw the dump trucks banging their way down the hundreds of feet to the bottom level, where a giant shovel sat facing a wall of earth. The bottom of the pit slowly faded from his view as snow began to fall harder. A door opened and shut behind him and he turned to see Clarkson standing in front of his pickup. “You the new labourer?” He looked at a sheet of paper from his pocket. “Stevens?” Peter liked his voice. It had an easiness that made him relax. “That’s right. I’m supposed to go to Rock Reject.” “Into the dungeon.” He gave Peter a quick smile as he stuck the paper in the back pocket of his jeans, then gestured with his head, “Follow me.” He was tall, his strides long, and Peter hurried to keep up. Fifty yards along they came to a battered plywood building perched on the edge of the road opposite the pit. Its front was mostly open to the road, and it extended several hundred feet down the side of the mountain in the direction of the townsite, somehow clinging to the steep slope. Out of the bottom emerged the tramline of buckets that he had seen from below the day before. A dump truck drove past, then stopped and backed up to the edge of the open front of the building and tilted up its box, sending a cloud of dust into the air as the load fell inside. Clarkson waved to the driver and climbed up the ladder on the side of the truck to speak to him while Peter waited, looking up the twelve or more feet to where the two men were talking. The wind gusted a heavy flurry of snow against his back and he shivered as it melted on his neck. A few feet away a battered door hung crookedly on the side of the building, and he went through it to get out of the wind. The door led directly onto a steel grate walkway that skirted the edge of an undulating, v-shaped pit that was chewing the load of rock from the truck. One side of the pit was a huge, rotating steel plate, and the boulders were being methodically crushed into pieces small enough to fall out of the narrow opening at the bottom. A wooden railing separated Peter from the pit. A sudden rush of vertigo made him lean away, back against the plywood wall. He covered his ears against the noise and stared in fascination as the last of the load was crushed small and dropped onto a moving conveyor underneath. Through the open front wall he saw the dump truck pull away, and a moment later Clarkson was beside him. “This is the jaw crusher,” he shouted. “It’s the first step in the concentration process for the ore. You’d better get yourself some hearing protection from the store since you’ll be spending time in here.” Peter followed Clarkson down the walkway that extended thirty feet along the edge of the crusher pit. At the far end was a dust-coated booth with a window that overlooked the pit, and Clarkson slid open its door to speak to the man sitting inside. He wore two coats over his coveralls, and earmuffs clamped his hard hat to his thin, bearded face. A heater glowed red inside the cramped compartment, where the surfaces looked as dust-covered as the outside. An open paperback novel sat alongside a control panel, and Clarkson pointed to it. “Keep that out of sight, Paul. You know the rules.” Clarkson turned and started down a flight of steel stairs. The crusher operator closed his door. Through a side window Peter saw him pick up the book and settle back in his chair to read. Peter awkwardly descended the steep stairs in his heavy miner’s boots to where a wide conveyor belt came from under the jaw crusher and sped along a dimly lit corridor that sloped steeply down the side of the mountain. Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling, lighting the dust that floated in the cold air, so thick that the view beyond fifty feet was obscured in the haze. Peter felt the back of his throat tighten with each breath he took. He followed the foreman down the corridor to a door that led into a warm fluorescent-lit room. Koopman sat at a table with a book in his hands while two other men played cards. A water cooler sat next to a filthy sink. “Shit, you guys,” Clarkson said. “If De Vleit shows up and sees you all fucking the dog in here, my ass is on the line.” “De Vleit can go fuck himself, Ian,” Koopman said. “And I’ll say that to his face, too. If he’s so concerned about us not working, then he can get us some goddamn machinery that runs. If my drill is down then I should be sent home with pay and screw this ‘go to Rock Reject’ bullshit.” Clarkson took off his hardhat and wiped his forehead. “I know what you’re saying, Michael, and six months ago I was saying the same thing. But I’m wearing this white hat now and I need you guys to at least look like you’ve been out shovelling spills back onto the conveyors, or else I can get canned. De Vleit’s going to be through here sometime this morning, so give me a break and don’t be hanging around in here.” He turned to leave and saw Peter by the door. He turned back to Koopman. “Show this new guy what to do, will you, Michael?” Clarkson left. Koopman went to the water cooler and took a drink, then looked at Peter. “He was a shovel operator until a few months ago, then he took the foreman’s job. They just had a second kid and he wanted better benefits.” “He seems like a nice guy,” Peter said. “That’s right. A lot of the management guys are pricks. Power trippers. But Ian’s a good shit.” He crumpled his paper cup and threw it on the dirt floor. “I was in the car with you the other day, coming from Watson Lake,” Peter said. “That so? I was pretty hungover, can’t say I remember much of the trip.” “So what should I be doing in here?” Koopman laughed. “What you should be doing is getting another job. What you’re supposed to be doing is a fucking waste of time. Leave your lunch here, grab that pick and shovel and follow me.” They stepped out of the lunch room just as a deafening roar rolled over them. Peter covered his ears against the noise. “That’s a truck load dumped into the crusher,” Koopman shouted. “Happens every few minutes if the digging in the pit is good.” Hearing protectors were attached to the side of his hardhat and he flipped them down over his ears, then started down the corridor. Jagged lumps of broken rock the size of grapefruit began to speed by on the conveyor belt. The light grew dimmer as they walked downwards along the packed earth floor. Dust coated the unpainted plywood walls and ceiling and Peter tasted it in his mouth. He turned and looked back and saw their footprints like they were in new fallen snow. They climbed down a flight of wooden stairs beside a ten-foot-high, funnel-shaped machine. The conveyor they had been following dumped ore into its open top and another one led away from the bottom, moving the rock that had been crushed smaller further down the building and out of sight into the murky haze of dust. The machine made a piercing noise—like a nail being driven through his ears. At the bottom of the stairs the corridor was smaller, the ceiling lower. Koopman leaned close to Peter to shout. “There are three of these cone crushers down the line from the jaw crusher and where the ore drops out of them is where the spills usually happen. We’re standing on spilt ore, so you can shovel away to your heart’s content. Dig the stuff off the walkway and throw it onto the belt.” Peter looked up at the ceiling timbers that were caked in dust. He raised his hand and touched them. “How come the ceiling’s so low here? It’ll be hard to swing the pick.” Koopman laughed. “They say this place was built with fifteen-foot ceilings so that means there’s over seven feet of ore spill under our feet. Like I said, it’s a futile fucking job. Coffee break’s at ten, lunch at noon. Have fun.” Koopman turned and went back up the stairs towards the lunch room. Peter watched him leave, then stared at the machine in front of him that was smashing apart the rock pouring into it and depositing a stream of fist-sized pieces onto a conveyor underneath. It travelled another thirty feet before dumping the ore into the top of another crusher. He searched in his pocket and found a Kleenex, which he tore in half and stuffed into his ears, easing the piercing pain from the noise. He picked up the shovel, raised it over his head with both hands and rammed it down into the years of compacted spilled rock and dust. The top inch chipped away like it was concrete; the shovel vibrated through his hands and arms. Pain shot through his sore wrist, making him drop the shovel. He took the pick-axe and swung it hard, feeling a satisfying thud as the heavy point sunk in deep. He levered the pick and pried away a chunk the size of his head, then swung again and again. Sweat ran over his face and down his chest and back. His wrist throbbed as he pounded into the waste of the mine. At ten o’clock Peter stopped digging and wandered down the corridor, past more crushing and screening machines, until he found a door that let him outside. He sat on a boulder next to a pile of discarded machinery and garbage in a truck-turning area that had been cleared of snow. He lit a cigarette. He was on the side of the mountain, where the ore tramline came out of the bottom of Rock Reject, the full buckets swaying from the cable as they floated down the mountainside to the Mill. The clouds that had brought the snow moved away and the sun lit up snow-covered mountains that stretched endlessly to the southern horizon. He sat motionless, watching the play of light and shadow on the brilliant peaks, the beauty opening a joy inside him. He closed his eyes, clinging to the feeling he hadn’t known for so long, only to have it smothered in an instant, pushed back down inside him by remorse. He opened his eyes to the mountains, dull now with the return of the clouds. His numbness returned as well. The wind picked up and he was suddenly cold, shivering in his damp clothes. He threw his cigarette into the snow and went back to Rock Reject. Above the door someone had nailed a hand-lettered sign: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. He read it and nodded in agreement, then took a last breath of outside air and returned to his pick and shovel. At noon, his face plastered with dust and lined with the tracks of sweat, he returned to the lunch room. Koopman looked up from his book and laughed. “Jesus, you’re keen. Did you get to the bottom yet?” Peter shrugged. He took a drink of water from the cooler and blew his nose. Green mucus covered the tissue. “It makes the time go faster, having something to do.” “That’s probably what Sisyphus thought.” Peter gave him a puzzled look. “Futile and hopeless labour, the ultimate fucking punishment. I’m detecting gaps in your education.” Peter’s face reddened. “Education has to be pretty practical for my family.” He sat on a bench across from Koopman. “Did you study Classics?” “Yep. Got a B.A.” He sucked on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring into the dusty air. “And you?” “Oh, I dropped out.” Peter looked around for something to clean the dust from the table, and reached for a dirty, balled-up rag that sat on the edge of the sink. “The sign above the door down at the bottom. That’s Dante, right?” “You like that?” Koopman smiled. “I shovelled in here my first couple of months and nailed that up when I got a job on a drill. Pretty fucking appropriate, if I do say so.” He dropped his cigarette on the floor and ground it with his boot. “Let me show you something.” From his satchel he took out a cube of shiny green rock, three inches on a side. He put it on the table in front of Peter. “That’s what it’s all about here. Finest ore in the world.” Peter held it, feeling the smooth, ridged sides. Satiny strands of white fibre escaped from the rock, flexible and silky. “It’s beautiful,” he said. Koopman extended his hand, and Peter gave him the rock. “They call this crude. They hire students in the summer to hand-pick blocks like this and bigger after a blast, and it gets specially processed for weaving. NASA uses the stuff.” He hefted it in his hand. “Watch.” His long fingers closed around the shiny green stone and squeezed, grinding it in his fist then opening his hand to reveal a handful of long, white fibers. “Metamorphosis,” he said. “Fibres from stone.” He teased at the asbestos lying in his palm, then dumped it on the dirt floor by the wall. “Fucking stuff’s worth a fortune.” He picked up his book and leaned his back against the wall. Peter looked at the pile of white fibres for a moment, thinking how the strands resembled milkweed, thinking of a late summer walk with Rose on Manitoulin Island. The roar of a load falling into the jaw crusher snapped his attention back to the room, to the layer of dust on the table he was about to eat at. He wiped it with the stiff, dirty rag and watched the dust fall to the floor. “It’s like there’s more dust than air in this place,” he said. “Does anyone wear a mask?” “Couple of guys did a while back but they said they were useless. The filters got clogged with the dust and they froze up in the cold. Couldn’t hardly suck any air through them.” He turned a page in his book. “But it’s amazing what you can get used to when the money’s good.” Peter opened his lunch bag and unwrapped his sandwiches. Dust floated onto them from the sleeves of his coveralls. More fell from his hands as he tried to wipe the bread clean. He glanced up to see Koopman watching him. “What the fuck,” he said, turning his attention back to his book. “You’re hungry, you eat.” Peter looked at his food, half covered with green dust, then ate.

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Chasing Freedom
Excerpt

Everywhere beautiful fall colours melted into a thick stew of forest greens. Lydia and Sarah Redmond stepped carefully over the tree stumps and sharp rocks threatening to slice through the worn soles of their boots as they walked through the trees along the shore of Birchtown Bay on the northwest arm of Shelburne Harbour. Their route stretched past the growing clusters of Birchtown shacks and connected to the Port Roseway Road which, after three miles, would bring them to Roseway itself. The heavy fall frost caused their breath to steam and their hands to ache. Sarah pulled down her hat and fastened her thin, grey coat. Lydia forged ahead, keeping up a good pace, balancing a weighty basket of potatoes on her head. A white kerchief tied in a knot at the back of her neck framed a coffee-brown face that was deeply wrinkled, but smooth and shiny around the bones. She had good teeth. The empty corn pipe on which she constantly sucked hung from her mouth. On her left hand she wore a ring made of wood and decorated with an intricately carved olive branch. As she walked, her feet came down hard and fast. Sarah followed the five-foot body of thick flesh, watched it wobble inside an array of colourless cotton. Her grandmother was old, the guess was fifty, but a slave’s age was hard to tell. Sarah viewed the woman with an uneasy tension—the kind that always exists between the young and old.

“Hurry along now. Time’s a wasting.” Grandmother waved her arm like a sergeant, a bag of laundry and rag purse swinging wildly by her sides while the basket of potatoes on her head sat motionless.

“Morning comes too early.” Sarah yawned. Her chestnut face was fixed in a knot—too pouty and childish for a girl of sixteen.

“We got lots to do this morning. Our first stop is at Prince and Beulah’s. Oh Lord, Prince is down with the fever. It has been a few days since our last visit and there’s no tellin’ what to expect. The fever’s carryin’ folks to Glory one after the other.”

“Prince is strong. He’ll be alright.”

“I hope so. I prayed this morning. We got a lot on our plates today. We also have to trade these vegetables at Cecil’s store and then go down to Roseway with Mrs. Cunningham’s wash.”

Sarah swung her baskets of beets, carrots and cabbages. She mimicked the old woman. “Get along, get along,” she murmured.

“Being in Birchtown is the same as being on a plantation,someone always giving orders.” She pressed on, knowing that talking back would make her the worst of human beings—a sinner. She wanted to ask why Reverend Ringwood didn’t have prayers with her uncle, but old folks did not like questions—you got hard looks instead of answers. The one thing they did like was giving orders. Sarah had more to say, but she rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth instead.

But Grandmother was quick. “There’s no need for sass,” she said. “We have to make Roseway before the sun gets to burning. I hope it’s peaceful down there.”

Grandmother looked directly at Sarah and came to a sudden stop.

“Hush,” she whispered.

An unfamiliar noise disturbed the stillness and the forest shivered. Grandmother and Sarah struggled to slow their thundering hearts by hastily puffing in the cool morning air. Danger lurked all around. It could come at a moment’s notice in the form of slave hunters or other wicked men about. Saying or doing the wrong thing could get you whipped, jailed or shot.

They stood staring at each other in the dimness when the noise came again. Together, they stepped carefully from the trail into a stand of tall birch trees and crouched behind a huge rock. There, in a small clearing, was a white man on horseback. A long rope was tied one end to the saddle, the other around the neck of a Negro whose hands were chained. The women strained to make out who the men were, but they were too far away and dared not get closer.

Sarah gasped and in a low tone murmured, “Do you know them?”

“No,” Grandmother said. “Stay down.”

The white man dismounted and untied the rope from his saddle. He strained to pull the Negro along, for the man dug in his heels and had to be dragged. The white man pushed hard and forced his captive up onto the horse, which he then led under an oak tree with low-hanging branches. He tossed the long end of the rope over the thickest branch, tied it to his saddle and slapped the horse.

Sarah’s teeth chattered and the veins in her neck jutted out. The Negro rose up from the horse and dangled several feet in the air as the two women watched in horror. The white man pulled out a long musket and stuffed it with shot. No sooner had they turned their faces away when a loud bang startled the air and the foul smell of gunpowder spread throughout the clearing. Off in the distance, the sound of cackling like a banshee hen rang through the woods. It was some seconds before Grandmother came to herself.

“The poor man refused to go along quietly,” she said. “And that man … Oh, Girlie, what kind of man laughs after taking a life?”

When all had settled, two pairs of eyes searched the deep woods. Deciding the danger had passed, Sarah stood up and sighed deeply. “What good is freedom, Ma’am, if all we can do is live in fear? It’s not right that we get treated this way, not here.” Her anger flared and she exploded with a gutsy squeal.

“You are right, but you must learn to hold that anger, Girlie. Choose the time to speak your truth and always with caution.”

Steadying the basket on her head, the old woman cast her steely eyes on Sarah as she turned back to the trail. “And another thing, Girlie. Keep those eyes peeled. I hear that ol’ Boll weevil Carter is sniffing around for stray Negroes. It could have been him back there.” Her pipe rested in the small indentation in her bottom lip as she grunted between sucks.

“He aims to take Negroes without certificates to the South and sell them back into slavery. We got our papers, but we can never be too sure. Wish it weren’t so, but this here freedom only lasts from minute to minute. Folks are disappearing faster than a fresh loaf of bread.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Sarah quivered at the mention of heartless Boll weevil. A devil, the slaves called him. Always something or someone to fear, she thought. This crazy life sure had its ups and downs. Sarah kicked a rock to the left of the path. The smell of gunpowder lingered, stirring an image in her that prompted an all-too familiar flashback: a troop of raggedy people and soldiers, deathly quiet except for a moan or two, their faces long and heavy with grief.

Sarah’s flesh tightened. Tiny goose bumps peppered her quivering skin as her heart beat in double time. In the swarm marched Grandmother, Uncle Prince, Aunt Beulah and herself. She strained to find Papa, but as usual, he was missing. In a short time, the figures evaporated into a blur of washed-out colours. Sarah let out a string of curses at the nagging memories. The past was always stirring the present like an angry wind swirling a pile of leaves.

It was the end of September 1784 as best Sarah could tell. Fifteen months had passed since their arrival in Nova Scotia from St. James Goose Creek, a settlement outside war-ravished Charles Town, South Carolina. For Sarah, there was no more hauling water buckets to the fields on a yoke. She didn’t have to plant crops, weed the fields or work at the Big House. She was free from the thick sweat of summer’s heat and from Cecil MacLeod breathing down her neck and treating her like a beast. Had she not been able to fill her belly this morning? And as far as happiness … well, that was just a step away now that she had Reece Johnson’s eye.

The first golden rays of dawn trickled through the thick canopy of towering trees. Here and there, Birchtowners were starting to fill the trail, on their way to Roseway in hopes of finding a day’s pay. They greeted Grandmother with a nod and moved quickly past. It was not long before the old woman burst into her vibrant strains of “Go Down, Moses.” Sarah joined in as she watched a flock of grey birds darting among the pines. She was inspired to say, “I wish I was an eagle soaring above the clouds. I would find me a safe place and have a fine time. Oh yes, I would.”

The old woman responded in a tone that was gruff. “Birds are blessed all right, but a bird finds trouble if it’s not on guard. I pray trouble never finds you, Girlie.”

“Papa said that we shouldn’t fear trouble. That trouble is shackled to change.”

“Trouble is shackled to change all right, and a whole lot of other things.”

“Trouble does not scare me. Not if it can make things different.”

The old woman fired back. “Don’t be getting big ideas, Girlie. Could be I’m wrong, but change does not come easy.”

“Why doesn’t it?”

“Because old habits die hard. They run deep—right to the marrow in the bones. Folks didn’t leave their old ideas and feelings behind in Carolina.”

Sarah nodded. “I suppose not,” she said. Grandmother caught an expression of arrogance in the girl’s attitude. She too, had been full of confidence at one time. Yes Lord, a stubborn fighter. But she learned. A sad thought brought fear for the girl. Life’s lessons do not come easy, she thought, they always come with a price. The ridges on her back proved that. Her next words dragged mournfully. “We have more pressing things to dwell on this morning. Prince and Beulah’s baby is holding back. I don’t know what’s holding the child. She’s carrying low. It’s her time now.”

“The baby will come soon. And I’m sure Uncle Prince will be just fine.”

“We have to stay on our knees, keep sending up prayers,” Grandmother said after another long suck on her pipe. “It’s our job and the Lord’s order, Girlie, to keep this family strong.”

The pair continued on, knowing that something else was bound to catch them up, for in the heart of Birchtown lay misery so thick it stank like rotting flesh. The miserable makeshift shacks sprawled in all directions. To the left was the Thomas place. Across the way was the Joneses’ and, further on, the Haywoods’. Birchtown was lively at this hour with folks cooking over outdoor fires and doing the wash while others hauled carts and lugged bags and goods on their backs.

Lydia and Sarah circled the maze of shelters, sidestepping the roaming chickens, hogs and sheep. It was then that they noticed Dinah Haywood standing a few feet from her shack in a frayed blue dress with a yellow rag tied around her head, bawling.

“Troubles, Dinah?” Grandmother asked.

“A man came and took my Isaac,” the woman wailed. “He accused him of being a runaway. He didn’t ask if he had papers, just shackled his hands. And he put a rope around his neck. Off he went with my man tied to the back of his saddle. It makes not a drop of sense. We free people,” she wailed. “We free.”

Sarah watched as Dinah fell to her knees in the mud, feeling the sharpness of the woman’s pain. She thought of the man hanging from the tree. Isaac Haywood? But she held her tongue and suppressed the tears, waiting to hear what Grandmother would say to the grief-stricken woman. “What did the man look like?” Grandmother asked as she reached out and touched Dinah’s shoulder.

“He was tall. A lanky-looking fella in a brown coat.”

“No telling, but it could be Boll weevil Carter,” Grandmother grunted. “They say he’s here in Scotia. Ah, that devil. He’s up to his old ways, sneaking about looking for mischief or to make money.”

“Yes, yes. You said a mouthful there,” Dinah wailed, not letting up.

“I know your pain. The troubles never tire of finding us. I got them too. You’ve heard, no doubt, about my son.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I heard.” “I’d stay awhile, but I’m in a hurry this morning. We will send up prayers for you and Isaac,”

Grandmother said as she turned to go. “You’re welcome to come by tomorrow, Dinah, if you feel like talkin’.”

“No need to steal her hope. She’s got enough on her plate,” Grandmother said when they were far enough off for Dinah not to hear. “That ol’ Mr. Misery is as excited as a Manhattan pickpocket in a crowd. You never know who he’s goin’ to rob next.”

She was silent for a long time before she turned to Sarah and muttered, “This place is as cruel as the weather.”

Sarah looked at her hard, for everything about the place was a betrayal of promises. She longed for something better, but dared not speak it or even dream it. “Yes, it is, Ma’am,” were the only words she could rally.

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Drive-by Saviours

Drive-by Saviours

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The fantastic voyage began on a sandy blue paradise for fishermen and their children renting snorkelling equipment to daytime tourists in 1973. This is where and when Bumi was born, his face all small and crinkly, brown and wide-eyed wonder at the implausibility of being plucked from his mother’s womb while she lay bleeding on a dirt floor silently and stubbornly refusing to cry out at the pain of birth. He was the Bugis boy with a Javanese name chosen by his Javanese mother. She had, for the most part, let her own traditions slip away as the years and the island colluded to make her their own. Rilaka became her new motherland, its Buginese language her lingua franca. Her firstborn’s name was a tribute to that natal part of her, and because it meant ‘earth’ in her faraway mother-tongue, it honoured the place of his birth in a multicultural chorus. From the beginning Bumi’s eyes pierced harder than any other, glowering while his father forced him to try football, glowing brightly at the chance to help the man count market money from mainland fish sales. By age four he’d humbled his father by becoming a faster and more accurate bookkeeper. He also spoke better Indonesian, a skill his father exploited for price negotiations with mainlanders. By age five he bored of accounting and took to engineering.

Bumi’s father, a wiry man with surprising strength and audaciously self-granted authority, went looking for the boy late one evening after he failed to come home for supper. On their tiny island of a hundred people, any lost child not found in five minutes was assumed drowned. Yusupu was not worried. Bumi was no likely drowning victim, the first five year old potentially smarter than the sea.

Yusupu found Bumi on the far sloping side of the island where no one had ever bothered to build or settle. It was simply too far away from the others. In recent years it had become a place where the women gathered to make clothing when they wanted to get away from the tourists. Bumi was there cursing a foul black streak the likes of which Yusupu hadn’t heard in all his years on boats, not from his father or grandfather, nor any other man he’d known.

“Bumi! What’s wrong?” he shouted, half in anger and half in concern.

“I can’t get it tied!” Bumi retorted, pointing in frustration at a small tangle of netting and thirty empty plastic pop bottles. “My fingers are too small!”

“Why do you want to tie them?” Yusupu asked. The sharpness in his voice was all but gone.

“You tie them at one end to make it float. Then you can leave it and go play,” Bumi explained. “Then you come back and you have fish. So you have more time to play with me, Daddy.”

Yusupu was not an exceptionally hard-working man, but he did spend six hours a day at sea—six hours Bumi felt would be better spent playing with him. While flotation nets have existed in fishing cultures for centuries, Rilaka’s more labour intensive methods worked to keep the men out of the women’s hair for six hours a day, and vice versa, and to make physically strong, hardy men for an island left naked in the exposure of rain and merciless sun.

Like most human innovations Bumi’s idea had unforeseen impacts. The lighter workload and greater cash flow that came their way (once Yusupu caught on and got to tying what Bumi’s little fingers couldn’t) resulted not in more play time with his father, but less. And the time he did spend with the man became much less pleasant.

Though Yusupu and the other Rilakan fishers had never before felt any need for alcohol, which was taboo, it was free time, and the rum that helped pass it, that changed Bumi’s father. On finding themselves with unprecedented time on their hands, and not having any particular desire to return to their families, Rilaka’s fishers began visiting a little bar with a live musician near the seaport after the catch was sold. The toxins in the liquor put the inexperienced drinkers in a collectively ill mood, and most of them disliked the numbing effect of too many drinks. Only Yusupu’s stubbornness pushed him forward until he had drunk more than his fill several nights in a row. His cohorts would keep him company and switch to coffee after just one glass of strong rum. Yusupu drank every night, long after the others had tired of alcohol. It seemed to Bumi that when Yusupu drank, all the man’s frustrations bubbled to the surface. The first time Yusupu hit him forever changed his understanding of pain. There was no desire in it at all, just deep disappointment.

He had stayed up late, determined to see his father before dream-time. He had refused to come home, afraid that sleep would overtake him if he got too comfortable. Instead he stayed by the shore playing long after the tourists had returned to the mainland and the other children had gone to sleep. He drew pictures in the sand with a stick to pass the hours after sunset, past midnight even, bleary-eyed and obsessed with the single thought of his father. When the boats finally returned Bumi ran to them and watched open-mouthed as the other men helped his father over the gunwale. Yusupu retched and spit into the sea he’d always told Bumi was sacred.

“Daddy!” Bumi cried, thinking Yusupu was hurt. He ran to him, pushing through the other men to offer a hand.

Yusupu looked down at Bumi and sneered. “What are you doing up?”

Bumi swallowed and looked up at Yusupu, who pulled back at his matted salt-and-pepper hair. Even hunched over, Yusupu towered over the boy like a giant sea creature lurching onto the land.

“Waiting for you,” Bumi said.

The men laughed and one tussled Bumi’s hair. “He misses you,” one of them told Yusupu, who smiled a bemused smile, took the boy up into his arms, and carried him home.

Yusupu kept smiling until he had crouched in through the door of their little house. Then he put Bumi down and took him by the arm, looked the boy in the eyes, and said, “Don’t you ever embarrass me like that again.”

He gave a half smile and slapped Bumi’s face. Bumi’s lips quivered and a tear came to his eye. “Are you going to cry now, Son?” Yusupu asked. “Are you going to embarrass me further?”

Bumi swallowed hard, sucking a head full of tension down his throat. His body was shaking, but he didn’t cry. He shook his head solemnly ‘no.’

“Good,” Yusupu said, jerking his head to the side. “Go to sleep.”

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Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths

The Experiences of Mi'kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (Extended Edition)
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When the government established the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie in 1929, the Mi’kmaw population had been decreasing for some time. The official census shows a Mi’kmaw population of just over 2000 in 1934. Despite the threat to our survival as a people, we still had a language and a culture of our own. The world of Mi’kmaw language and culture from which the children were taken when they went to the Residential School had its roots in the knowledge of many generations. When I was a little girl, one of my chores was to help the old people get settled when they came to our house to visit. They were between seventy and one hundred years old. The younger ones walked two miles through the woods from one end of the reserve to our place across the meadow. My father would be working in his nipign [an arbour made with leafy branches]. He would take a dipper of cold spring water with him and go to meet them. First, they would greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks, then they would stop and take a nice cold drink, chat a bit, then follow my father home. Sometimes one of my brothers would go with him to carry the water and other times he carried it himself. My mother and the rest of the children would watch from our yard. When the old people came, the children were instructed to help them to sit down, and to serve them a warm drink, usually tea, which was followed by a meal. Then they took out their clay pipes and Daddy passed around tobacco. When they had something important to say, they would tap their canes on the ground or floor, and the others would stop talking and listen. Some elders would not let us touch their pipes or their canes, which they kept always close by. After they had eaten, we gathered up their dishes and they would thank us. The best part came when the old people would CHAPTER 1 ORIGINS 16 OUT OF THE DEPTHS place their feeble hands on our heads and give us their blessing. Then came story time. The elders would sit in a circle and smoke their pipes. Some of them would be leaning on their canes listening to the stories. Once in a while, they’d say, A’a! There was much laughter, merriment, joking and reminiscing about the past. But when the sun started to set, the mood changed. The elders would be drowsy and some would be leaning on their canes with their eyes closed. Once in a while, one of them would get up and lie on the ground and take a nap. The Council Fire would be lit, a fresh cup of tea or pitewey [any type of warm drink] was made and pipes were refilled. Sometimes they talked all night and throughout several days. Children were never allowed to interrupt or walk in front of the people or in between them when they were talking. We were told, Muk-bed-deskow which means, “Don’t bump into her or him.” We were also taught never to walk in front of people who are talking. This custom stems back to the old belief that everyone is a spirit and a conversation between people is a spiritual experience because they are also exchanging their most valuable possession, their word. I usually sat by my mother’s knee and kept very quiet because I did not want to be told to leave. I wanted to hear all the interesting stories about my ancestors. I was listening and learning. Now, I realize that I was witnessing the Talking Stick ceremony. Some of the elders who met at my parents’ place for the Talking Stick ceremony knew the area where we lived, not as Shubenacadie, but as Sipekne’katik [the land of the wild potatoes]. In their youth they had travelled long distances in big birch-bark canoes, the whole family travelling with all their belongings, taking the family dog along for protection. They paddled to Dartmouth by way of the Shubenacadie Canal to the Mi’kmawi-qospeml [Micmac Lakes] and then down to the salt water. They often crossed over the Bay of Fundy, paddling while on their knees in the bottom of the canoes, which made them less likely to tip over. There had been a Mi’kmaw settlement at Shubenacadie since ancient times, and the area was considered especially good for its salmon fishing, for the abundance of sweetgrass and for the ash tree used in basket-making. The stories we heard the elders tell referred not just to their own experiences but to those who had lived generations earlier. The elders started their stories by saying, Sa’qewey na, 17 which means, “This originates in antiquity.” This indicated to the listeners that what they were about to say was passed down to them through their great-grandparents. So some of the legends that I and my brothers and sister heard were at least seven generations old. The stories were ancient, and the language in which they were told was even older. According to my mother, Deodis, the Mi’kmaw language evolved from the sounds of the land, the winds and the waterfalls. As far as we know, there is no other language like it spoken anywhere else in the world. One of the principal ways of teaching young children was through the telling of legends that embodied thousands of years of experience in living off the land. The storytellers emphasized living harmoniously with the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones and those that swim in the waters—all our relations. Even the plants are said to have a spirit and are our relations. When we have our sacred ceremonies, like the sweat lodge, we end it by saying, Msit no’kmaq, which means, “All my relations.” Our elders were the most respected members of the Mi’kmaw community. They were the mental storehouse for the genealogy of every member of the tribe. Young people who wanted to marry always consulted them to find out whether they were related or not. The custom of consulting elders is called Weji-kluluemk. Elders also had a vast knowledge of survival skills. They knew the seasonal cycles of edible and medicinal plants, and the migrations of animals, birds and fish, and they knew which hunting and trapping methods worked best with certain weather conditions. Mi’kmaw lore is rich with stories about how the people communicated with all these elements. The young people were educated through these stories. Children who were acting inappropriately were told a legend. Some of these were moral tales concerning appropriate action and others were lessons in survival techniques, illustrated by animal behaviour. Although the early Mi’kmaq were free of such contagious diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis, they were vulnerable to natural ills such as bone fractures, sprains, and even arthritis, so everyone knew some herbal medicine. The older ones taught the younger ones, and many times medicine and food were the same thing. People suffering from depression or grief talked to an elder who took them for a walk in the woods to find a medicine tree, a pine tree. The sufferers were in- ORIGINS 18 OUT OF THE DEPTHS structed to lean their backs up against the tree and to stay in that position until they felt its strength running up their spines. After the healing, an offering was made to the tree in acknowledgement and appreciation. Recently I found an old photograph in the Nova Scotia Museum of one such tree—a huge pine tree which used to stand on the Indian Brook Reserve. When I showed the photograph to my brother he said, “Yes, that’s the tree the people used to gather under, but the priest came and cut it down.” Traditionally we were all taught to take responsibility for the protection and nourishment of others, especially the very old, who had the wisdom and knowledge of the past, and the very young, who held the future. Older brothers and sisters were absolutely required to look after their younger siblings. When they went to the Residential School, being unable to protect their younger brothers and sisters became a source of life-long pain. Survival among the Mi’kmaq was always based on sharing. For example, people chewed food for the elders who had lost their teeth and for infants who had no teeth. Growing children were never denied food and were fed whenever they were hungry. Women breast-fed their own babies, but when a woman had twins sometimes she didn’t produce enough milk to feed both, so she gave one to another woman to nurse. This did not mean the second mother kept the child as her own, but rather a strong bonding occurred between the child, the natural mother and the wet nurse. There were no restrictions on visitation rights or the natural mother’s right to take back the responsibility of raising her own child. Lorraine Sack told me, “When my father, Bill Sack, was a week old, his mother gave him up. Aunt Jane took him and breast-fed him. Aunt Jane Howe was married to Martin Sack, who was Bill Sack’s uncle. My father always said that although we are not directly related to the Sacks he wanted us to accept them as our relatives because she had saved his life.” Direct eye contact was definitely not allowed between the younger and older generations. Partly this came from the need to maintain privacy when people lived close together in a wigwam or teepee. Direct eye contact can also be interpreted in so many different ways: challenging authority, arrogance, hostility, belligerence, or sexual invitation. When people come to your home, you are allowed to look at their faces to see what kind of message they are bringing, whether it is sad or glad, so that you will know how to act appropriately. After 19 that, it is considered rude to look at their eyes. At the school however, when we followed our training and avoided looking directly into the faces of the priest or the nuns, we were punished for being insolent. Our whole family used to go into the bush together to gather basket wood, birch-bark, medicine and berries for the winter. Sometimes, we also accompanied Daddy when he went moose hunting. He would walk ahead to read the signs of animal tracks so that the family would not accidentally stumble across the trail of a mother bear with cubs or walk in the path of a moose during the rutting season. He also had to clear the trail of overhanging branches that could injure the eyes and to watch out for hornets’ nests. It was he who decided where to camp at night, taking care to be close to a spring-water supply. If Daddy was hunting, we’d stay until he got a deer, which could be just overnight. But during the blueberry-picking season, we’d stay until we had our winter’s supply, which could take days. Some excursions combined different types of work, such as hunting and cutting trees for winter firewood or making baskets and axe handles. Medicines and herbs were gathered anytime between spring and fall. When my brothers were very young they usually walked behind with my mother, but as they grew older, they went ahead with my father and learned the art of clearing the trail. My mother always was the last one in line and acted as a guard. We always felt safe and protected everywhere we went. After carefully selecting the campsite, my father made a frame for the leanto out of logs which he covered with branches of trees with the leaves left on. My mother made the beds out of spruce boughs, while we kids carried the drinking water from the spring and gathered the firewood. At night, we slept in front of the campfire with the night sky overhead. Daddy would sit at one side of the lean-to and tend the fire while Mom sat on the other side with us five kids in between. Usually the youngest boy slept near Daddy and one of the girls next to Mom, whoever got there first. My parents would talk late into the night until we fell asleep and when we woke up in the morning, they were still there. It seemed to me they were guarding their children all through the night. Deodis, my mother, had gathered much of her traditional knowledge from the people who brought her up. She was an orphan who was adopted by a couple living on the Cambridge Reserve. This was in the early part of the twentieth century and in those days, everyone had ORIGINS 20 OUT OF THE DEPTHS chores to do. When Deodis was about seven years old, her duty was to collect kindling for the elderly couple who lived on the hill. One night she forgot, so Aunt Sapet put a lantern on one of the branches of the old pine tree so Deodis would have light to work by. When she had an apron full of dry wood, she took it up to the old people’s house. Nsukwis [my aunt] was sitting on a rocking chair looking out the window and waiting for her firewood. It was already dark inside when Deodis arrived. Deodis made a fire and some pitewey. Uncle Charlie was lying on top of the bed with his coat over his head and with his shoes still on. Deodis asked if he was sleeping and Nsukwis said that he was sick. “You better go and get Aunt Sapet and tell her to bring some ki’kwesu’skw [flag-root] for fever.” So Deodis ran down the hill and returned with Aunt Sapet and her medicine. Aunt Sapet opened the door and stopped short. She had smelled the fever. She told Deodis to stand by the door while she uncovered Uncle Charlie’s face. When she removed the coat, she saw that his face was swollen and had ugly red blotches all over it. She quickly covered up his face again and stepped back in fright. “Lapikotewit” [smallpox] she gasped. “It’s going to kill us all.” She gently but firmly pushed Deodis out the door and closed it. “I’ll come back later,” she called out. Once outside, Aunt Sapet explained to Deodis that there was no cure for smallpox and that it had already killed many Mi’kmaq and everyone was afraid of it because traditional aboriginal herbs did not work on this white man’s disease. “But I will show you how to protect yourself with the winds.” “Always start by facing in the direction where the sun comes up. Bow to the winds that blow from that direction. Greet the Great Spirit of the wind by touching your forehead with your index finger and middle finger to clear your mind. Then touch your lips to make your words true and then touch your breast to give you a kind heart. Ask the wind to blow away the evil spirits that brought the smallpox and to protect you from getting it. Do that four times, each time facing each of the directions.” As it turned out Uncle Charlie did recover and the only visible sign that he had had smallpox was that his face was covered with large scars about as round as a dime. My mother passed on some of her traditional knowledge to me. Like other Mi’kmaw mothers, she took care to teach us things which would keep us safe. For example, when she was walking with me in 21 the forest, she told me to listen to my footsteps as I went along so when I retraced my steps back home I would recognize the different sounds and realize if I was going the wrong way before going too far. When we were taken into the bush as tiny children we began learning about the environment from the cradle-board strapped to our mother’s back or from sleeping and waking up in a hammock between two trees. As our mother walked along, we saw the changing landscapes. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, in all kinds of weather, the sky, the trees, the ground, and the waters were what we saw. Upon wakening in the morning, our first sight was usually the branches and leaves silhouetted against the ever-changing sky and the last thing before the dream world took over, we saw the moon and stars and the Milky Way of the night world. Many parents recognized that their children would need other kinds of knowledge to get along in the white world. My father, John Stephen Knockwood, who was also known as Ekian [Stephen] Subbadis had never attended school, but had taught himself to read and write by reading the Halifax Herald from cover to cover every week. He’d buy the paper at the City Market every Friday after selling baskets, axe handles and herbal medicines—he had to keep the herbal medicines under the table because their sale was illegal and he was risking arrest by selling them. When he came across words he didn’t understand in his newspaper he would ask the non-Native customers to explain, and so gradually he learned to read and write English. Deodis was also self-taught, although she used to tell me that she had a grade four education. When she was seven years old, she had been sent to a Kentville public school where she was called a “squaw,” stoned and chased home to the reserve every day. One day, instead of running, she turned on her tormentors and beat them up. She scratched, kicked and bit, and gave them the “dead man’s grip,” by which she meant she refused to let go of the handful of hair she had grabbed. Consequently, she was expelled. Aunt Sabet told her, “You may stay home now, because you went to school for four days.” To Deodis, this meant that she was in grade four. She was very proud that she had taught herself to sign her name and to make out a grocery list. In any Mi’kmaw family the worst act a child could commit was to endanger the lives of the younger children. Once, for example, all five of us jumped on the bumper of a moving car. Some white people had ORIGINS 22 OUT OF THE DEPTHS come to our house to buy baskets and when they drove away, we went joy-riding on their bumper. As a punishment, we were switched. It was believed that the bushes have a spirit and were good medicine. Now you’re going to get your “medicine,” we were told. The sting was remembered for a long time. Doug Knockwood remembers one occasion when he received his “medicine” from a birch switch: My mother and grandfather and uncle were very traditional people and had a different way of correcting and teaching me which was by talking to me and by using switches on the ankles. That switch on the ankles taught me more than getting a belt across the ass because when my mother had to resort to the switch, I knew that I had done something very serious, like the time I ran away when Mom was home alone. She came three miles after me with a little birch switch. Every couple hundred feet she would ask, “Are you going to run away again?” And I’d say, “No.” Then I’d get a whip across the ankles and I’d step dance for a little while. The highest reward was to be praised by Saqmawinu at a public gathering. That is when an elder stands up before the whole community and tells what you have done to benefit everyone. Earning an eagle feather is a great honour because it proves that you have received public recognition for something done for the community and not for yourself. The eagle feather symbolizes high ideals because it comes from a bird that flies higher than any other bird and comes closest to the source of life’s energy, which is the sun. Those who established the Indian Residential Schools across Canada regarded all we had learned from our parents and grandparents with contempt and hatred. As Bernie Knockwood sees it: “They were making a value judgement based on white middle-class values. Looking at it from the Native perspective—even though you were hungry and dirty, you knew that you were being loved because when there was food, you were the first one to be fed.” Although his grandparents reared him in poverty, Bernie still remembers their pride and their dignity: 23 One of the things I remember is when I used to go picking sweetgrass with my grandmother. She used it in her fancy baskets. I always have a braid in my room which I use for smudging [using the smoke for cleansing] and which reminds me of my grandmother. Whenever I went to my grandparents’ house, the first thing that I noticed was the aroma of sweetgrass. I can remember in Parrsboro, my grandmother would take one side of the street and I’d take the other and we’d go door-to-door trying to sell baskets. On good days, if we sold our baskets, we’d buy a bus ticket and food and we’d go visit my grandmother’s friend. She lived on the end of this fairly long driveway. Off on the left, there was a small marsh with a freshwater stream which would flood when the tide came in. Before the bus came in, we’d spend a good part of the afternoon picking sweetgrass. Back on the bus home, people would make rude comments about the stink from the sweetgrass. My grandmother, who was just a tiny woman, would just sit there with her head held high and look at me and say, “Don’t listen to them Kwi’s [son].” To this day, I can still hear her. Other times, we’d be walking on that road after dark because we never sold a basket. We’d walk all the way and get back around twelve o’clock. Gramp would be waiting for us near the spring with a lantern. Bernie’s grandfather made axe handles to sell in neighbouring towns: From the time he gathered the wood and made the handles, it took three weeks of hard work. That’s working day-in and day-out, sometimes all night. And those axe handles were just as smooth with no knots and just as straight. I remember sitting there and him showing me how to “glass” them and sand them with sand paper. I felt proud for what I could do. It wasn’t much but I felt that anything I could do was a help . . . In the morning, he’d hitchhike into Parrsborough. And I would sit up on the hill and watch for the Acadian Lines bus. If it stopped, it meant that Gramp sold his axe handles but if it didn’t stop, I would go down to that spring with the lantern ORIGINS 24 OUT OF THE DEPTHS and I’d see him coming through the dark. I’d run down and take the handles and we’d go home. And we’d be talking all the way up. He’d tell me, “It was a rough day today. Nobody wants handles. Tomorrow morning, I’ll catch the Advocate bus and go to Amherst and I won’t come home until I sell them all.” Part of his grandparents’ devotion to him was shown in their refusal to teach him the Mi’kmaw language: After work, I’d take the shavings from their work and pile them up against a tree for a pillow and I’d lay there in the sun and listen to them talk. They would always speak in Mi’kmaw and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I asked my grandmother, “Why don’t you teach me how to speak Mi’kmaw?” And she told me, “You don’t need to know how to speak Mi’kmaw. We know how to speak Mi’kmaw and all we did was starve. When you speak Mi’kmaw, you starve. We don’t want you to starve.” Like many other Mi’kmaq who went through the residential school system, Bernie is now beginning to reclaim part of the cultural legacy that the school tried so hard to exterminate: Going to that Residential School didn’t kill what was in us. And now we’re trying to get back some semblance of what we were. But there’s no way we can go back to do what our grandparents used to do because we don’t want to give up what we have now, but what I would like to see is at least a large proportion of our philosophy and our way of doing things restored so that we will be able to incorporate it into our lives as a part of our core value for ourselves and our children and our children’s children.

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Tailings of Warren Peace

Tailings of Warren Peace

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tagged : espionage
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Everything Is So Political

Everything Is So Political

A Collection of Short Fiction by Canadian Writers
edited by Sandra McIntyre
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