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Image of the Month — 129 km from Toronto

November 27, 2022 — A Pleasant Summer and Fall, With Occasional Threats of Nuclear Doom

I’m writ­ing fresh from a relax­ing bub­ble bath. You all know how tough guys like me enjoy a good laven­der-scent­ed bub­ble bath. And I am fol­low­ing this plea­sure with a quick sup­per of home-made yaki­nori soba and steamed frozen dumplings. It’s time to reflect on this sum­mer and fall, and keep my friends up to date on how I’m doing.

Sum­mer was quite pleas­ant for me. The pleas­ant­ness began with a back­yard fish-and-chips din­ner with my friends Skye, Natasha, Isaac and Mag­gie. Good folk, good food, good talk, good times. When I returned home­ward, step­ping out of the sub­way at Welles­ley Sta­tion, the streets of the Church & Welles­ley Vil­lage were already jam-packed. Pride began the next day, but the crowds were already there, par­ty­ing… but I head­ed straight home to feed two cats of noto­ri­ous­ly stern temperament.

The next day, after sleep­ing in, I ven­tured out on to Church Street. Pride is always a big deal in Toron­to. It start­ed in 1982, as a protest against the police raid of gay bath hous­es that took place the year before, and it grew steadi­ly in size and respectabil­i­ty from then on, attract­ing many from around and out­side the coun­try. But, of course, it was can­celled in 2020 and 2021 because of Covid. I was curi­ous to see if there would be a sig­nif­i­cant “bounce-back” this year. In the last few years it was on, I had attend­ed Pride mere­ly because it was on my doorstep, with my apart­ment only half a block from the par­ty area. Crowds and big par­ties are not real­ly my thing. Over recent years, I have noticed the par­tic­i­pants get­ting steadi­ly old­er, most­ly the same faces, and the music was out of a time warp. It was suf­fer­ing the same demo­graph­ic chal­lenge as Sci­ence Fic­tion Fan­dom. The Vil­lage was still get­ting some refugees from small town oppres­sion, and peo­ple from Toron­to’s drea­ry sub­ur­bia com­ing down­town to do a lit­tle whoopy, but on the whole, the local com­mu­ni­ty had been get­ting old­er and more set in its ways.

Well, I need­n’t have wor­ried. This year, the crowd was huge ― like noth­ing I had ever seen before. The area of Church Street fenced off for con­certs, danc­ing, booths, and food trucks, was fif­teen blocks long. It stretched from Bloor to Dun­das, a dis­tance of 1.7 kms (some­what more than a mile). Every inch of this space was crowd­ed with peo­ple, and the after­noon crowds at Pride would give way to much big­ger ones in the evening. I have no fig­ures, but this seemed to me to be twice as big as any Toron­to Pride I’d ever seen. And, to my sur­prise, the crowd was young. There were far more peo­ple in their teens, twen­ties, and ear­ly thir­ties than I had remem­bered see­ing for many years. And, boy, were they hav­ing a good time. Pride has become a kind of uni­ver­sal car­ni­val and cel­e­bra­tion of free­dom, not some­thing con­fined to LGBT+. All of Canada’s var­ied pop­u­la­tion was rep­re­sent­ed. Every­one was enjoy­ing them­selves, except for about a dozen reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists hold­ing up signs at the cor­ner of Carl­ton street exhort­ing “repent your sins!” But lat­er in the evening, I rec­og­nized one of them, an earnest look­ing teenag­er, still in his churchy suit, but danc­ing with a drag queen and laugh­ing joy­ful­ly as if he had just escaped from prison. Free­dom is not cel­e­brat­ed with dirges and sour faces. Think of the video for Jon Bap­tis­te’s 2020 sin­gle “Free­dom” * and you’ll get the idea of the mood that had descend­ed on Toronto.

I did­n’t catch the parade on Sun­day, which I’m told was gar­gan­tu­an. For the whole week­end it was non-stop par­ty­ing, but on Mon­day, every­thing was mirac­u­lous­ly cleaned up. For such a huge event, I must say that every­thing was well planned and exe­cut­ed. A vast amount of lit­ter must have been gen­er­at­ed over the week­end, but when I came to the epi­cen­tre at the cor­ner of Church and Welles­ley, there was no sign of it, except for a cou­ple of stray bal­loons bounc­ing down the street. I enjoyed a cof­fee at Church Street Espres­so, my favourite spot for that mag­i­cal bev­er­age, and start­ed to read Bar­ry N. Malzberg’s Herovit’s World. But the book’s peev­ish tone was not suit­able for such a day.** For­tu­nate­ly, there was a yard sale a few feet from the café, and I bought a copy of Randy Bach­man’s Vinyl Tap Sto­ries for the sum of fifty cents. As my cof­fee dimin­ished in the cup, I read his account of a con­cert tour that The Guess Who made of Cana­di­an Armed Forces bases across the high arc­tic. This was in ear­ly 1968, when they were known only in Cana­da for a few sin­gles. Bach­man wrote:

We were told to wear our warmest clothes. It was the mid­dle of win­ter, forty below in Win­nipeg, and we were head­ing north towards the Arc­tic Cir­cle. I had this cool sheep­skin coat that was bulky but warm, and we all wore scarves, toques, mitts, and boots. When we showed up [at the Atlas car­go plane that would car­ry them] wrapped up in our win­ter wear these air force guys pro­ceed­ed to give us even more clothes to put on, telling us “Where you’re going you’ll need these extra clothes.” As big as my feet are, size thir­teen with big win­ter boots on, they put them into anoth­er pair of sheep­skin-lined boots with gal­va­nized rub­ber on the out­side. With six pounds on each foot, I could bare­ly walk. They then gave us parkas to be worn on top of our parkas. As he was hand­ing me mine, the offi­cer told me, “By the way, the but­tons are made of com­pressed, dehy­drat­ed soup, and inside the hood is an alu­minum lin­ing. If you take it out, put some snow on it, and place it in the sun, you can heat up the but­tons and eat the soup. In your pock­et is some ster­no and match­es to start a fire.” This coat was a walk­ing sur­vival kit. I thought to myself, “What have we got­ten our­selves into?!”

This was the per­fect thing to read in a side­walk café on a hot sum­mer day, and nos­tal­gia for any­one famil­iar with the North.

The next week­end was anoth­er kind of cel­e­bra­tion, for Fri­day was Cana­da Day. This has a dif­fer­ent style. Much as with the Amer­i­can Fourth of July, the Cana­di­an First of July is a mat­ter of lit­tle neigh­bour­hood fes­ti­vals, free con­certs, fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, pic­nics in local parks, and fire­works in the evening. There are sev­er­al good bands that I first heard per­form­ing at Cana­da Day con­certs (Moist and Bare Naked Ladies come to mind). So I went out for a stroll in the after­noon, won­der­ing if I would come across some nice lit­tle neigh­bour­hood fes­tiv­i­ty, or some good music in a park.

Not far from my home is Bar­bara Hall Park, a lit­tle patch of grass and patio bricks with a foun­tain, a mon­u­ment to AIDS vic­tims built some time in the 1990s, and a chil­dren’s play­ground. It’s a bit sketchy some­times, but it’s a very pop­u­lar lit­tle park. An aston­ish­ing vari­ety of peo­ple use it. The poor and the pros­per­ous rub shoul­ders, and on a sin­gle day I’ve seen gay cou­ples sun­bathing, old men play­ing check­ers on a bench, an elder­ly Mus­lim read­ing the Quran under a tree, kids prac­tis­ing soc­cer moves, and a bunch of actors rehears­ing scenes from As You Like It. There was no offi­cial Cana­da Day event in such a tiny park, but there was some­thing going on. Three mid­dle-aged men had set up some bev­er­age cool­ers and a Cole­man stove. They were cook­ing ham­burg­ers and hand­ing them out to peo­ple, along with cans of pop. There was no sign iden­ti­fy­ing any char­i­ta­ble group. There was no indi­ca­tion what­so­ev­er of any “cause” or orga­ni­za­tion. It was just three reg­u­lar guys (I rec­og­nized one of them) who lived in the neigh­bour­hood, who thought that the winos, lone­ly old folks and ragged sub­stance vic­tims left in the park while every­one else had gone off to fun in big­ger places, were just as wor­thy of some Cana­da Day good cheer as any­one else. As I passed, one of them offered me a ham­burg­er. I answered “If these are for peo­ple in need, I’m not in need.” He stretched out his arm with a burg­er in hand and said “Nope, these are for every­one.” And you know what? It was a real­ly good burg­er. Not some lame thing done on the cheap, but a prop­er home­made bar­be­cue burg­er with all the trim­mings. I’ve met sub­ur­ban­ites who show undis­guised dis­dain for the inner city neigh­bour­hood I live in, which they nev­er set foot in. Lit­tle do they under­stand what they’re missing.

These two week­ends set the tone for the sum­mer, as far as my mood was con­cerned. I spent my spare time, when not work­ing at the com­put­er, walk­ing around and enjoy­ing my neigh­bour­hood. I am still recov­er­ing from can­cer treat­ment, with only a frac­tion of my pre­vi­ous ener­gy and sta­mi­na, so I’m in no posi­tion to run off to some jun­gle, desert, or polar wilder­ness for boy­ish adven­tures or breath­tak­ing scenery. So, for the moment, walk­ing in wood­ed ravines and pok­ing around Toron­to’s neigh­bour­hoods will have to suf­fice. This is more inter­est­ing than it sounds, as Toron­to is under­go­ing a build­ing and pop­u­la­tion boom beyond any­thing it has expe­ri­enced before. Not just the pha­lanx­es of new sky­scrap­ers, but con­struc­tion at every lev­el. Tons of new and new­ly repaired infra­struc­ture, much of it influ­enced by the “New Urban­ism” and “Strong Cities” move­ments. Neigh­bour­hoods I last vis­it­ed just a few years ago have com­plete­ly trans­formed. The pan­dem­ic has had absolute­ly no effect on the sea of con­struc­tion cranes and fren­zy of build­ing, except to con­vince peo­ple that they real­ly like out­door din­ing patios and want to keep a lot of the ones built for Covid. They have made the streets far more agree­able. Every­where, peo­ple are putting more effort into their house gar­dens, and flow­ers are sprout­ing in front of com­mer­cial and apart­ment build­ings that nev­er had them before. The city is now engaged in a neck-and-neck bat­tle with Chica­go, hav­ing sur­passed it in eco­nom­ic clout, but not yet in sky­line or urban mys­tique. Toron­to’s lake­front is still not the equal of the Windy City’s spec­tac­u­lar Lake Michi­gan shore. But a flock of super­talls under con­struc­tion, and huge rebuild­ing at the mouth of the Don Riv­er, includ­ing a re-chan­nel­ing of the riv­er and new park lands, are expect­ed to clinch the com­pe­ti­tion soon. While Toron­to is an extreme exam­ple, there seems to be meta­mor­pho­sis of this sort occur­ring in dozens of North Amer­i­can cities. I don’t think I would rec­og­nize most of the cities I used to know well, if I vis­it­ed them now.

But the cen­tral social prob­lem of Toron­to is only made worse by this fre­net­ic growth. As with oth­er boom cities, such as Seat­tle, San Fran­cis­co and Van­cou­ver, rents are far too high. The build­ing boom can’t keep up with the influx of new­com­ers, who need to be housed, but archa­ic zon­ing laws squeeze devel­op­ment into nar­row seg­ments of the city. I live on the edge of one of these seg­ments. Here is my apart­ment build­ing, the mid­dle of a set of three walkups built a hun­dred years ago:

Next door is a 44-sto­ry build­ing and there’s a taller one across the street. Here is a pic­ture of my street three blocks to the west of me:

And here is the same street four blocks to the east of me:

I try to walk some dis­tance every day, some­thing nec­es­sary for recov­er­ing strength from my treat­ment. Each time I step out the door, I must decide to walk either to the east or west, each of which opens a dif­fer­ent world, and has a dif­fer­ent set of options for north and south. But famil­iar as every­thing is to me, I don’t have to go far before find­ing some­thing unfa­mil­iar that has popped up when I was­n’t pay­ing atten­tion. On one per­am­bu­la­tion, I dis­cov­ered that under­neath the ele­vat­ed sec­tion of East­ern Avenue, just before it cross­es the Don Riv­er, where I had­n’t looked for years, there is now a set of bas­ket­ball courts and a rather good skatepark, and all the con­crete pil­lars and walls have quite beau­ti­ful mur­al art on them. It’s full of kids. Yet it gives no impres­sion of being “offi­cial.” Rather it seems to be some­thing that just grew there, like a mush­room pop­ping up on your lawn after a warm rain.

So I had this pleas­ant sum­mer and fall, walk­ing dai­ly, gain­ing strength and health, while explor­ing inter­est­ing cor­ners of the city. The air was fresh, a mil­lion flow­ers pleased the eye and nose, and every apple turnover, samosa, sashi­mi and slice of piz­za picked up along the way was sub­lime. A com­bo play­ing decent R & B on Par­lia­ment Street filled me with joy, and an old man play­ing a sweet-sad tune on his 二胡 in Riverdale park, filled me with calm. The cow pas­tured in the chil­dren’s “farm” [a sweet fea­ture of the park] lis­tened intent­ly, too.

Park Snacks, a sum­mer­time-only shop fac­ing Riverdale Park. It’s owned by two Montrealers.

And yet, the March of Fol­ly con­tin­ues in the back­ground. The Forces of Dark­ness, man­i­fest in the bel­liger­ent and decrepit empires of Putin and Chair­man Xi, the author­i­tar­i­an move­ments around var­i­ous small­er dic­ta­tors and would-be dic­ta­tors, bar­bar­ic move­ments of reli­gious fanati­cism, the antics of ruth­less and ego­tis­tic bil­lion­aires, and the trea­so­nous and moral­ly cor­rupt Repub­li­can Par­ty in our neigh­bour to the south. Even Cana­da has it’s por­tion of creeps, thought they have not found much support.

Putin’s impe­ri­al­ism has put the world on the edge of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion, and even if he is bluff­ing, may trig­ger famines killing mil­lions. The giant fraud of Xi’s Com­mu­nist Chi­na is unrav­el­ling before our eyes. Every­where, the most idi­ot­ic kinds of crack­pot luna­cy are snatch­ing the minds of oth­er­wise nor­mal peo­ple. With super­sti­tion ram­pant, sci­ence and rea­son ignored, edu­ca­tion being cor­rupt­ed and destroyed, pro­fes­sion­al liars and pro­pa­gan­dists deploy­ing new and effec­tive tech­niques, mobs of delud­ed morons attempt­ing to over­throw democ­ra­cy where it exists, and mil­lions of nitwits now lit­er­al­ly con­vinced that the Earth is flat or that our main prob­lem is demons and alien lizards, it’s bizarre for me to feel so con­tent and opti­mistic. But I am. In fact, I’ve nev­er been so con­tent and opti­mistic dur­ing the whole of my life.

It’s easy to come to the con­clu­sion that we will either be fried to death by nuclear weapons, or slow­ly bar­be­cued by the glob­al warm­ing we have brought on our­selves, or sub­ject­ed to some infan­tile theo­crat­ic dic­ta­tor­ship that will enslave us while scream­ing ser­mons at us. Back in 1951, the pre­co­cious young Sci­ence Fic­tion writer Cyril Korn­bluth wrote a sto­ry called The March­ing Morons, which explored human gulli­bil­i­ty and stu­pid­i­ty with deft satire. It was bla­tant­ly pla­gia­rized in the 2006 film Idioc­ra­cy. Korn­bluth, a fine styl­ist and bril­liant satirist, died absurd­ly and shock­ing­ly at the age of 34, in 1958. He was prob­a­bly most famous for his col­lab­o­ra­tive nov­els with Fred­erik Pohl, includ­ing an acknowl­edged clas­sic,The Space Mer­chantsUnlike Korn­bluth, Pohl lived a long and pro­duc­tive life, writ­ing suc­cess­ful­ly until his death in 2019. When I spoke to him in 2003, he was still mourn­ing Korn­bluth. As for me, I read The March­ing Morons when I was kid, and the title has rou­tine­ly popped into my head when­ev­er I’ve wit­nessed some face-palm induc­ing stu­pid­i­ty of humankind. I don’t think a day has passed since 2016 when the words “march­ing morons” haven’t been in my thoughts.

Yet, I also have the per­spec­tive of his­to­ry, count­ing myself a minor suc­cess in that dis­ci­pline. Anoth­er writer approached it a dif­fer­ent way. Hemann Melville wrote a cou­ple of suc­cess­ful nov­els in his youth, but rapid­ly slipped into obscu­ri­ty. When he wrote Moby Dick in 1851, it sold only a hand­ful of copies. Its sta­tus as an icon of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture dates only from the 1920s. But even when it was acknowl­edged that Melville was a great writer, few peo­ple “got” his last nov­el, The Con­fi­dence-Man, His Mas­quer­ade, pub­lished on April Fool’s Day in 1857 with its action set on that very day. It’s only recent­ly that this strange nov­el has elicit­ed any­thing more than head-scratch­ing, or at best been dis­missed as a “failed exper­i­ment.” Now there are at least some who con­sid­er it a work of genius. I read it when I was very young, and there was at the time no incen­tive to read it even among the most lit­er­ary peo­ple. I don’t know if I under­stood it on the first read­ing. The lan­guage is dif­fi­cult for a mod­ern read­er — it repro­duces very old col­lo­qui­al speech among Amer­i­cans of a vari­ety of regions and sta­tus, and that speech is now quite dif­fi­cult to inter­pret. It has no vis­i­ble plot. It does­n’t even remote­ly resem­ble what was con­sid­ered a “nov­el” either in 1857 or today. But scenes in it float­ed in my mem­o­ry through­out my life, and I now think that it had a per­va­sive influ­ence on my inter­ests, my atti­tudes, and my approach to life. I also think it would be hard to find a more imme­di­ate­ly rel­e­vant piece of 19th cen­tu­ry fiction.

The Con­fi­dence-Man was writ­ten a decade after the term was coined. The orig­i­nal “con­fi­dence man” was one Samuel Thomp­son, whose odd­ly direct tech­nique for part­ing the gullible from their prop­er­ty gave us the name “con­fi­dence man,” now usu­al­ly just “con-man.” From this ori­gin, we now refer to any swin­dle as a “con.” Thomp­son would dress like a “gen­tle­man” — some­thing strict­ly cod­i­fied in 19th cen­tu­ry soci­ety, even in Amer­i­ca. He would approach peo­ple, who he knew would be car­ry­ing an expen­sive pock­et watch, or a dia­mond bracelet, or a well-stocked wal­let, and ask them: “Do you have suf­fi­cient con­fi­dence in me to trust me with your watch [or oth­er item] for a few min­utes, after which I will return it to you?” It was all in the style. He was a Gen­tle­man. You could have con­fi­dence in the hon­esty of a Gen­tle­man. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple would give him their valu­able prop­er­ty, and he would just walk away with it, dis­ap­pear­ing into a crowd. He had mere­ly to choose a place and time where the vic­tim, slow to real­ize what had hap­pened, could not eas­i­ly pur­sue him. In his nov­el, Melville explored the many dif­fer­ent things that peo­ple choose to have con­fi­dence in, and the many ways that their con­fi­dence is exploit­ed. It is set on a Mis­sis­sip­pi steam­boat, with a vari­ety of char­ac­ters meet­ing and talk­ing to each oth­er over the course of a day. The nov­el is strange­ly dream­like, com­i­cal, reveal­ing the weak­ness­es of human­i­ty, and yet it does not come across as cyn­i­cal. It mere­ly observes human nature like we would observe the behav­iour of mice or lobsters.

If you think that human gulli­bil­i­ty has dimin­ished since then remem­ber these things — Item: Trump, a noto­ri­ous­ly fraud­u­lent prop­er­ty devel­op­er and “real­i­ty show” per­former, descend­ed an esca­la­tor in front of a crowd of actors that he had hired to stand around and cheer. Trump had pre­vi­ous­ly conned a vari­ety of news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, pub­lic offi­cials, banks, and cor­po­ra­tions into believ­ing he was a genius and mul­ti-bil­lion­aire, though in fact, he had mere­ly squan­dered a medi­um-sized for­tune he had inher­it­ed and then been propped up finan­cial­ly by Vladimir Putin. He had long been an “asset” of Moscow, begin­ning in the old Sovi­et days. Sev­en­teen months after the esca­la­tor stunt he was elect­ed to the most pow­er­ful pub­lic office in the world, and was in charge of Amer­i­ca and 2,821 nuclear weapons. A cult of mil­lions has not only been whipped into idol­a­trous devo­tion for him, but some have pro­gressed in stages from polit­i­cal sup­port to believ­ing that he is anoint­ed by God to rule Amer­i­ca. Among the most fanat­i­cal, he is even seen as a rein­car­nate avatar of Jesus.
Item: Just recent­ly, a young man named Samuel Bankman-Fried walked away with sev­er­al bil­lion dol­lars giv­en to him by gullible investors, includ­ing many rep­utable finan­cial insti­tu­tions. Regret­tably, the Ontario Teach­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion Pen­sion Plan invest­ed a hun­dred mil­lion. Jour­nal­ists, bankers, investors, and politi­cians in great num­bers were con­vinced by his trans­par­ent­ly stu­pid bit­coin scam. A few wis­er heads point­ed out that he was basi­cal­ly sell­ing mag­ic beans, but were ignored. Bankman-Fried care­ful­ly craft­ed his image, dress­ing and talk­ing like a young genius-nerd entre­pre­neur who “just wants to make the world bet­ter” and talked about “not being inter­est­ed in mon­ey” and “liv­ing sim­ply” while in real­i­ty he lived in a lux­u­ri­ous man­sion in the Bahamas with his “polyamorous” pals. This month, as the ponzi scheme col­lapsed, he pub­licly boast­ed that this pose was mere­ly a “dumb game” he played to reel in the suck­ers. Bil­lions have “mys­te­ri­ous­ly” dis­ap­peared, and he no doubt has access to much of this errant cash. Item: Mean­while, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin pur­sues his Des­tiny as the embod­i­ment of the Russ­ian Soul, pre­des­tined to defeat Evil Amer­i­ca and Evil Europe, and urges the youth of Rus­sia to sac­ri­fice their lives for him, while the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church assures them that they will have auto­mat­ic entry into heaven.

Think of these items, and pon­der the fact that there is absolute­ly noth­ing unusu­al, sur­pris­ing, or unpre­dictable about them. They are mere ran­dom exam­ples of behav­iour in high places. And they dif­fer from events in low places only in the fact that they are more vis­i­ble and record­ed by his­to­ry. At every moment there is some­body sell­ing mag­i­cal cures for dis­eases, or ter­ror­iz­ing inno­cent chil­dren with hell­fire for imag­i­nary sins, or ped­dling Q‑anon garbage while rak­ing in mil­lions on lec­ture cir­cuits and talk shows. At every moment, some elder­ly man or woman is los­ing their retire­ment check to some smooth-talk­ing oper­a­tor. At every moment, some self-declared Mes­si­ah is telling well-craft­ed lies, either to dozens or to mil­lions. At every moment, some child is starv­ing to death to buy a yacht for a monster.

And yet, I am not a cyn­ic. Cyn­i­cism is, I think, just anoth­er pose, like the “gen­tle­man” and the “leader anoint­ed by God” and the “genius entre­pre­neur” pos­es. I can­not walk through the tree-filled streets of Toron­to, look­ing at it’s fran­tic squir­rels, at racoons scam­per­ing from tree limb to rooftop, at patient moth­ers mind­ing their tod­dlers at the kid­dy splash pool, then chat with the friend­ly lady who sells me cof­fee and beg­ni­ets at the Con­go Café, and after­ward sit down at the com­put­er to write, impos­tur­ing as a cyn­ic. True, I under­stand that I am not a young woman with a new­born baby hud­dling in a base­ment in Ukraine, pray­ing that the next strike of Putin’s mis­siles will not end both their lives. I under­stand that I am not a young Uighur in one of Xi’s prison camps, fac­ing the prospect of tor­ture or brain­wash­ing, or both. I under­stand that I am not an eleven-year-old girl in a hos­pi­tal bed, going through the ago­nies of ter­mi­nal leukemia. But I’ve seen a few things. I under­stand that peo­ple suf­fer. They may despair, but those peo­ple, I can assure you, are not cyn­ics. Cyn­ics pon­tif­i­cate their cyn­i­cism from com­fort­able armchairs.

Which is why it’s good to get lit­tle reminders of dis­com­fort, when things are, as they have been for me, very pleas­ant. As Sum­mer shift­ed into Fall, I was walk­ing on a street quite near to home. The side­walk was per­fect­ly clean and dry, with no irreg­u­lar­i­ties or obsta­cles, but I sud­den­ly found myself slammed to the ground in a frac­tion of a sec­ond. My face was mashed against the con­crete side­walk, my hand some­how crushed on the curb beneath the weight of my body, shins and knees banged up and the breath knocked out of my chest. It hap­pened with­out any sen­sa­tion of trip­ping or slip­ping on any­thing — I was just walk­ing, and then was abrupt­ly squashed on the pave­ment as if it was a clum­sy cut in a film. Passers­by helped me up. I felt no dizzi­ness or any indi­ca­tion of a frac­ture or con­cus­sion. I pro­ceed­ed to the super­mar­ket uncon­cerned, only to be informed by the check­out clerk that my face was bleed­ing from the fore­head and right cheek­bone. By the time I was home, my face was start­ing to turn yel­low and pur­ple, and two fin­gers on the right hand were look­ing even worse. By the next day, I looked like I had just stum­bled out of a bar fight in Yel­lowknife.*** For two weeks, my chest was painful enough make sleep dif­fi­cult in any posi­tion, and typ­ing at the com­put­er was one-hand­ed. I popped in for some X‑rays, but they revealed no bro­ken bones, oth­er than old frac­tures from more adven­tur­ous times. All the dam­age quick­ly healed.

As Fall came on, and the weath­er fore­cast iden­ti­fied the last nice day of the year, I left the city to try a more ambi­tious walk. I have not been in the near­by city of Hamil­ton for decades, so I was curi­ous to see what it looked like now. And, with its impres­sive cliff-face, exten­sive marsh­lands, and giant rust­ing steel mills, it seemed a good pos­si­bil­i­ty for a change of mood and some inter­est­ing walk­ing. It was easy and cheap to get there by the GO com­muter train.

I was not dis­ap­point­ed. I spent the whole day walk­ing around. Right near the rail­way sta­tion, where I arrived, was James Street, clear­ly the hippest street in the city, with a mix­ture of trendy clubs and upscale shops mixed in with old Por­tuguese fish mar­kets and immi­grant busi­ness­es, all in old build­ings that have been cleaned up or restored. Some of the build­ings are real­ly fine, and despite the new­er mon­ey and ten­ants, it has not betrayed its roots as an old Por­tuguese and Ital­ian work­ing class district. 

Fol­low­ing this street led me straight down­town. Hamil­ton has a few lar­gish office build­ings, some of them old and charm­ing. Most dis­tinc­tive is the Pig­ott Build­ing, built in 1929 in the Sky­scraper Goth­ic style with some touch­es of Art Deco ― the sort of build­ing that Super­man would leap over in the old­est comics, before he could actu­al­ly fly. 

Hamil­ton’s pre-WW2 glo­ry. The Pig­ott build­ing’s spire is vis­i­ble behind two oth­er build­ings of the era.

From the 1940’s to the ear­ly 1970’s, the city was dom­i­nat­ed by its two home­grown steel man­u­fac­tur­ers, Dofas­co and Stel­co, which in their hey­days had the con­ti­nen­t’s most advanced mills. Dur­ing the 1950’s, Hamil­ton was the wealth­i­est city in Cana­da, and that wealth was expressed in it’s 1950’s style sub­urbs — as well as 1950’s style pol­lu­tion. It’s long been known as a blue-col­lar town, and has the pecu­liar­i­ty unique in Cana­da of being a Foot­ball Town rather than a Hock­ey Town. The Hamil­ton Tiger Cats (the “ti-cats”) are root­ed for with gus­to. When the steel indus­try went into decline in the 1990s, Hamil­ton drift­ed into lim­bo for a few decades. Some young pro­fes­sion­als have been mov­ing there late­ly, lured by low­er hous­ing prices, and because McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty has been blos­som­ing, espe­cial­ly in med­i­cine and nuclear physics. But the fre­net­ic recent growth of Toron­to and it’s sub­urbs has not yet reached it. Burling­ton, just a few miles to the east, is clear­ly a Toron­to sub­urb, with all the 2022 trim­mings, but walk­ing through most of Hamil­ton is a form of time trav­el. It looks and feels like two gen­er­a­tions ago, with only a few timid hints of this one. It’s only a short walk from the down­town office core to res­i­den­tial streets dot­ted with emp­ty lots and old two-sto­ry brick store­fronts with fad­ed paint­ed signs. 

The Hamil­ton Twi­light Zone

A nice trib­ute to Hamil­ton’s blue-col­lar roots.

To cel­e­brate this Twi­light Zone expe­ri­ence, I bought din­ner at a Chi­nese take-out place that must have been there for a cen­tu­ry. I could not resist what it had to offer: the old “Chi­nese-Cana­di­an” food that once could be found at every rail­way stop across Cana­da, con­sist­ing of chop suey, fried rice, bar­be­cued wings and bat­tered chick­en balls coat­ed in a glow­ing pink sauce that looked radioac­tive. Such things nev­er exist­ed in Chi­na, but once they fin­ished build­ing the rail­way across Cana­da, Chi­nese work­ers spread this impro­vised cui­sine to every cor­ner of the coun­try, much as they did in the U.S. You would be hard-pressed to find this old stuff in Toron­to, where the del­i­ca­cies of Sichuan, Hunan and Shan­tung are the norm, and peo­ple earnest­ly debate the authen­tic­i­ty of Mon­go­lian hot pots. Of course, this sat­is­fy­ing feast came with a for­tune cook­ie, which was terse and gen­er­al on the Eng­lish side, but curi­ous­ly par­tic­u­lar on the French side.

The last of an old breed.

When I got home, rather tired because I had not done so much unin­ter­rupt­ed walk­ing since before the can­cer diag­no­sis, I found myself back in my com­fort zone. The two cats for­gave me for lock­ing them in for an entire day. They slept con­tent­ed­ly at either side of me, and I too fell asleep. In the night, I was awak­ened by a loud crash­ing sound. I rose and walked around the apart­ment, look­ing for some­thing that could have caused it, but found noth­ing. Assum­ing that it must have been a dream, I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I went to the kitchen to make some cof­fee, which would taste best in my favourite blue cof­fee cup. What I did not know was that the “dream” sound had been real. Inside the kitchen cab­i­net, the plas­tic studs that had been hold­ing up the shelves for some unknown num­ber of decades had slow­ly aged into brit­tle­ness, and in a sui­ci­dal moment, had dis­in­te­grat­ed. The top shelf col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a cas­cade effect on the shelves below. The cab­i­net was stuffed with dish­es of every sort. When I opened the door, an avalanche of dish­es poured down upon me, smash­ing against the fridge, the counter, the stove, and my most­ly naked body. In the sud­den tor­na­do of bro­ken crock­ery, I received a dozen cuts, two of them deep gash­es. I spent a long, unpleas­ant time treat­ing the cuts and clean­ing up the chaos of bro­ken glass, porce­lain and spat­tered blood. The music nec­es­sary for this task was alter­nat­ing tracks of Prokofiev, Turkuaz and Steely Dan. I’m not say­ing this was fun, but I could reflect that my archae­ol­o­gist friends do this every day for a liv­ing. As with before, all the injuries rapid­ly healed, though one will prob­a­bly leave a long-term scar.

Clear­ly, the Gods are pur­su­ing a “let’s play tricks on Phil” agen­da (I’m look­ing at you, Loki, Raven, Coy­ote, Anan­si, Nan­abozho, Gwydion, and an assort­ment of leprechauns).
And yet, I am still not a cynic.


* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YHVC1DcHmo

** I fin­ished it lat­er on, in a more tol­er­ant mood.

*** Yel­lowknife [Dogrib name: Sǫǫ̀mbak’è] is the cap­i­tal of the North West Ter­ri­to­ry of Cana­da. Pop­u­la­tion 20,340. Record low tem­per­a­ture, −51.2 °C / −60.2 °F. See any hon­est account of this town for many lurid descrip­tions of bar fights.

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Image of the Month

Cor­nelius Krieghoff (1815–1872) paint­ed numer­ous scenes of coun­try life in 19th cen­tu­ry Cana­da, most­ly around Mon­tre­al and Que­bec City. Note the two sleighs, which were com­mon modes of trav­el in the win­ter. The one on the right looks like a “Port­land Cut­ter” a wide­ly used sleigh in Cana­da and the north­ern U.S. It orig­i­nat­ed in Maine. The low-slung “car­riole” on the left was a more tra­di­tion­al local design. Many were built by Léon D’Amours of Trois-Pis­toles, Que­bec. The man con­fronting the dog has a bot­tle in one hand an a fid­dle in the oth­er, both essen­tial for a house party.

Image of the Month

Image of the Month — Mogg Bay, 23 km south of Igloolik, Nunavut

Tuesday, April 19, 2022 — The Secret Path

I am for the wolf, pitch-black and yel­low eyes
This is the only place to be
For the raven arriv­ing first to get my eyes
This is the only place to be
And I’m for the poor sun, always against the mind­less night
This is the only place to be
And I’m for the wind, in the pale blue sky
This is the only place to be
On this earth-like world
It’s cold and real
And with a sun-like star
You can feel
I’ll just close my eyes
I’ll just catch my breath
This is the only place to be

[“The Only Place to Be” — 9th song from The Secret Path)]

I final­ly saw the film com­po­nent of The Secret Path. I heard all of the songs on Gord Down­ie’s album when it was released in Octo­ber of 2016, and liked them, but I did not see the film. Now I have. This would be some­thing that I would not have to explain to most Cana­di­ans, and some­thing that I would cer­tain­ly not need to explain to any­one from Canada’s First Nations. How­ev­er, the read­ers of my blog are inter­na­tion­al, and most are unfa­mil­iar with Canada’s pecu­liar low-pro­file cul­ture, so I will explain some things for their sake.

The Trag­i­cal­ly Hip are a rock band that was tremen­dous­ly pop­u­lar in Cana­da through­out its career, but apart from a cou­ple of briefly suc­cess­ful sin­gles nev­er broke out into the Amer­i­can or glob­al mar­kets. Not every­one in Cana­da likes the band, but every­one is aware of it. It’s not my favourite band, or even my favourite Cana­di­an band, but I lis­ten to it fair­ly often, when it suits my mood. But I can tell you from the expe­ri­ence of hitch-hik­ing across the coun­try that the peo­ple who were like­ly to give me a ride, when I stood for­lorn and mos­qui­to-bit­ten on the dusty shoul­der of the Trans-Cana­da High­way, like as not had a Hip cas­sette play­ing in their car or truck, and a bunch of them scat­tered on the front seat, which they hasti­ly gath­ered up to let me sit. The Hip began the usu­al way, a hand­ful of high school bud­dies start­ing a band and work­ing their way up play­ing local joints in the small city of Kingston, Ontario. The ear­ly songs were strik­ing, and well played, though not par­tic­u­lar­ly ambi­tious in their arrange­ments. An ear­ly hit, “Blow at High Dough”, has a pret­ty basic chord pat­tern and chug-along rhythm gui­tar and slide gui­tar, and depends most­ly on the pecu­liar­i­ty of Down­ie’s voice and his enig­mat­ic lyrics to hook the lis­ten­er. As time went on, gui­tarists Paul Lan­glois and Rob Bak­er, bassist Gord Sin­clair, and drum­mer John­ny Fay picked up greater and greater skill, and attempt­ed sub­tler and more ambi­tious tech­nique, while Gord Down­ie’s lyrics became more and more poet­ic. But the Hip always behaved and played like a real­ly good bar band. Their sub­ject mat­ter —- the world from the point of view of the small-town under­dog, had the pecu­liar mix­ture of con­cern for the envi­ron­ment, out­rage at social injus­tice, ghost­ly snatch­es of dream­like imagery, along with pick­up trucks, junior hock­ey and get­ting drunk at the town curl­ing rink that appealed to Cana­di­ans and felt Cana­di­an. For exam­ple, “Wheat Kings” was told from the point of view of David Mil­gaard, who served twen­ty years in a Man­i­to­ba prison, wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed of murder:

There’s a dream he dreams where the high school’s dead and stark
It’s a muse­um and we’re all locked up in it after dark
The walls are lined all yel­low, grey and sinister
Hung with pic­tures of our par­ents’ prime ministers
Wheat kings and pret­ty things
Wait and see what tomor­row brings

and this theme is even stronger in “38 Years Old”, set in an Ontario prison:

Same pat­tern on the table, same clock on the wall
Been one seat emp­ty, eigh­teen years in all
Freez­ing slow time, away from the world
He’s thir­ty-eight years old, nev­er kissed a girl

If you’ve ever heard Neil Young’s “Help­less” or Joni Mitchel­l’s “Raised on Rob­bery”, for exam­ple, you can guess that this sort of thing has long formed the core of musi­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty in Cana­da. Nobody here sings about their lam­bergh­i­nis or design­er watch­es or what macho dudes they are. Cana­di­ans laugh at brag­garts. By the time Down­ie wrote “Ahead By a Cen­tu­ry” in 1996 , with its erot­ic dream of two teenagers climb­ing a tree togeth­er to make love and fig­ure out their des­tiny, the lyrics were way past the con­ven­tions of either pop song writ­ing or sto­ry­telling. But the song had been worked out from impromp­tu jam ses­sions done as ear­ly as when they first per­formed “New Orleans Is Sinking”.

Stare in the morn­ing shroud
And then the day began
I tilt­ed your cloud
You tilt­ed my hand
Rain falls in real time
And rain fell through the night
No dress rehearsal, this is our life
But that’s when the hor­net stung me
And I had a seri­ous dream
With revenge and doubt
Tonight, we smoked them out

In 2012, after decades of sol­id suc­cess, The Hip played in Fort Albany, Ontario, pop­u­la­tion a smidge over 2,000 ― hard­ly a mon­ey-mak­ing venue ― shar­ing the stage with a local band. Fort Albany and Kashechewan First Nations live most­ly by tra­di­tion­al trap­ping, hunt­ing and fish­ing, and their small pop­u­la­tion var­i­ous­ly speaks Cree, Ojib­way, Eng­lish, French, and Oji-Cree (a sort of com­pro­mise between the first two). The town is acces­si­ble only by bush planes and, in mid-win­ter, by a long and dan­ger­ous ice road dri­vable only by spe­cial­ly trained truck dri­vers. It was here that Gord Down­ie learned the sto­ry of Chanie Wen­jack, a twelve-year-old boy from Ogo­ki Post, a tiny upstream First Nations vil­lage, who escaped from mis­treat­ment at one of the noto­ri­ous Res­i­den­tial Schools and died of hunger and expo­sure while attempt­ing to walk 600 kms back home. It also began a kind of spir­i­tu­al bond between The Hip and First Nations that would grow steadi­ly deeper.

In 2015, Down­ie was diag­nosed with a fatal brain can­cer, with the expectan­cy of soon and cer­tain death. The band was deter­mined to keep play­ing til the end, and their last con­cert, in their home town of Kingston, was broad­cast cross-plat­form and nation­wide to an esti­mat­ed audi­ence of one third of the coun­try’s entire pop­u­la­tion. This includ­ed every sin­gle liv­ing per­son in the town of Bob­cay­geon, the set­ting and title of one of their best songs. After thir­ty songs and three encore sets, they fin­ished with “Ahead By a Cen­tu­ry.” But Down­ie also had a spe­cial solo project in mind. This was The Secret Path, which was to be much more than the album of ten songs that Down­ie com­posed. It was pack­aged with a graph­ic nov­el which Down­ie wrote and was illus­trat­ed by cel­e­brat­ed DC and Mar­vel comics artist Jeff Lemire, an ani­mat­ed film ver­sion of the graph­ic nov­el direct­ed by Down­ie, and a suite of relat­ed instruc­tion­al mate­ri­als for pub­lic schools. These were pre­sent­ed togeth­er in con­cert at Roy Thomp­son Hall in Toron­to on Octo­ber 2016, with Chanie Wen­jack­’s sur­viv­ing sis­ters present. This was Gord Down­ie’s last pub­lic per­for­mance. He died on Octo­ber 17, 2017. The Prime Min­is­ter called a spe­cial press con­fer­ence, in which he announced the death of “our bud­dy Gord, who loved this coun­try with every­thing he had…”

As I said, I heard the album when it came out. I did not know what to expect, but I end­ed up watch­ing it with a friend and restrain­ing tears, because Secret Path is not only a fine piece of ani­ma­tion, but it touch­es on many parts of my life. The songs have a pecu­liar, repet­i­tive and almost dron­ing qual­i­ty, with no fan­cy licks or catchy tunes, and an odd absence of cadence. Now, hav­ing seen the film, I under­stand that these pecu­liar­i­ties are nec­es­sary com­po­nents of the music and the ani­ma­tion tak­en togeth­er. They cap­ture exact­ly the way young Chanie’s mind must have expe­ri­enced his des­per­ate jour­ney. I can tell you from expe­ri­ence that in pro­longed and over­whelm­ing dan­ger, your brain repeats words and phras­es like obses­sive tics. You become a rhyth­mic chant of help­less­ness and fear, and this is how the boy would have expe­ri­enced the events that he endured, the mem­o­ries that swamped him, and the hope­ful fan­tasies that kept him going.

I’ve known sev­er­al peo­ple who went through the same ordeals that Chanie went through at Cecil­ia Jef­frey Indi­an Res­i­den­tial School in Keno­ra, or in any of the 138 oth­er such schools in the coun­try. I’ve known an even greater num­ber of peo­ple who were the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion vic­tims, grow­ing up with par­ents strug­gling with severe psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems and alco­holism trace­able to their abuse in child­hood. This always put the less­er trou­bles of my own child­hood in per­spec­tive. I’ve been study­ing the issue most of my life, gath­er­ing up what doc­u­men­ta­tion I could get a hold of. There was not much avail­able at first, but in recent years much more objec­tive data and analy­sis has become avail­able. I am still in the mid­dle of read­ing mas­sive reports. Why has so much mate­r­i­al recent­ly become avail­able? Part­ly because of the dis­cov­ery of unmarked children’s graves on the sites of aban­doned Res­i­den­tial Schools, which has shocked the nation. But prob­a­bly more because of Gord’s music, graph­ic nov­el and film, and it’s accom­pa­ny­ing edu­ca­tion­al mate­r­i­al. These are now teach­ing aids in many Cana­di­an schools. The prof­it from them has been spent exclu­sive­ly on inde­pen­dent asso­ci­a­tions striv­ing to expose and doc­u­ment this injus­tice, and to heal the injuries it left behind it. And it cre­at­ed the psy­cho­log­i­cal break­through that forced the Cana­di­an pub­lic to face up to the truth.

In one part of the ani­mat­ed film, which I did not under­stand when I only heard the song, we see Chanie des­per­ate­ly using the match­es which his moth­er had giv­en him before he was sent away. This is the third song, “Sev­en Matches”.

She gave me matches
Sev­en wood­en matches
She put them into a small, slim glass jar
With a screw-top lid
I fin­gered that jar
I put it in my pocket
She said, ‘Can’t go into the woods with­out them’
I smiled at her and left
And I kept them dry
And as long as there were six
I’d be fine
As long as there were five
Match­es in that jar
Mile after mile
On the chick-chick chick-chick sound of the matches
On the mem­o­ry of her smile
I kept them dry
And as long as there were five
I’d be fine
As long as there were four
Match­es in a jar
With a screw-top lid
I know she did not mean to hurt my feelings
But that’s what she did
And I kept them dry
And as long as there were three
I’d be fine
As long as there were two
Match­es in that jar

Know­ing that his artis­tic cre­ation would have to be expe­ri­enced by young chil­dren, and used to teach in school, Down­ie did not direct­ly refer to the sex­u­al abuse that is known and noto­ri­ous. Instead, he just con­cen­trates on Chanie’s help­less­ness and fear expressed through ges­tures and oblique images. It is, after all, the help­less­less and fear that mat­ters, and chil­dren are per­fect­ly capa­ble of under­stand­ing this. 

In the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Canada’s pio­neer and wilder­ness soci­ety was meta­mor­phos­ing into some­thing more com­plex. Reform­ers strug­gled to estab­lish pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In the urban and agri­cul­tur­al south, Canada’s First Nations had long been an inte­gral part of its social fab­ric. Abo­rig­i­nal names resound­ed in the coun­try’s mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal his­to­ry. It was our Mohawk and Ojib­way gen­er­als who had repelled an Amer­i­can inva­sion and made the coun­try’s future pos­si­ble. Seneca and Mohawk farms were as good as, if not bet­ter than those of Euro­pean set­tlers, and First Nations com­mu­ni­ties sprout­ed busi­ness­men, cler­gy­men, ath­letes, schol­ars, writ­ers and poets. But in the north­ern wilder­ness, it was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Abo­rig­i­nal life in the big emp­ty part of Cana­da (most of the coun­try) remained tra­di­tion­al, and com­mu­ni­ties were tiny, scat­tered, and remote. It seemed log­i­cal to bring edu­ca­tion to these com­mu­ni­ties by means of board­ing schools, which would mean remov­ing kids from their fam­i­lies. The reform­ers no doubt were mod­el­ling this enter­prise on the famed Mohawk Insti­tute, found­ed as ear­ly as 1831. It was also tak­en for grant­ed that the Church­es were both the nat­ur­al source of teach­ers and the unques­tion­able foun­tain­head of moral­i­ty. This was to turn what began as a move­ment of pro­gres­sive reform into a total­i­tar­i­an night­mare of abuse and tor­ment. The First Nations of the North were famil­iar with sym­pa­thet­ic mis­sion­ar­ies, who were usu­al­ly pious men who learned their lan­guages, defend­ed their inter­ests, and respect­ed their way of life. The peo­ple who ulti­mate­ly ran these Res­i­den­tial Schools were noth­ing like that. They were strict and fanat­i­cal ide­o­logues who saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have total author­i­ty over help­less kids that they could mould as they wished into what­ev­er they wished. And the Gov­ern­ment would pay them to do it! Pay by the head. And the Gov­ern­ment would not make any effort to over­see or ques­tion them, since the moral pro­bity of the Angli­can, Catholic and Pres­by­ter­ian Church­es could not be ques­tioned. On top of that, the atti­tudes of Canada’s rul­ing elite under­went a not-so-sub­tle trans­for­ma­tion in the last quar­ter of the cen­tu­ry. With cheap trans-Atlantic steam­ers, it became pos­si­ble for Canada’s rich to send their kids to school in Britain, or even Con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Many returned stuffed with the “mod­ern” and “sci­en­tif­ic” ideas of racial and cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty and infe­ri­or­i­ty, which had pre­vi­ous­ly had lit­tle influ­ence in Canada’s egal­i­tar­i­an back­woods cul­ture. Even when Canada’s new elite were aware of the nasty things going on in the Res­i­den­tial Schools, they did not dis­ap­prove. This atti­tude would hold for a half a cen­tu­ry, with only a hand­ful of voic­es raised in oppo­si­tion. And as Cana­da became more urban and indus­tri­al, what­ev­er hap­pened in the north­ern hin­ter­lands seemed of lit­tle consequence.

For much of Canada’s old­er gen­er­a­tion, First Nations issues seem to be noth­ing but an end­less cycle of bick­er­ing over old treaties and occa­sion­al flair-ups where the peo­ple in some remote vil­lage in the bush block a log­ging road. The “tree hug­gers” and urban-based activists that ally with them often get most of the cov­er­age and do most of the talk­ing. Cana­da may nev­er have had “Indi­an Wars” like the U.S. or sys­tem­at­ic depor­ta­tions and geno­ci­dal slaugh­ters, but it has had legal dis­putes that last­ed cen­turies. For exam­ple, the legal sta­tus of an entire neigh­bour­hood in down­town Toron­to, based on the exact inter­pre­ta­tion of Toron­to Pur­chase Treaty 13 with the Mis­sis­saugas of the New Cred­it First Nation signed in 1805, was only sort­ed out in 2010. As you can imag­ine, the his­to­ry of such dis­putes is so long and com­plex that it will nev­er be com­pre­hen­si­ble to most peo­ple.* Despite the reg­u­lar use of the word “racism” in this con­text, it real­ly is not appro­pri­ate. Cana­di­ans are not brought up with any con­cept of First Nations as being a “race” in the sense that Amer­i­cans use the word, or to have any par­tic­u­lar hos­til­i­ty to them, or con­tempt for them, or fear of them, nor do they con­ceive of them as an alien “oth­er”. There are First Nations in every part of Cana­da, but since they are most promi­nent in remote non-urban places, and least promi­nent in the biggest cities, they are main­ly tucked into Cana­di­ans’ minds as iden­ti­fi­able minor back­ground char­ac­ters, along with rodeo cow­boys, lob­ster fish­er­men, high-steel con­struc­tion work­ers, and British Columbi­a’s weed-smok­ing snow-board­ing hip­sters (An irony is that First Nations have a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence in all four of the groups I just list­ed). It’s only in some spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ties where the eco­nom­ic inter­ests of a reserve and a near­by town con­flict, or where First Nations have a strong show­ing on skid row, that there is any overt prej­u­dice. And, while many First Nations com­mu­ni­ties are pros­per­ous, Canada’s wilder­ness is full of tiny reserves that seem to be in a con­stant state of finan­cial or envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. These reserves often stand on land wrapped up in those com­plex treaties, which were drawn up because Fed­er­al and Provin­cial gov­ern­ments thought the land was worth­less, but sub­se­quent­ly found out it was full of oil or dia­monds, or gold, or rich fish­ing grounds, or valu­able tim­ber. Keep­ing their inhab­i­tants from estab­lish­ing any sol­id title to these good­ies has always been a pri­or­i­ty, espe­cial­ly with the Provin­cial gov­ern­ments that are in thick with the rel­e­vant indus­tries. Every­where, gov­ern­ments present to the pub­lic the image that they are giv­ing “hand­outs”, gen­er­ous set­tle­ments and benev­o­lent char­i­ty to First Nations when they are actu­al­ly only ful­fill­ing the oblig­a­tions of the treaties that they signed long ago, and doing that grudg­ing­ly and stingi­ly at best. Most Cana­di­ans of the old­er gen­er­a­tion under­stand noth­ing of this, and per­ceive it as gov­ern­ments giv­ing unfair pref­er­ence to a sub­group of the nation because of some neb­u­lous wrong in the dis­tant past, which they acknowl­edge must have hap­pened, but don’t under­stand why they should be “pay­ing for” now. The facts that Cana­da has no his­to­ry of “Indi­an wars” or forced pop­u­la­tion removals like the U.S., that First Nations have always served dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in our armed ser­vices with great dis­tinc­tion, and that many First Nations com­mu­ni­ties are pros­per­ous exem­plars of the mid­dle class makes the issues of the poor and besieged ones all the more baf­fling to them. 

But there are oth­er kinds of vio­lence and oppres­sion than wars or lynch­ings, and the most immoral of them are those that vic­tim­ize chil­dren. Steal­ing some­body’s land may piss them off, snob­bery and big­otry may make life a hard­ship, pover­ty is a drag, but steal­ing chil­dren from their fam­i­lies and ter­ror­iz­ing them is in anoth­er class of evil. It scars them in a way that cuts to their souls, not just their bank accounts. I grew up pret­ty poor, in an unhap­py fam­i­ly, and expe­ri­enced some nasty stuff well into my teenage years, but it’s just some expe­ri­ence under my belt. It does­n’t hurt me now, and I’m smarter and more empath­ic because of it. But most of the kids who were dragged away to Canada’s Res­i­den­tial Schools, where they were psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, phys­i­cal­ly and often sex­u­al­ly abused at the most ten­der and vul­ner­a­ble age were not able to just tuck it under their belts and write it off to expe­ri­ence. The Res­i­den­tial Schools left a whole gen­er­a­tion dam­aged, and in turn dam­aged the gen­er­a­tion that fol­lowed it. The Secret Path was meant to be more than just part of a heal­ing process. It was meant to give the next gen­er­a­tion in Cana­da an under­stand­ing of their past, and the most pre­cious gift of all, self-aware­ness and free­dom from delu­sion. If you are an Amer­i­can who is at this moment con­front­ed with the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s attempt to cen­sor and re-write Amer­i­can his­to­ry in the same way that the Com­mu­nist Par­ty or the Nazis did, then you hope­ful­ly know just how pre­cious is the gift of free­dom from delusion.

Gord’s project, which he pur­sued with pas­sion and unbe­liev­able hard work while he was actu­al­ly dying, was root­ed in the fact that he real­ized that he was an extra­or­di­nary lucky man. In fact, he pro­claimed this at his last con­cert: “I am the luck­i­est man in the world.” Not only had he been gift­ed with love and respect, but he got to know and deter­mine the style and dig­ni­ty of his own death. He also knew that these were pre­cise­ly the things that Chanie Wen­jack had been cheat­ed of. When that lit­tle boy fled the night­mare world he had been plunged into and ran des­per­ate­ly to get back home to the fam­i­ly that loved him, he was every hero of lit­er­a­ture that you should take seri­ous­ly. But unlike the heroes of art, there was no hap­py end­ing, no ren­di­tion of jus­tice, no dig­ni­fied exit.


* The 1805 treaty was almost cer­tain­ly bogus. In 1787, coun­cils of three groups of Mis­sis­saugas were con­vened at which trade goods were dis­trib­uted in recog­ni­tion of their loy­al­ty dur­ing the strug­gle with the Amer­i­cans, and guar­an­tee­ing “right of pas­sage” for new set­tlers across the area that would even­tu­al­ly become Toron­to. By the time of the 1805 treaty, this had been mag­i­cal­ly trans­formed into a “doc­u­ment of sale” and only much lat­er was it dis­cov­ered that the “deed” to Toron­to [which meant “car­ry­ing place” or “meet­ing place”] was com­plete­ly blank, with the marks of three Mis­sis­sauga chiefs on sep­a­rate scraps of paper sus­pi­cious­ly sand­wiched into it. This proved some­thing of an embar­rass­ment con­sid­er­ing the land that it cov­ered is now the third largest urban econ­o­my in North Amer­i­ca, hav­ing dis­placed Chica­go for this posi­tion in the last few years. One par­tic­u­lar­ly nag­ging con­flict that has gone on for lit­er­al­ly cen­turies in Cana­da and has come to the point of vio­lence sev­er­al times is a dis­pute over a small patch of land in the sub­urbs of Mon­tre­al that traces back to antag­o­nism between Catholics and Methodists over con­trol of a cemetery.