He shuffled forward, almost like his boots were too big; they probably were. His body, frail and small after years of health problems. My dad and my uncle flanked him on either side and moved him slowly forward. He reached out his hand and I nearly missed that moment. I quickly grabbed my camera because I knew we were about to witness something special. Grandma stood and reached out her hand too. And then it happened~barely a whisper but his voice got stronger as he spoke. A beautiful language I did not understand. Though I didn’t need to. It was between him and his Maker. “The Creator” is what he calls Him. A blessing from one friend to another. Tears rolled down my cheek as I listened and watched. And he touched my grandpa’s hands and his face. A final farewell from the Indian to the Cowboy after nearly eight decades of friendship. I can’t imagine the stories or the adventures these two have shared. Most will never be heard or known by human ears. For barely two months later, Old Bill went to meet his Maker too. I suspect he was homesick for his friend, The Cowboy.
Everyone has a story. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or where you’ve been. If matters not if your skin colour is brown, white, black or red. And for my grandpa and his friend Bill, the story is full of love, respect and friendship that stood the test of time and bypassed all political,racial and economical barriers. I am glad they aren’t around to see what has become of their people and their country. Protests and name-calling are dividing families and friendships for nothing more than greed and status.
I was called a racist this week. I was called ignorant and uninformed. Someone told me I couldn’t possibly understand what it is like to grow up on a reservation or have ones rights stripped. If only they knew….
If everyone has a story and we’re all fighting for the same thing, do you want to hear mine? Some people don’t. It seems we’ve come to this moment in history where no one’s story matters except those of one specific race. But how different am I from them?
I grew up living on the threshold of an Indian Reservation on the Alberta Saskatchewan border in the north. Our neighbours were Cree. I don’t remember knowing or understanding anything about the difference between them and me. They were our friends, and our family. In our home, my mom and dad often had young people around. Some played their guitars, others sang. Dad had moved an old school building onto our property before I was born and that became the meeting house for weddings, potlucks, gatherings, baptisms, Bible studies, and Christmas concerts. In a world where the “Us and Them” mentality decided where you lived and where you didn’t, where you shopped and where you ate, we managed to live harmoniously and obliviously happy for decades. My grandpa pushed bush and built a thriving ranch from nothing. He was a man in tune with the land and all of its resources. A businessman for sure but before that and always thereafter, a lover of life, nature,horses and the Cree people who he called his friends. That’s why it’s no surprise really, that his children fell in love with this indigenous people too.
If you’ve lived on the prairies of Canada for any length of time, chances are that you too, have family and friends who call themselves First Nations. That’s a perplexing label to me. Indian, Metis, First Nations, Aboriginal….whatever you call these people, it doesn’t really matter; they are our neighbours and they are fellow Canadians. This is where I find myself confused and somewhat hurt. My great-grandparents were either born just prior to coming to Canada or born following the migration of their own parents to Canada. At what point do I become First Nations? Doesn’t the idea of “first” mean the place of your birth? The place of your heritage? The place of your family’s beginnings? And what is the beginning? Is the beginning 3 generations back? Or ten? Does it really matter?
Yesterday the news came out that a high court in Canada had decided that all people of First Nations/Aboriginal/Metis descent , whether living on reserves,settlements or in cities,off reserve or elsewhere would benefit from Indian status. What does this mean? Well, as best as I can tell it means that they can apply and be approved for any funding, health care, privileges that people on reserve are privy to. Now, as far as the concept goes, I agree. If people on reserves are getting special privileges for their racial background then in all fairness, those of the same race should receive those privileges regardless of where they live. I absolutely 100 % agree with this. However(and you knew I’d have a big BUT right here), this is exactly where the system is wrong and broken. The idea that a group of people, based on race alone, are treated differently than the rest of the country is absolutely offensive to every race, Aboriginals included. This is not equality. This is segregation. And it now muddies the waters of inter-racial heritage. It also encourages the ongoing labeling of people based on country of ethnic origin which is silly and pointless.
Back to my story…..
My mom’s family, both sides, are Mennonites. Mennonites from Russia to be precise. They fled the Ukraine in the late 1870s because of religious persecution. Some stayed but most left. The Canadian government helped them to get here because the land in southern Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan was uninhabited and the ground needed to be broken and worked. Thousands upon thousands of Mennonites , Ukranians, Irish and Scottish Europeans came over with little idea of what they were about to face. Can you imagine not speaking the language, facing your first prairie winter in little more than a shack for shelter? And the process of homesteading required that the land be lived on for the entire year before land titles were turned over to the owners. I have seen some of these “homes” that could only be called mud huts at best. But they did it, to be free and to have a hope of a future. This is my family and this is the family of my husband. In the 1920s the government of Manitoba took over the education of all immigrant children. Up until that time, Mennonites, Hutterites, Ukranians and any other ethnic group were free to educate their children in their mother tongue. But the Canadian government and provincial and territorial governments of the day decided that English must be taught as well as government approved curriculum. There is a part of me that totally understands the fear and anger that my family must have felt during this time. They had just become accustomed to a new way of life in a new country and now their rights were being taken away. And so, many fled. South to Mexico and other points in the US. There is , to this day, a very large community of Mennonites in Mexico and more communities in Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and other South American countries. My great aunt was one who fled and died a short time after, leaving many children without a mother. But I do not blame the government. I do not advocate for compensation for my family who were persecuted and driven from their homes. (There was a threat of government intervention and children were forced by authorities to attend these schools. It was not optional.) But that was then and this is now.
In the 1940s following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, there was a mass round up of Japanese Canadians. They were interned in camps and forced to work in often treachorous conditions. Japanese men were separated from their wives and children and laboured on the Trans Canada Highway that we all now enjoy the freedom to drive. This was less than 70 years ago but you don’t see Japanese Canadians demanding compensation or restitution for the time or property lost(their houses and possessions were sold and they didn’t receive the proceeds). It was a different time and a different place. That doesn’t excuse what happened but it is no more Stephen Harper’s fault than it is my own. It is a sad part of our history but it is in the past. The stories of these people is no less important than that of Aboriginals who were forced into residential schools.
So why does any of this matter? It matters only in the context of each family’s history and story. And all of our stories matter in the context of what Canada is and who we are as Canadians. Why an aboriginal who is 28 gets more privileges, rights and protection than I , at 41, when we both have been born here, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were born, worked, paid taxes here is beyond me. I get treaties. I understand promises and the shaking of hands. I also understand that the day a treaty was signed in the 1860s or 1910s it was a very different world than it is today. No vehicles relying on gas and oil, no homes powered by electricity, no hospitals with NICUs keeping preemies alive long before they ever would have survived in more primitive times. The leaders of the day shook hands in good faith and they promised in the context of what they knew and what they could imagine only years ahead of where they were. Not decades and not centuries. I am Canadian. My kids are Canadian. My cousin and brother and sister and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces are all Canadian. Some of us have darker skin and some of us are pasty white. But we are still family and we love the land which we came from and which we still hold dear.
A year ago, we laid my grandpa to rest a mile or so from the border of the Indian Reservation where he lived most of his life. I was in the minority at his funeral. As I looked out across that room full of friends and family there were definitely more brown faces than white. And it made me smile. This is how my grandpa would have wanted it:Friends and family all together~Laughing, hugging and sharing stories of times gone by.
How do I , a white woman, introduce the brown-faced members of my family? Like this:
He’s my brother.
She’s my sister.