John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. Two of his stories were published in February 2019: A New Old Love in Spadina Literary Review and Filmmaker in Moon Magazine
A New Jerusalem
Point Douglas once held a place in Winnipeg’s history; the original site of the Selkirk Settlers, named for Lord Douglas their sponsor and benefactor, home for a period early in his career to Tommy Douglas, the Lord’s name-sake and one of Canada’s great politicians. But, for a long time it’s been something else, one of those parts of the city not forgotten so much as having slipped from the collective mind. You hear or read about the district – urban renewal in one councillor’s campaign, a place that needs more policing in another’s, newspapers reporting terrible crime rates, a TV journalist telling the story of a new immigrant family finding its way. Most Winnipeggers, attention caught for the moment by a photo or headline, in all likelihood pass quickly on, unsure where in the city it is.
The aspirations of the early settlers to make Point Douglas the residential pinnacle were dampened and then destroyed by the decision to lay the railroad through the very centre. This split the community into industrial south and residential north. The north, hemmed in by tracks, Main Street and the curve of the river, is a small area by Winnipeg standards. It’s collection of streets, with most houses built in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, look neglected to say the least. Winnipeg is known for its boulevards and trees. Point Douglas is an exception, as if the city planners of the time knew it wouldn’t amount to much and invested little. And, lying east of Main Street, it seems not to be thought of as part of Winnipeg’s famous North End. Its current identity? The district is changing, home to an increasing number of Natives, a destination for some of those leaving the reserves.
Rita watched out the window as the bus started up, Jimmy at her side, still sniffling. She looked down at her mother standing alone. Their eyes met but there was nothing more to say. Jimmy crawled over her lap, waved to his grandma.
The bus pulled away. Jimmy returned to his seat, Rita kept her gaze out the window. They passed the school she attended as a child, the school she was getting Jimmy away from. It seemed even more desolate: paint peeling off the concrete-block walls, blinds hanging askew, the playground with weeds and long grass around the edges.
Their Reserve, in the midst of cottage country, is bisected by a highway that leads to a nearby town and to many cottages beyond. In the summers, especially as a child, Rita watched the endless parade of cars passing through, city folk on their way to this lake or that. She often wondered what those city folk lives were like and what they thought of the Reserve.
Houses slid by, scattered, standing alone; doors hung loose, dogs wandered, old appliances and kids’ toys littered yards. The bus slowed, pulled into the oncoming lane, passed children playing on the shoulders of the highway, a little boy peddling his tricycle, a smaller girl standing on the back holding on, brother and sister, children of a friend. Jimmy played like that at their age. Rita shuddered, turned to her son, stroked his head. His eyes came up to hers, still full of accusation. “I don’t want to go,” he had said, angry, hurt, loud enough for anyone at the gas station to hear. He had turned to his grandmother as though seeking her support. Grandma met his eyes and then those of her daughter. Rita saw only resignation. Grandma hugged them both, said nothing, stepped aside as they boarded the bus, didn’t try to comfort Jimmy.
‘I have no choice. There’s no life for him here.’ Those words had become a kind of mantra for her over the preceding days. Now there was no point.
The bus picked up speed, houses became fewer. Near the edge of the Reserve it passed two teenage girls hitchhiking. Rita recognized them. Already at her emotional edge, her stomach heaved, the taste of bile rose into her mouth.
Many of my clients live in Point Douglas, our terrain isn’t it, we social workers. We’re paid decent money – laughably not what lawyers or accountants get – to work with this part of the population. In another era an American politician coined the term ‘war on poverty’. What nonsense! If indeed there ever was such a war it’s one lost every day. Poverty remains, pockets to be found throughout this rich country, and shows no signs of going away. I sometimes wonder if my profession is in some way contributing to this sad state. Looking at what we do, it may seem we earn our living off the misery of others. Some might suggest we have an investment in not eradicating it.
Those thoughts come to me from time to time, not so much from the reality of poverty but the weariness of some of my older colleagues. Black humour is a part of all helping professions. One of the psychologists I work with points out that if you break up the word therapist it becomes ‘the rapist’. Bad, so bad. However, it reflects his effort to maintain good practice. Our clients are vulnerable people and, if you slip, let your weariness take over or become lazy, you can do damage. From time to time, I hear such things from my peers. One that sticks in my mind is ‘the natives are getting restless’, an old colonial phrase, demeaning in intent, the kind of implied racism you still hear in coffee shops or on the street. You shouldn’t hear it from an experienced social worker.
In this case the speaker was saying something more. The reserves Natives live on are a condemning example of our colonial past. Little has changed: reserves remain nothing more than rural ghettos or, some commentators claim, open prisons. Many Natives choose to leave or are driven away by, among other things, the material despair they live in. They are coming to the cities and, in Winnipeg, a good number have settled in Point Douglas. When you concentrate an ethnic group in a small area, new conditions develop. Energy emerges, people get restless, change occurs – not always for the better.
* * *
“He can’t read,” Rita said to me at our first meeting, her voice quiet, almost soft, like that of other Native women I worked with. For a young woman those words were heavy. “He’s eight. He’s supposed to be in grade three. The school on the reserve isn’t very good.”
She had brought herself and her son Jimmy to the city, to North Point Douglas, where they were assigned to my case load. She was afraid for him, not just that his life would be hard if they remained on the reserve, but that he would get lost like so many.
At our first meeting she said little about the reserve or the life there. She was clear, however, in her reasons for leaving. When she told me Jimmy had been in school for two years and still couldn’t read, I must have looked at her in some doubtful way and so she restated herself.
“He can’t read and not because he isn’t smart.” I remember she paused for a moment as if to make sure I understood her. Then she added, “There’s no hope. I had to get him away.”
At our second meeting, less shy, she had another point to make; the move was for her as well. She left school after grade eight, could read “okay” but couldn’t do much with it. She held up a week old newspaper and read me the headline about more troubles in the Middle East and some sort of occupation or stand-off in Jerusalem. “I know what it’s saying. I don’t know where it is or who the people are. I should know and I don’t.” Then she added, eyes on the floor, “This happens all the time. It bothers me and I feel ashamed.” Her eyes came up and met mine. “I have too much shame in my life – when I look for a job, when I show welfare vouchers, when I talk to the principle at Jimmy’s school.”
Her look and her tone said something else. ‘This is the way it is. I’m here and I need help. You’re a social worker so you’ll know what to do.’
I remember thinking two things. I liked how she said what she had to say and thought I could help. The other was ‘how sad.’ Outside of her family or those on the reserve, it’s people like me who are in her life, not tradesmen or bankers, not engineers or store managers. Sometimes I feel we are the underbelly of the professions.
Still, I was a part of the larger picture of her life. As a white person and a social worker I brought a lot of stuff to the situation. For instance, I often had mixed feelings when I entered their neighbourhood. The poverty throughout, that of the Native people most apparent by the many dilapidated houses, was oppressive and disturbing. Did I feel out of place? I did, and not just because of my work and the mix of suspicion and hopefulness it aroused. This came from the obvious privilege I carried: white, professional, a university educated way of talking, clothes, car, and the reality that I lived somewhere else.
The challenge to any social worker in such situations is always the same: could I be trusted? I think I was well suited. After all, I wouldn’t be in the profession if I didn’t possess some natural compassion. Of course, trust is a whole lot more. Could I actually do anything for them besides monitor their welfare cheques or keep an eye on how they lived? Trust is earned, so often in practical ways. Could I make a difference, however small?
I think I met some of those demands but it was rarely easy. At times, when I started in the area, before Rita and Jimmy arrived, I felt unsafe going into the district. Drug and alcohol abuse were widespread and it had one of the highest crime rates in the city. We are trained to be aware and cautioned to be careful. The feeling was something more though. It came from the reality of poverty itself. Too much despair turns into hate. Be trustworthy, be nimble, be watchful. Good social workers learn those skills. If they do they’re rewarded with some degree of trust and respect and, in cases like Jimmy and Rita’s, some sense you have made a difference.
He was a bright kid, which always helps. Bright or not my job was to find the resources he needed. I worked with his school, with his teacher, got the assessments done, lined up a reading specialist and found him a tutor. None of it happened overnight. He didn’t trust teachers, didn’t trust whites, had a chip on his shoulder. You could see the wariness in his eyes, the way he stared, not just at me but the other professionals entering his life, who were, in a sense, about to take it over.
I think Rita hoped that just by moving to the city the turnaround for him would be quick. That didn’t happen. This led to moments of frustration, more so when his attitude seemed to be resistant to any change or any help.
Jimmy looked at her, sullen.
Despite several weeks of extra help Jimmy still couldn’t read. Rita feared – old worries eating at her – something might be wrong with him.
She sat with him most nights, reviewed the lessons sent home, tried to be the best parent she could.
“You can do it. I know you can,” she offered many times.
Nothing helped; the set on his face wasn’t going away. Angry at being pulled away from his friends, missing his grandma, thrown into a new school and new surroundings; Rita knew it was all that and more.
“Why is it taking so long?” Rita asked me on one visit, her question full of a mother’s concerns.
“It takes time,” I said. “I’ve talked to the school. He’ll catch on. Don’t worry.” The tilt to her head expressed doubt. No surprise; members of my world would have given her reassurances in the past. I was certain my words weren’t empty. Time and hard work by a lot of people are part of any such undertaking.
The payoff came after a few months. First you could see he was settling in, getting comfortable with his school, his classmates, his teacher and various helpers. His guard came down a little. What I called the chip on his shoulder, a fierceness in his eyes, became not so obvious. I was sure the reason he couldn’t read had more to do with distrust and rebellion than with ability. Once, after I got to know them, I travelled through their reserve and took a look in on the school. What else could you feel except dismay – beat up, equipment sparse, books in tatters and out of date? How is this possible? Less than two hours from the city and yet it was like some third world country. As a child, I would have been upset, so unfair.
They came to the city in the early fall. Because of his inability to read the school placed him in grade one which obviously ticked him off. In January he moved into grade two. Not only was he reading, he brought books home and began to enjoy stories. Rita smiled and, in her typical understated way, said “I think it’s going okay.” His teacher said he showed a knack for numbers. Once he got past the hurdle reading presented, she reported some time later, you could see he had a mind for arithmetic. My satisfaction came from seeing how pleased this made Rita. It was, as is said, just a start.
Statistics tell us Point Douglas is one of the poorest districts in the city and, at the bottom of those numbers is the Native population. The conditions met the standard for what academics refer to as a culture of poverty, children never getting out of the patterns their parents lived.
Anyone growing up in a white, middle class family is unlikely to grasp the full extent of what this means, social workers no exception. Middle class culture is one of choice and opportunity; safety is taken for granted. The culture of poverty is that of survival, living day to day, meeting the most basic of needs and, in many ways, not knowing what feeling safe means.
However, things were beginning to happen and not only with social workers. Teachers in the school Jimmy attended were open to change and the principle open to implementing those changes. Rita and other Native mothers, encouraged to become involved, formed their own PTA. At first it seemed not much, perhaps a few women getting together for coffee. However, the mothers, with the principle’s support, resurrected a program of Native culture that had petered out some years earlier. Together they got it started again.
Two benefits came out of that. Jimmy, who had stopped speaking his native Ojibwa, regained it. The other was that it energized the mothers. They found a purpose, talking less about specific family problems and more about the challenge of finding money and resources for their project.
They took on more, challenging the general curriculum. Grade five Social Studies, where Jimmy was by that time, introduced the children to various world cultures, but very little about North America’s Indigenous peoples. One can only imagine how the community at large would react if no Canadian history were being taught.
Rita herself began upgrading during this period. She wanted to become a nursing aide and needed to finish at least grade ten. Other changes occurred. I left the district, moving on to different responsibilities. When I made my last visit Rita and I talked about the changes, especially how Jimmy had come along. She thanked me. We hesitated a moment and then I offered a hug. She accepted.
I re-entered their lives some years later. All of us working in social services were feeling the pressure of the influx of Natives into the city. Politicians continued to – what are the words I want – struggle with, dawdle over, prevaricate on, dither. I suppose it doesn’t matter which word you choose. The problems of the Indian Act and the disaster of Indian Reserves were, if anything, getting worse. The Native population had become the fastest growing in Canada. Reserves were increasingly unable to support the numbers, and so for those and other reasons, many left, heading to the cities.
I was a supervisor of a regional office in another part of the city, one with its own unique clientele. The swelling number of Natives affected us all. Rumblings, talk, gossip, news stories – all sorts of stuff started to surface, some about Point Douglas, which had become an increasing focal point.
It wasn’t just the influx. The population of the district had become more aboriginal than white or immigrant. Native cultural and spiritual centres had been built, dance and music groups were formed, an almost all Native boy peewee hockey team won the city championship the year before; more of the teachers and a few of the social workers were Native, a Native woman from the district almost got elected to city council.
This had been laid out in a meeting, one convened to apprise us of the changes. “Isn’t that great,” I remember commenting.
“Maybe not,” another speaker replied. He then uttered that terrible colonial phrase, “The natives are getting restless.” I wasn’t sure if this was a misplaced attempt at humour or meant something more serious. It turned out to be a little of both but more of the latter.
My position gave me some latitude in how I spent my time. Although I had had no contact with Rita and Jimmy since I left I sometimes thought about them. The work we do requires a certain distance with clients, important not to become too idealistic or too connected. Still, something about Jimmy and Rita stuck with me. Was I touched – one of those unexplained bonds between beings – or had I allowed myself to become hopeful? If hopeful, then about what?
The answer to that question is probably more complex than I want to think about. They were ‘on track’ when I last visited them but on track for what? They had established themselves in the world of education and they had made the transition from reserve to city life. So many Natives I’ve worked with don’t or can’t manage that transition.
I wondered how they were doing and if indeed they still lived in the same neighbourhood. Rita remembered me and accepted my request to visit. They lived in a different house but on the same street. Rita was now a health care worker in a seniors’ residence. She told me she earned enough money to afford a mortgage and was buying the house, “like a real white person,” she said, laughing. I was taken by the way in which she had changed. That long ago, shy, just-off-the-reserve woman now talked easily, chattered and had opinions.
She told me about the changes around her. More and more Natives becoming home owners, the streets getting cleaned up and looking like some of the white neighbourhoods, crime down, kids staying in school. I asked about Jimmy and was surprised when she told me he was sixteen and in grade eleven.
“Not possible,” I said. “What happened to the little boy I first met?”
She shook her head. “The time has gone by fast.”
“How is he doing?”
“Like his mother.”
She smiled. “You won’t believe it. School is easy for him. He gets good grades without really trying.”
“The two of you have done well.”
“Yes, better than I ever hoped. And don’t be offended but it’s good not to be on welfare.”
“No offence. In fact I take it as a compliment. It means we were doing our job. Not that we get the credit. That goes to you, your determination and all your hard work. We just helped a little.”
“You helped a lot, especially in the beginning. If Jimmy hadn’t got on in school I don’t know where we would be. You made sure it happened.” She looked at me, met my eyes. Then she did something she had never done, reached out and took my hand. “Hear me,” she said. “You made a difference. Jimmy wouldn’t be where he is today if you hadn’t done what you did.”
I might have said, ‘Just doing my job’, easy words and wrong. I let myself absorb her words, squeezed her hand and said, “Thank you.”
She went on. “There’s more.”
“He got elected to student council.”
“There are lots of Native kids in his school but it was more than them. Lots of white ones voted for him too.”
“You must be proud.”
“I am,” she said and then paused. “But I’m worried, too.”
Again I waited.
“We talk about politics now. That’s good.” She stopped and smiled at me, then said, “I know where the Middle East is and who the Palestinians are.” We both laughed. She went on. “There’s still discrimination. He sees it around the school and even from one or two teachers. They never do anything bad, he told me, but you can tell by the way they treat the Aboriginals.”
“I guess not. What worries me is how angry he gets when he talks about it. And it’s not only school that upsets him. He talks about poverty and how so many Natives live that way. You can see he’s really bothered by it.”
“Those are things we should all be angry about.”
“I know. But a lot of Native men are like that, angry all the time. Maybe that’s why so many of them turn to drink or to crime. They’re angry and can’t do anything about it.”
“True of a lot of men.”
She looked at me as though I had said something stupid. Trite and unthinking I realized, made myself get back to being professional.
“So, not just with his anger. You’re worried what he might do with it.”
“Yes,” she said, giving off a deep sigh.
“What do you fear?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t really know. He’s strong and he’s played lots of sports so I know he can take care of himself. I don’t think he’d hurt anyone, at least not on purpose.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”
“But no answers.”
She laughed. “I’m not even sure I know the questions.”
Jimmy told her in one their talks he wanted to do something about the problems. At first he planned to go to university and become a math teacher. Recently, when they talked, he thought maybe he’d become a lawyer or a politician. She liked the sounds of that. Still, there was almost always his anger.
Jimmy had little memory of me at first. I could see in his face I was just another white. Later, on another visit, he did talk about those early years. Whether Rita prompted him or he remembered on his own, I don’t know. Whatever the case, he made a point of thanking me for the help he got. He said he wouldn’t be in school now if I hadn’t been there at the time.
Gratifying to hear but not the reason I was there. Initially I had let my curiosity make the contact. As Rita and I talked I felt my interest change to fascination with what she had done with her life; I wanted to hear more. At the same time, the restlessness we were all feeling went deeper than one client’s life. I told Rita about the pressures and how I hoped by talking to her and Jimmy I might better understand the changes occurring.
“I think that’s good,” she said. “I’m not sure how much we can help but I know Jimmy has things he wants to say.” We agreed to a couple more visits.
Her involvement in the Native community went beyond anything she ever imagined. Some I knew, such as how it started with the PTA, an important lesson, showing her and others they weren’t helpless. Their first success had been bringing an elder into the school to introduce or re-introduce the children to Native cultural practices. Language instruction followed, with Jimmy recovering his Ojibwa.
It got better. About the time I left they started fund raising for a Native Cultural centre. She headed a committee that solicited and obtained community as well as government support. Jimmy often attended the public meetings with her, where he got some of his ideas and ambition she thought. She described the centre, open for almost two years, as an active place, a real accomplishment, one she felt proud of. It all sounded good. She agreed, but only to a point.
“So, not all is rosy?”
“No. These changes we’re talking about, most are good, but there are some things I don’t like the feel of.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe like what you and your workers are feeling. Jimmy broke up a fight not long ago between one of his Indian friends and a white kid. Jimmy’s a strong boy and he could do it. But some of the white kid’s friends threatened him.”
“Isn’t that normal teenage boy stuff?”
“I don’t think so.”
“The white kids’ threats included taunts about being Indian. You know the kinds of things – dirty Indians, go back to the reserve, get out of our school – all the dumb stuff we keep thinking we’re passed. Jimmy doesn’t get upset that easily. This time was different. He was mad.”
We went on to talk about other things. She liked her job at the seniors’ residence. One old guy often teased her about her nice red skin, but never in a mean way. It was his way of flirting, she said. Even at that age they still have those things on their minds. She talked about the other staff members, many of whom were Filipino. She got along with them and they too teased about skin colour, what they had in common.
This was a success story, one that made me wonder if I could find a way to tell it, a case study, an article in our professional newsletter. So much of our work is behind the scenes or, when it’s noticed, often for unpleasant reasons. A lot of that has come out in recent months related to apprehensions of Native children and the poor way they fare in foster homes. I decided to leave it alone. I couldn’t see how I would do Rita and Jimmy any good by bringing them into any sort of public attention.
* * *
Ross House, one of the original settler’s homes in Point Douglas, had been its first post office. Over the middle part of the twentieth century the building fell into disrepair. A group of people – whites of course – stepped in, arranged to move it from near the river to a park in the centre of North Point Douglas and turned it into a museum, one that told the story of white settlement. Small and out of the way, the museum became something of a popular showpiece for Winnipeg and its history.
An unexpected spotlight was shone on it when a group of Natives living in Point Douglas, represented by their almost City Councillor and two or three other Natives with careers and professional status, proposed taking it over. The white history could be moved to other local museums. The Native story should be told and Ross House would be a good place to do that.
Strong opposition from the white community came almost immediately. At the same time, several other Native voices spoke out, supporting the idea. This symbol of white settlement in the middle of a Native community, cause for celebration for the white’s, represented loss for the Natives. In the museum itself white settlers are at the centre of the displays, Natives on the margins. That’s changing, the voices said. Taking over Ross House would move the change along.
“Jimmy, what have you done?”
“Nothing, Mom. Not even a real fight.”
“But a week’s suspension.”
The panic Rita felt took her back to the days when she was trying to leave the reserve. Jimmy registered her look, backed away, saying, “No big deal, Mom. A few days away from school won’t hurt me.”
“But what happened?” she asked, recovering enough to need to know.
“I found the guys who set the fire.”
“The Cultural Centre? How did you know?”
“Not hard to figure out. They’re always mouthing off.”
“I challenged one of them. He took a swing at me. I put him against a locker, could’ve pounded him. Now I wish I had.”
“Oh Jimmy.” The feared catastrophes flooded in, images of Jimmy not finishing school, the fate of so many of the men around her – no school, no job, no life.
“Mom, I’m out for a week. I’ll go back and I’ll finish,” he said, as though reading her thoughts.
Rita agreed to stay in touch; through her I could better keep abreast of how things might be unfolding. Her phone call wasn’t one I expected. Could I come around? Jimmy was in trouble.
My mind went to a story in that day’s paper, their cultural centre being vandalized. Nothing serious – graffiti, a small fire, a couple of windows broken – however, the report talked of ongoing conflict between white and Native communities, the reporter speculating about problems between rival gangs.
I went that evening, taking a few minutes before hand to walk in the neighbourhood, found myself struck by the changes. The day had been a pleasant spring one and now, after supper, people were out in their yards, on their steps, walking the streets, a surprising, lively sight. In the beginning, when I first got to know Rita and Jimmy, the houses resembled tumbledown fortresses, tattered blinds on windows, screen doors hanging loose, fences falling over. Those properties remained but a noticeable number had been cleaned up with a cared-for look about them. Several new residences had been built, including a row of upscale town houses. Cars on the street were more up-to-date and the way people out on this pleasant evening were dressed gave off the impression of employment and comfort
When I arrived, I found Rita more upset. Jimmy had left, angry with her for inviting me. Gangs had always been present in the neighbourhood as is the case wherever drugs are a problem. Jimmy, wary, stayed away from kids he knew were members. One of those gangs, however, had been active in other ways, more about being Native and standing up to the whites than criminal things. She feared they might be drawing him in.
She confirmed the essence of the news story and that Jimmy swore he knew those responsible. She described the confrontation with one of the boys, a member of a white gang, and the fight they got into right in the school. Jimmy earned a week’s suspension, not so terrible in itself. The fight, however, made things worse. Most of the gang were tough kids, some dealing drugs and others rumoured to be involved in petty crime. Since the fight they had become more aggressive in taunting the Native students.
Rita was right to be worried. Things worsened with two more vandalism attacks, one on the art work of Native students at the school and another on a Native restaurant on Main Street where a fire was set and windows broken. I heard, via one of our youth workers, the police were concerned about the Native gangs, including talk among them of forming a defense group to patrol their neighbourhood, more talk or at least rumours of them finding ways to arm themselves. One story indicated an expedition may have been made back to a reserve to collect hunting rifles. As always with such rumours they likely held a grain of truth.
Some of this information became public a few days later. Our world relies on free and open access to news; there are times when it does a disservice. In this case, a reporter had talked to what she called ‘both sides’ in the dispute. Her story included the rumours, hinting at ‘posses’ and ‘vigilantes’ and suggestions guns were available. Was it all true? Whether true or not the story had the effect of formalizing the notion of sides, the kind of thing hot-heads thrive on. How terrible when it becomes us versus them. The real enemy in all this is poverty, inevitably lost sight of when emotions get heated.
What happened next isn’t clear. Shots, several fires set, one that burned down a ceremonial wigwam, more vandalism, all within North Point Douglas. Then, a possible retaliatory attack, this a drive-by shooting in which a young, white gang member was hit. With conflicting eyewitness reports no one could say if the shooter was Native. The police increased their patrols, including pairs of officers walking the beat along Main Street and into North Point Douglas as they had in the old days.
Jimmy returned to school in the middle of all this Rita told me, her voice edged with worry. He stayed out later, appeared not to be doing much homework and, worst of all, he wouldn’t talk to her.
With the increased police presence things quietened. However, like one of those summer storms that circle, the disturbance touched down elsewhere. Point Douglas had more Natives than any other ethnic group; still, the population was small, a thousand or so. The Native population in other parts of the city had grown but was scattered, not concentrated like in North Point Douglas. And, the natives were indeed getting restless. Several spokespersons emerged, demanding that the Native population of the area be given more protection. At the same time some of those voices raised an outcry – nothing new of course – about the ongoing impoverished state of most Natives. North Point Douglas, one claimed, had become an urban reserve. The news reporter wrote several stories, one highlighting the formation of vigilante-like groups of Natives from other parts of the city. She followed up with stories about reaction in the white community, rational and deep concern about the plight of Natives in one and latent racism, anger and hints of retaliation in another.
Like those same summer storms, the sky cleared and the sun came out, the turbulence forgotten, the city back to normal living. Jimmy started to talk again to Rita, got himself re-oriented to school and would complete his grade eleven year. The suspension, however, resulted in him being prohibited from continuing on student council. That did not sit well.
It wasn’t just him, Rita told me. Things may be quiet and the police not patrolling as much; still, something was in the air, more storms she thought.
Jimmy and Rita were together, mingling with the small crowd, waiting for the celebration to begin. She hugged his arm, smiled at him, said, “Next year this will be you.”
He turned at her, a mix of ‘don’t do this here Mom,’ and pleasure, maybe more for what he was giving her than what he was gaining for himself.
“We should have had something like this when you finished your training.”
She smiled, hugged his arm again.
This wasn’t the first of its kind, but important in its numbers, eight Native students graduating from Jimmy’s high school. What had been a trickle of one or two per year increased to a small flow. When Jimmy’s cohort reached the same point the next year, if all went well, twelve in total would graduate. This gathering at the cultural centre was to honour the eight with a ceremony, an evening of music and dance to follow.
When the brief ceremony ended two of the boys in the group of eight drove back to their school, returning for unknown or at least unimportant reasons, the school still open, parking lots almost empty. They retrieved what they went for, returned to their car, encountered a group of white youths. Both were beaten, the one less hurt drove the other to hospital. He was unconscious when they got there, suffering head injuries, a broken cheek, broken nose and concussion, fortunately, none of it life threatening.
When word got back to the cultural centre it produced the expected outcry – concern, fear and then anger. An elder rose to quieten the gathering. We don’t know what happened he said or who did these things. We have to keep our heads. Parents gathered near him, drawn in natural support, a move that separated the older from the younger. Words said one thing, the physical distance another.
A young woman, admired because she was at university, with a reputation for being outspoken, was heard to say, “Enough. I’ve had enough.” She pulled away from the gathering and went outside. A number of the students, including Jimmy, followed her.
The wonder of cell phones and social media: within an hour, dozens of Natives from other parts of the city congregated outside the Cultural Centre. At least two car loads left and went searching the streets around the high school, checking the known haunts of the white gangs. An encounter occurred, somewhere west along Selkirk Avenue, spilled over onto the street, blocking traffic as fights broke out, car windows smashed. The first police on scene called for back-up. By the time those reinforcements arrived, complete in riot gear, the melee was over and the combatants gone, leaving only broken glass, a piece of two-by-four fashioned into a club, a scattering of other debris and traces of blood.
The police who were present did what they are required to do: photos were taken, licence plate numbers recorded, combatants actions noted. Those gathered at the Cultural Centre were just learning of the confrontation when an invasion of police and police cars descended on them. Later, the Mayor apologized for the police tactic, clearly ill thought out, reactive rather than responsive. All those waiting in and around the Cultural Centre had been herded inside.
Rita called me later that night, worried. Jimmy wasn’t home and she had no idea where he was. I knew nothing of the happenings; she filled me in as best she could. Her concerns for Jimmy were genuine and deep. I used my access through our youth workers; several on the emergency team had been called in. They helped me locate him, in custody, arrested for possession of a potential weapon, a small pen knife, as it turns out, one he always carried. I picked Rita up at her home and together we went to get him. It was well past midnight by the time he was released. What I saw next, when I drove them home, was disturbing to say the least.
North Point Douglas lies east of Main Street, a small crescent of streets, hemmed in by the river and the railway tracks. As I drove north along Main, the first two entry points were blocked by old cars, groups of Native youths, mostly, but not all male, milling around. Rita and Jimmy saw it as well, a mix of intensity and camaraderie, loud voices, guys jostling one another, girls mingling, directing. Jimmy, who had been slouched sullenly in the back seat, perked up. His breathing changed, he mumbled words that sounded like ‘yeah man.’ Rita, her voice more distinct, said, “Oh no,” sounding to me as if the scene was shocking and yet not unexpected. Then she said, “You better drop us off.”
“I can’t do that,” I replied. “I’ll take you home.”
“No. It might not be safe for you.”
“Not for you either. Not at this time of night and not with what’s going on. I will take you,” I said in my most authoritative voice. I took a quick look at Jimmy in the rear view mirror expecting he might have something to say. He had retreated back into himself, but the sullen look was gone, replaced, I can only think, by one of anticipation. He said nothing, appeared unaware of me.
We found an unblocked street and turned in. At their house I waited in the car until they were inside. It was almost three in the morning. I drove back along the same street, got to Main and encountered another group rolling yet another old car into place to block the intersection. I gauged enough room for my car to get by without any danger of hitting it or them, was almost past when a loud thump on the right door startled me.
“You better get out of here whitey,” a male voice yelled. Then, from my side, one of them pounded his fist on the hood. Frozen for a moment, fearful of accelerating away lest I hit one of them, fearful things would get out of hand. My mind was made up for me when I felt the car starting to rock. I stepped on it and got out on to Main Street where I was surprised to see few cars and no people. In and out of the storm, just like that. Shaken, I heard myself say out loud, “Now what?” more fear in my tone than I would have liked.
By the time the police organized a response, they found every entry point into North Point Douglas blocked with old cars, clearly a supply at the ready. A day or so later one of the lighter comments stated they were just cleaning up the neighbourhood. It wasn’t only cars; all sorts of things – old furniture, fencing and even kids’ toys – were piled around the cars, as if all this junk and debris itself had a statement to make.
Once home I turned on the TV. A news helicopter, already in the air, showed a series of barriers. Behind these the streets were active – pick-up trucks on the move gathering ever more material and delivering it to what were becoming barricades; a group of people in an apparent patrol, carrying weapons, moving from street to street; several blocks of Main Street occupied with police cars and emergency vehicles, lights flashing, uniformed officers moving about. Most frightening of all, many officers appeared to be heavily armed.
“Jimmy, you can’t.”
“Sorry Mom. I have to.”
“Jimmy, I’m afraid. You’ll get hurt,” Rita said, in tears, pleading.
“Mom, we’re all brothers now. I have to go.”
Brothers! So stupid, Rita thought. She put her hands to his face, held it. Something close to a tremor rolled down her body. His eyes were glazed and on fire at the same time. He left. She sank to the floor.
I hadn’t been in the house long when my phone rang, was not surprised to hear Rita’s voice. “Jimmy’s gone,” she said, her voice once more filled with emotion. “He left within minutes. I pleaded but he insisted he had to join his brothers. That’s the word he used. It was too important to hide at home, he said.” She had called friends, heard similar stories unfolding, one from a single mother like herself and, like Rita, also frightened. Rita started to cry.
I could do nothing for her other than sympathize. That helped, she said, she just needed someone to talk to. She went on then to other troubling things, what was showing on TV, in particular their whole district being shut off from the rest of the city. It meant she might be unable to go to work. What about other people with jobs? What about food? Still mid June, the school year not over, kids with exams to write; what would they do? The one clinic serving their medical needs on Main Street looked to be blocked off. She could see the whole mess unfolding.
Once again I was impressed. Almost overcome with fear for her son, having spoken of that, her mind turned to others and to her community. She had invested a great deal of herself but her worries were less about losing that investment than in taking care of people around her. We talked a few minutes longer reaching the point neither had anything more to say. She said she should let me go but would try to keep me posted.
I got a couple of hours of sleep and felt some bad combination of jet-lagged and hung over when I got up. In the three or four hours since I last looked at the TV things had escalated. A couple of white youths somehow got past the police and set fire to one of the barricades. News reports indicated no injuries. However, firefighters were kept at a distance, the fire allowed to burn itself out, leaving the charred skeleton of a war zone car.
Only one such incident occurred. The news, however, became a national story with comparisons made to the standoff at Oka. How bad was it? Rumours had the Mayor imposing the Riot Act which would allow for a variety of increased measures of force, including asking for the Army’s help.
The aerial views of Point Douglas, once the cameras panned away from the blockades, were those of just another neighbourhood. One could imagine kids getting ready for school, adults going to jobs. But it wasn’t waking up as it should on a normal working day in June. Activity pervaded, a sense of busyness with individuals and small groups moving about the streets, around the barricades and along the river, organized, on patrols; a few vehicles going back and forth, making deliveries, dropping people off. Nothing ordinary about any of it; nothing and no one went beyond the boundaries nor did anything or anyone enter.
My whole office was abuzz with talk of the events, shaping up to be significant. I called a staff meeting. Although none of my workers was involved as far as I knew, we remained a frontline service and had to be ready. I shared what little information I could as did a couple of others. In reality we had no more to report than what we were seeing on TV and social media. We got on with our day. The office is never less than busy; poverty, disabilities, and all the other things we tend to never seem to go away.
Word got out that a load of guns and ammunition had found its way into Point Douglas, whether before or after the blockades went up wasn’t clear. If before then some sort of planning had been underway. This would mean there were leaders but what sort? Did anyone have an agenda or was this merely some sort of hotheaded dust up?
At mid morning the Mayor gave a public briefing. Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, she was less conciliatory than she should have been. Talks would take place and real efforts made to identify the issues. She insisted, however, the barricades must be removed, the district opened up and life returned to normal. She added – and this was her mistake in my mind – this was still very much a police matter. Those involved in the assaults, the fire, the fights would be apprehended and dealt with.
A text response, sent to the Mayor’s office and to media outlets, stated, “Normal! What’s normal? More poverty, more attacks, more of being marginalized. No talks. We want concrete action.” The message was sent by The North Point Douglas Defence Committee.
I laughed when I first read this, an ironic laugh, one of recognition. After so many years of work by people like me and other professions little had changed. The Natives and our clients among them had to stand up for themselves. Perhaps violence or at least its threat was the only way to achieve anything. At heart this is something I don’t believe. In the moment, however, it seemed to be, if not true, at least valid.
Past clashes in Winnipeg between the haves and have nots were always just that. The elite Anglos, the moneyed of other ethnic groups, business men – almost entirely men – politicians, called the shots. You need only to look at the famous general strike of 1919. Those in power set out to crush the would-be unionists, the foot soldiers who came back from the war to no jobs, the Jews and the Ukrainians who were held on the margins of economic life. I was surprised then that the current mayor, a woman elected in large part by the lower and middle classes, who appeared to have few unhealthy ties with the power brokers and moneyed elite, chose to take a strong stand against those who had installed the barricades.
She claimed to be on the side of the Native population, would talk and negotiate; however, there was no room for this kind of ‘taking-the-law-into-your-hands.’ It wouldn’t be tolerated and she claimed to have City Council’s backing. As if to make a show of her words, several bulldozers were put into place at the blocked intersections. She announced no action would be taken for the moment. This was a demonstration the city could and would act if the barriers weren’t dismantled.
The reaction within Point Douglas brought little surprise. The numbers of people at each barricade grew, many armed. Furthermore, armed patrols along the river banks and rail yards were increased, intended to ward off any intrusions from the rear. The news media called it a major standoff. Some of those in the public’s eye inclined to spout off intemperate opinions called it the beginning of a civil war.
Utility services into the area, including phone, remained intact and functioning. I called Rita mid afternoon. Jimmy returned home, typical she said, her voice light for a moment, in time for breakfast. A wild look about his eyes made her afraid he had taken drugs. No, he assured her, it was all excitement. He couldn’t wait to get back to front, as he called it.
“‘You’re not a soldier’,” I told him. “‘You’re sixteen, not even old enough to be a warrior’. Do you think I made a mistake say that to a boy like him?”
I couldn’t imagine Rita being mean or putting him down. In my mind I saw a loving and worried mother. What did Jimmy see and feel? He was tired. As far as she could tell he hadn’t slept. She encouraged him to go to bed, which he did and was still sleeping when I phoned.
“He’s safe now,” I observed, “but what will you do when he wakes up?”
Once out I realized my question was stupid. Her hands were tied, of course. He would go out, she knew that much. He had always been out a lot, never the kind of boy to entertain himself with idle or solitary play, sports and hanging out with friends his priorities. Now, almost a man, she had little power to restrain him other than a mother’s plea to be careful.
Ross House was taken over. The house itself, for many Natives a symbol of white presence, reflected the displacement of Natives by white settlers. In the current circumstances you might think it would be destroyed, burned down or taken apart, the logs used on the barricades. Instead, it became a rallying point, designated a kind of headquarters. A Native film student who lived in the quarter began to document and sent out clips to local news media. At this stage no clear-cut leaders had been identified even though the same faces were showing up. In Ross House anger over what happened the night before filled the voices. As days passed this changed; the clips showed chatter and laughter, ironic words spoken about white oppression and, of course, anger solidifying into determination.
The displays at Ross House are dominated by white pioneers: the challenges of starting, of breaking the land, first crops and harvests, sod huts, first homes and farm buildings. Photos that showed Natives put them on the edges of things, peripheral to the white activities, wild looking in their hide robes. One sees in those faces a range of emotions – fear, confusion, resignation – their way of life not only upset, but in all likelihood, gone forever.
All manufactured goods at the time were imported through the United States where the railroad reached into Minnesota. Goods travelled by rail from the East Coast and then were shipped by boat up the Red River – machinery, furniture, other household goods, some food, clothing, seed, and even animals. The big York boats, those heavy vessels used by fur traders to move goods along prairie rivers, provided most of the transport. Photos also showed the first steam boats, larger and capable of moving in whites and white goods at a much faster pace, another kind of invasion by the white world; people, their agriculture, guns and gun powder, and then the beginning of modern industry. If the Natives in the photos looked worried and confused it’s no wonder. One factor missing from those photos, however, is the effect of European diseases. It’s well known now that Native populations, with no resistance, were decimated.
Later that day, a group of spokespersons emerged, three elders and a younger community activist. They released a brief video stating they were representing the community at large not just those who created the blockades. They disapproved in principle of this turn towards violence. They were in no position to undo any of that but would work to ensure things didn’t get out of hand.
However, this was a real protest, one reflecting how their community had lived far too many years as second class citizens. If this was the only way to bring attention to their plight, so be it. They would not make a statement of demands. This wasn’t a case of demands, rather one of rights and needs, all of which were well known. It was now up to those in power to come forward with solutions, action, not words. They would wait.
North Point Douglas has a population of two thousand or so. Over the years the white population has been displaced. Almost half is Native with a strong presence of new Canadians, many of whom are Filipinos. The evening I walked some of the streets I saw renovated houses and yards not only cleaned up but planted with gardens and lawns. I was impressed with the sense of progress. After the fact I realized many were those of Filipino families and other new Canadians. Not exclusively, of course, because Rita’s place had that look as did those of some of her Native neighbours. Had I paid closer attention I would have seen more of Native poverty. So, the Filipinos had jobs to go to, were engaged in the economy, as it was said, while a large percentage of the Natives still were not.
This created an interesting problem in the following days. The Filipinos, of course, took no part in the action nor did they see themselves as part of what was behind it. At first, pedestrian traffic in and out of the district flowed freely. Workers walked past the barricades and, with the show of a driver’s licence or health care card, were allowed back in. It was casual to say the least; in fact, some were having fun with it. One video clip showed a mock pat-down, with the Filipino man squirming from being tickled as opposed to being searched. However, as the days unfolded, it all became more serious. Many of the Filipinos going to jobs chose to move out, staying with friends and family in other parts of the city. Traffic through the barricades slowed to a trickle. The only exceptions were occasional medical emergencies. Ambulances came to one of the blocked intersections, barriers were removed, EMS crews allowed to do their business. Was there more of this than in most other parts of the city? I suspect so, again reflecting the kind of health problems that accompany the poor.
In one of the ironies of the unfolding events, the remaining drug houses appeared to shut down. No drugs in, none out; no access for suppliers or customers. For the first time in decades the area may have been almost drug free. Crime was down as well. With the absence of police one might expect more criminal activity. In fact, we learned later, there weren’t many calls; no break-ins reported, hardly any thefts, few domestic disputes.
We were well into June by this time, the nights mercifully short. Still, the hours of darkness provided cover for those who would make trouble. The second night brought two attacks into the neighbourhood. Is attack the right word? It’s surprising how the language you use colours and defines events. In most other situations and times these two incursions would have been small vandalism or nothing more than mischief. In the one, a group of white youths somehow eluded the barricades and patrols and spray painted a church whose denomination was largely Native. In the other, perhaps the same group, a kind of hit and run on one of the barricades occurred. This latter event lasted a minute or so, characterized by shouting and threats, loud banging of metal on metal. Warnings were called over megaphones, police dogs snarled and barked and finally guns drawn. The white youths slipped away, taunting the police as Indian lovers. The police nabbed one and took him into custody.
I talked to Rita the next morning, heard the upset in her voice, most of it, she said, because Jimmy had been present at the skirmish. He claimed not to have participated. “I’m afraid for him,” she said. “He’s being drawn in more and more.” Her job concerned her as well. She could have gone out like the Filipino workers but didn’t think it was right. She felt forced to choose, it seemed, between her job and the protest.
I look at the words I’m using: protest, attack, uprising, barricades. Really, what did it all amount to? Up to a certain point it was, or at least seemed, innocent or naive. I thought it would go away as so many such happenings have. The fierce one of several years ago – Idle No More – appeared promising in bringing about change. What came of it? Nothing that I can recall. Other than the images, who can remember Oka or the Anishnabe occupation in Kenora?
The next couple of days were quiet. The Mayor was involved in negotiations. Rumours circulated that both the Premier and the Prime Minister were being consulted. Sympathy and support came from other parts of the country, from other First Nations and their leaders, and from a mix of politicians. The country is changing and in many governments, from local to national, there are faces from all over the world, a good number of them women, but still very few are Natives.
The fifth day came on hot, the hint of a typical Winnipeg summer heat wave. A violent thunder storm hit late in the evening with fierce winds, heavy rain and endless lightning strikes. Power was knocked out in several parts of the city including much of the North End and all of Point Douglas. As if the trouble makers had been waiting for such a moment, while the storm was still on, gunshots were heard in two or three locations, followed by an explosion and then more gun fire.
We learned later two of the barricades had been attacked by a white gang or gangs. They started by shooting at the barricades and then some kind of explosive device was hurled at one of them. The attackers had infiltrated through houses and yards, avoiding the intersections sealed off by the police. The explosion started a fire in one of the barricades. The burned out wreck of the old car, shown in photos, looked much like what one would see in a war zone. The blast sent debris flying, chunks of metal. A Native defender, struck by the debris, died at the scene from blood loss. He might have been saved if paramedics had been able to reach him in time, not been held back by police.
Jimmy and Rita knew the young man. Not just another kid, she said, but somebody’s kid, one from a two parent home, unlike so many other homes of Native families. Odd how that mattered to her, as though the death wasn’t simply another assault; it was deeper, attacking efforts to restore family order to their community.
Rita’s tone sounded mater-of-fact, as if Jimmy were saying, ‘It wasn’t me or one of my friends so it’s not important.’ In fact, after we talked for a while I realized she was sick with fear. The emotions were contagious. Not only the near terror she and other mothers felt; more anger began to surface, hints of rage, in the quarter and among Natives throughout the city.
You have to feel sorry for the police. They’re trained to deal with civil or criminal matters. They aren’t part of the armed forces. Sure, they have riot units and training in crowd control and no doubt they have procedures in place for standoffs and such. This, however, was different – a political and human mess older than any participant. Yet the police were expected to keep a lid on things. Storms, hotheads, people with agendas! What could they have done better? It doesn’t matter because they were going to be blamed and they were.
During the following day the situation got much bigger. A steady stream of Native men as well as a very visible number of young women made their way into the district. They crossed the tracks, snuck in along the river banks and even used boats to cross the river. The police intervened and turned many back, but the numbers were too large. News reports estimated several hundred new recruits entered the area. The reports left no doubt more arms were brought in as well.
It had all been a little casual up to this point, somehow not serious. That seems an absurd thing to say – streets blockaded, people bearing arms, others setting fires, skirmishes, injuries and then a death. To me, as with so many citizens, it didn’t seem real. Disbelief comes first and, if it persists, you get blindsided.
By late afternoon Point Douglas looked like an armed encampment; weapons everywhere, residents told to stay inside. At dusk, yet another group of white youths, as though they didn’t believe what was going on, made an attempt to charge one of the barricades. The police stepped in and prevented them from getting too close. Somehow, one got through and ran at the pile of cars, furniture and junk. He brandished what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail, ready to hurl it. Predictably, horribly, a shot was fired. The aerial cameras showed the young man fall and then a pool of blood come visible beside him. He writhed a moment, went still.
Paramedics already on the scene, started to rush forward; police stepped in and held them back. Screams and shouts rose from those watching beyond the police and then quiet settled for a half minute or so. An amplified voice broke the silence, calling from behind the barricade, telling the paramedics to do their job. The police cleared an opening and three paramedics rolled a stretcher forward. You could tell from the live TV coverage they were moving as fast as they could in the circumstances and yet it unfolded in slow motion. They got to the body, did a brief examination, lifted the now inert form on to the stretcher and retreated behind the police lines. Unless you were the parents of the boy, you would have no doubt he was dead.
Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. Violence begets violence. An old and too common story: cliché and horror at the same time. Where would things go now?
The rest of the city stirred, like some dormant force. Curiosity, fascination, distraction? The police were less busy; hospitals were admitting fewer emergencies; in our offices the workload seemed to have lessened. A majority of my colleagues expressed real sympathy for the Native cause, first via a petition and then planning a possible march. This seemed to be true for much of the city based on news reports, social media activity and what many of us were hearing in the malls and coffee shops.
The community centres in Fort Rouge joined forces and organized a food drive. Point Douglas had only two corner stores and, within a couple of days, these ran out of everything except lottery tickets. On the fourth day of the standoff two trucks loaded with food donated by individuals and a grocery chain were allowed into the area. The food was unloaded at Ross House and distributed from there. The Medical Clinic on Main Street that served the area was outside the perimeter of the barricades. Doctors and nurses were allowed through to tend to a variety of patients. One doctor and two nurses set up a temporary clinic in the cultural centre and chose to stay, joined later by another doctor, an immigrant to Canada, with extensive experience in the refugee camps of the Middle East. Despite these various comings and goings the police or other officials made no apparent attempt to infiltrate.
The sixth night was quiet, everyone shaken by the two deaths. I talked to Rita the next morning. She sounded weary, expressed more concern for Jimmy but also showed a new voice. “I don’t like violence,” she said. “But we’ve lived in these conditions for too long. Maybe this is the only way to bring about change.”
I asked about Jimmy. He was asleep having returned home at day break. Despite his mother’s pleas he had been out every night, insisted he be part of the protest, used the word solidarity. She tacitly agreed. That didn’t prevent her from being frightened.
“Solidarity,” I asked.
“His word,” she said. “They’ve formed bands to watch the barricades and smaller ones to patrol the areas in between. We never learned much about warriors or the kind of lore around Indian fighting but it sounds like they’re organizing in the old ways.”
“Any different from modern armies?” I wondered.
“It doesn’t matter does it, people still get killed.”
“Can you sleep when he’s out?”
“How about your job?”
“So far they’ve been understanding. I’m not the only one caught by this.”
“What will you do?”
“Wait, like everyone else.”
“Does he talk about what the leaders are thinking?”
“Yes. But there’s nothing new. And it’s no different from the reasons that made me leave the reserve.”
Resignation? The last time I heard that in her voice came when Jimmy resisted – or refused – to learn. Even then, she wasn’t defeated. More annoyed than anything else, sometimes ticked off. Always a social worker, I suppose, and ever the optimist I was sure then Jimmy would come around. Now, more a friend, I felt perhaps what friends feel in these situations, that heaviness the other is carrying.
Rita’s fears and the weight of the situation came to fruition over the next couple of days. First, the Mayor, with apparent frustration at the lack of willingness on the part of the Native leaders to negotiate, issued a warning although not quite an ultimatum. ‘We will do what is necessary to take back this part of the city,’ she said to news reporters. Asked what she meant she declined to elaborate. The leaders took it as a threat and vowed not to give in.
This led to increased activities on the barricades but also an interesting development within the community, funny in a way, unexpected. A declaration, issued by The Point Douglas Nation, at this stage of things an unknown group, stated they would set up their own council, elect their own chief and deal with the larger Winnipeg as an independent entity. They would create an encompassing community of Natives within Point Douglas but one that would reach out to other Native communities in the Winnipeg area.
Lawyers or legal minds appeared to be at work in this because an addendum to the document pointed out flaws in the Treaty binding the area and its tribes to Canada. The land in and around Point Douglas had never been legally handed over to Canada it claimed and was, in fact, independent of Canada and the Province of Manitoba. The Natives were free to set up their own government. Riel had it right.
What a curious development. Where would it lead? Did it have any validity? The helicopter cameras began to show an increasing military look to some of those manning the barricades. Somehow they had gained access to bolts of red cloth, turned this into head bands that many of those on the patrols wore. More to the point, the cameras showed some actual military training or maybe it was warrior training. No marching or presenting of arms as in traditional western armies; rather, what might be called guerilla tactics, skulking about, crawling into hidden places, instruction in hand to hand combat. ‘As an independent state,’ another issued statement claimed, ‘we can and will form our own militia to protect us. We can and will form our own police force to ensure civil order.’ So, the stakes got raised in an unexpected way. Strange, at times almost funny: were they serious or, like children, playing at something bigger than themselves?
The next morning members of the Native militia opened one of the barricades to allow ten minutes of traffic in and out. More food trucks, two trades’ vehicles – a plumber and an electrician – another from home medical care. At the same time, members of the community with jobs, including Rita, left in a small exodus. With traffic allowed to resume on Main Street Rita was able to catch a bus to work.
We talked that night. It was both frightening and a relief, she said, relief from feeling cooped up and in being back at the work she enjoyed and the social life it gave her. The fear came in leaving Jimmy alone as well as going outside the barricades. She wondered what people on the outside might say or do. As for Jimmy she told herself he would make the right choices, hopefully what she had instilled in him.
A gate was erected at Main and Euclid and this became the entry way. Service and supply vehicles, an occasional ambulance, came and went, as did those with jobs on the outside. Those managing the gate were unarmed; implicit, however, that it was protected like the other barricades. The police would know they couldn’t just walk in. The standoff settled into some semblance of normal or at least predictable.
Jimmy’s school year came to an end without him returning. Rita talked with the principle. Despite the suspension and failure to attend over the last couple of weeks, his marks were strong enough for the school to wave final exams and to give him credit for the year. These are the special circumstances that allow me to do this, the principle told her. Besides, there’s enough turmoil without us making it worse. He wished Rita well and said he supported the Native community’s demands.
She laughed, when she told me this, asking, “What are our demands?” In general, I think most of us know the answer. The specifics – what, how and when – are a whole lot more difficult.
The warm spell continued. People throughout the city were out in the evenings, walking, visiting, escaping the heat of the day. On one of those nights Jimmy said to Rita, “Come with me Mom.”
The request struck her in such a way that for a moment she couldn’t breathe. When she responded it was with something close to evasion. “Jimmy, it’s late and it’s dark. We don’t know who’s out there or what’s happening.”
“We’ll be okay. Remember,” he said, “I’m out every night and I’m one of them.”
“But I’m not.”
“You are, we all are. Besides, I need to show you what it’s like and what we’re doing. I don’t want you to feel so scared.”
What almost paralyzed her was not the dark or even being out of her home; it was dread. Somehow, to be with him in the streets would put them both at risk. She needed a few minutes to come to terms with this. In the end she told herself, ‘He’s my son. I have to trust him.’
The blockade shut off the district from the rest of the city. Still, in a strange and unexpected way for her, the street lights were on and, in the distance, over the outlines of a barricade at an intersection with Main Street, a traffic light operated, the slow cycle of green, yellow, red, as though traffic was still moving, as though the city was still going about its business.
They walked towards it and the silence of the traffic light. Again, to her surprise, the street was neither silent nor empty. It seemed like a normal summer night, people out of their houses and apartments, enjoying the mildness. They passed groups of two and three, young for the most part, a few faces she recognized. On the Reserve, she would have known all of them, would have exchanged greetings, maybe talked for a moment or two. When she noticed the red bandanas she realized these small groups were more than casual, they had purpose.
“Patrols?” she asked.
“All of them?”
“Even this far inside the barricades?”
“Does that mean it’s not safe?”
As they got closer to Main she saw a few were carrying weapons – a rifle, a club, something resembling a sword. She felt herself smile. It was absurd, like one of those action movies Jimmy watched.
The barricade itself was a jumble, much like her emotions, she thought, her worry and fear, all the other feelings. Pride was one of those, but it was more, including the thought of ‘at last’. What did that mean? Hope? Maybe. She took in the collection of old cars, wrecked furniture, lumber and cement blocks, some rocks and even the trunk of a tree, a real jumble and yet an odd sense of order.
Several young men and women were milling around.
“Hey Jimmy. Who’s that with you, your girlfriend?”
“My best girl,” he answered, “my mom.”
“Hey Mom,” a male voice said. “Thanks for coming out.”
“You guys need to know she’s more than that. If it wasn’t for my mom and her friends we wouldn’t be here doing this.”
“Right Jimmy,” a female voice said, “you got a story to tell.”
Rita saw a hint of smile on Jimmy’s face as he went on. “She and her friends started things. Without them I wouldn’t speak my language.”
It felt odd watching him speak to the group, his head turning as though he were addressing them, not just giving a casual answer to a question. “And she’s one of the people that got the cultural centre started.”
“Alright,” a male voice said in a loud and congratulatory tone. “Yay Mom!”
Rita felt surprised. Not that he knew any of this but in such a way. She squeezed his arm, smiled.
They turned. She started in the direction of the adjacent back alley thinking that’s where he wanted to take her. “No,” he said, “too dangerous.” As if to make the point, a clatter of noise came from somewhere along the alley. Flashlights went on, a group of four or five scurried around. A moment or two later the lights went off.
Jimmy led her away, back through the asymmetrical streets of Point Douglas. Their pace was slow, the kind of leisure on what might have been a casual summer evening stroll. It all looked different at night, the boulevard trees creating strange, sometimes eerie shadows, sometimes soothing ones.
On one of the streets, where the trees were sparse, Jimmy looked up. “In River Heights the whole street would be lined with trees. The branches would arch right over.”
“When have you ever been to River Heights?”
“When I was a kid. School trips to Assiniboine Park, hockey, you remember.”
She did but wondered why she herself had never gone.
They walked on, quiet for a time, then Rita said, “You haven’t told me what you do.”
“Patrols, just like you saw.”
“In the alleys?”
“There and all over.”
“Do you carry a weapon?”
“Only once. I didn’t like it.”
“Too easy to hurt someone. You get spooked. Who knows what you’ll do with a gun in your hands.”
“I guess I’m glad – but not much.” She was silent for a moment and then added, “I just don’t want you out here.”
“This is too important.”
“I know. I want another way. Two are dead already, others hurt.”
“The reason why I don’t want a weapon. I’m mad about a lot of things but I’d never want to kill anybody.”
They walked on. A young man and woman passed, nodded. Jimmy nodded in return. Rita wondered to herself if they were on patrol or coming home from a date.
“This would be a nice night to be out with your girl.”
“If I had one,” Jimmy laughed.
“Are you going to be jealous if there is?”
“No. How could I?” She laughed in turn. “By your age I was pregnant with you.”
“You were sixteen. Unbelievable.”
“I wasn’t the only one. When I think back, life on the Reserve didn’t give us much else to do.”
“Sex as recreation.”
“Were you in love?”
“I thought so; now I doubt it. And, anyway, he cleared out before you were born. You’ll do better than me.”
He turned and pointed at a house they were passing, one she knew. Even in the shadows it looked battered, like it should be torn down, and yet a light was on inside.
“You know the people who live there. They’re Natives like us.” She saw him shake his head. “You wouldn’t see that in River Heights.”
“No, I guess not.”
“If you were a white person walking by all you’d see or think of would be dirty Indians.” Rita cringed. “It’s not right. No one should live this way.”
Rita put her hand on Jimmy’s arm. “It could have been us if we’d stayed on the Reserve.”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. You weren’t going to let that happen.” He stopped, turned and gave her a half hug. “I’m glad you’re my Mom.”
Their walk brought them to Ross House and the park around it. Lights were on, people moving inside, a number of cars and pick-ups parked right up on the grass. They found a bench, sat, both quiet for a minute or two.
“Do you want to be inside with those people?” Jimmy asked.
“No. Why would I?”
“You were one of the early organizers.”
“That was different and a different way of doing things.”
She looked up at the sky, clear except for a few misty clouds reflecting back light from the city.
“When we were kids on the Reserve I remember summer nights like this. You could see so many stars, way more than you can see here in the city.”
“Did you make up stories or talk about legends the way real Indians used to?”
“I don’t think so. Some of the old ones liked to tell us things but we didn’t pay much attention.”
“I don’t know for sure. So many of them...” She hesitated, Jimmy waited. “I don’t know what the word is. It’s like we had no respect for them.” She paused, spoke again, her eyes off on something distant. “We went into town sometimes. You’ve been there – not exactly rich – but it had more of everything, like food and clothes, cars, even toys. The houses all looked better.”
She paused once more, laid her hand on his arm, stroked it. Jimmy, watching her face, brought a hand up, brushed her cheek as though he saw a tear. “Are you okay?”
“Thinking about it makes me sad. Town had more of a lot of things. On the reserve we only had more trouble, more drinking, more fighting. What else would you expect? Hardly anybody had a job so what was there to do? I guess for us it seemed normal. Now I can see that more people were sick, too many kids like me dropped out of school, so many of us like you, without a father.”
“That’s why this is happening,” Jimmy said, “reserves, the terrible schools, government handouts. How can anybody live like that?”
Rita patted his hand. “Right from when I could think about it I knew I had to get us away.”
“You almost didn’t.”
“No. I went to sleep somewhere, fourteen or fifteen. I guess that happens to a lot of teens. I only started to wake up by the time you went to school. When you still couldn’t read at the end of grade two, that was enough. Why didn’t I come to my senses earlier? Sometimes now I still get upset that I didn’t see the problems you were having, as if I was telling myself everything was okay, that this was the world we lived in.”
“Then you woke up.”
“And others are waking up.”
“They seem to be. But I wasn’t thinking about others. I knew it was time to leave, to get us off the reserve. What else could I do?”
“Do you think you made the right choice?”
“No question. When we go back to visit Grandma I know I wouldn’t want to live there. I have a good time with my cousins but it never seems quite right, as if everything is damaged or broken
“Broken. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for. Your father and your grandfather, they were broken men.”
“It makes me mad.”
“I know. But we didn’t understand how bad it was. That was life. In other ways I think we did but we didn’t pay attention.”
“More of us are paying attention now.”
“Yes, but there’s risk.”
“I won’t take any stupid chances.”
“We all have to take chances. I took a chance in bringing us here. We won’t get anywhere if we don’t take chances.” She continued to look into his face. “What’s happening now is crazy. Like the back alley up by Main Street. Some places are more dangerous than others. I don’t like it.”
“Did you feel any safer on those nights you were looking at the stars?”
“You’re always safe at those times.
Jimmy touched her hand. “I get scared too. I don’t totally understand what this is all about. Poverty, what our people have been turned into, that stuff is easy to see, but it’s more. I just don’t get it all.”
“You’re only sixteen; you shouldn’t have to think about those things.”
* * *
Two nights later a fierce noise woke Rita. For a moment she didn’t know where she was or what awakened her. Then the sickening sensation of alarm struck.
She scrambled into clothes and out on to the street. Sirens wailed from Main. She ran onto Euclid, could see in the distance the intact barricade, could see commotion around it, people running, heading south towards the other two blockaded intersections. She turned, got to another street, saw flames from the pile of cars and junk and from an adjacent building.
Winded, legs heavy and burning, in the moment hating she wasn’t more athletic, she made herself continue, half walking, half running. Others were doing the same. She exchanged terrified glances with two mothers she knew well.
A ring of people, standing back from the fire, blocked access to it. She pushed her way through. Hands grabbed her. One of the other mothers cried out, “My son. It’s Grant. Who’s seen my son?”
Rita searched for Jimmy, saw no sign of him in the crowd, turned back, eyes scanning those still coming. Again, no sign. More arrived, voices, questions, names. In front of them, sirens, firefighters, hoses and water, the roar and crackle of the fire, heat keeping them back. An explosion, people hurt! Who? How many? Where are they?
The firefighters were working from Main Street. A team of them broke through and began attacking the flames from the Native side. Suddenly two of them plunged into the blaze and dragged out a shape, still on fire, no question a body. The two repeated their actions and dragged out another similar shape. “There’s one more for sure,” a yell declared, leaving Rita feeling terror unlike anything she had ever experienced.
Ambulances hurtled down the inner streets – two, three, more sirens, flames being extinguished, shape of the wreckage apparent, debris scattered widely, cars in the heap charred and shattered, paramedics working over the two figures lying on the ground.
Rita pressed forward but the hands still held her back. She turned on the person holding her and shouted, “Let me go.”
She saw a face she knew, a voice coming from it. “You can’t Rita. It’s too dangerous. You’ll get in the way.”
“It’s Jimmy. I have to find Jimmy.”
“Jimmy was here Rita. We don’t know if he’s been hurt.”
They found Jimmy a minute or so later, to one side of the main wreckage, blown away by the force of the explosion, unconscious, blood on his face and head, a piece of metal sticking out of his left shoulder. As Rita got into the ambulance with him, Grant’s mother’s wail rose over all the other noise. His was one of the bodies dragged out of the blaze.
After the fact, the sequence of events became clear. A fire had been set near the tracks, a couple of blocks away from the explosion. It drew a number of the police officers, leaving this particular barricade vulnerable. Surveillance cameras showed a group of three, hooded, white and young, on the roof of the building adjacent to the barricade. They dropped two containers and ran across the roof and out of camera range. Moments later two almost simultaneous explosions occurred, setting the barricade and the building on fire.
Jimmy, one of five on duty at the site, had seen the intruders, yelled and then, when he saw the containers being dropped, ran. Grant and two others failed to react quickly enough. All three died. Jimmy, only a few steps away when the devices went off, far enough, aided by the explosion, wasn’t incinerated by the fire.
The first two deaths had somehow not been taken seriously – foolish boys, hooligans, gangs. This was different, a whole new magnitude. Disbelief, horror, anger; deep fear settled like some sort of cloud. And then incidents began occurring in other parts of the city. You could feel it, some strange energy that infected a certain kind of person, one who wanted more – more hurt, more violence. Random fires, assaults, vandalism. It brought out the anti-Semites; a synagogue damaged, a fire set at the back door of a Jewish deli on Selkirk Avenue, similar attacks elsewhere. Windows were broken in Knox United Church; the Anglican Archdiocese received a bomb threat with a warning that condemned the church’s role in residential schools. In the West End a group of Native youths invaded an all-night Salisbury House, threatening a pair of police officers who were taking a break from their duties, taunting them for some unidentified slight to the natives in the neighbourhood.
But another strange thing started to happen beginning with that most contemporary of displays of sorrow, the bouquet of flowers. At first it was a few children coming to the Main Street side of the burned-out barricade. The police were watchful but stood aside, allowing the children to place their flowers. This turned into a kind of parade with people coming from all over the city. Dozens and then hundreds of bunches were placed until the whole area in front of the barricade was covered. Reporters asked why they were doing this. Most expressed simple sorrow; some were more forthcoming. “What happened isn’t right.” “We’ve done terrible things to the Natives.” “Spend the money and fix this,” one elderly man said.
Officials from all levels of government came and went, passing through the gate on Euclid. The army was brought in with their armoured vehicles and soldiers in combat gear. ‘Only to protect the residents of Point Douglas,’ the Prime Minister said in an interview. Chiefs and other elders from a number of Native organizations appeared to be playing a role.
Rita and I talked several times during those days. Jimmy, released from hospital, recovering at home, she likely in a worse state than her son. More than once on those calls she could hardly talk. She told me one time her trembling so was bad she almost couldn’t hold the phone. Another time she just cried. A mother’s investment in her child is universal, I recall thinking.
As Jimmy got better so did she. Her voice sounded stronger and her thoughts became clearer. And then, in one of those calls she said to me, “Remember the time I showed you the newspaper headline about Jerusalem.”
I said I did.
“I don’t remember what it was about. Some sort of confrontation between Arabs and Jews I guess, something got occupied, people were killed. And then somebody from the UN came or maybe the Pope. There were speeches and promises. Well, last night it occurred to me that’s what’s going on here. Maybe we’re a new Jerusalem.”
She’s got it, I thought. Then, with something close to horror, I saw what she was seeing, that this could go on forever. The image left me muddled for a moment, muddled and speechless. She had it right, but to say so out loud would somehow make it true. Finally, I found bland words, wished I could have said something worthier. “I hope not. We have to do better.”
I heard her sigh. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, we do.”
John Betton is a retired psychologist, living in St. Albert, Alberta. He continues to explore through fiction his lifelong fascination with the way people think, feel and interact. Two of his stories were published in February 2019: A New Old Love in Spadina Literary Review and Filmmaker in Moon Magazine
Stuart was surprised. Of course, that's not what he said when asked. Rather, he gave the usual answers. Yes, I'm coping. Indeed, it takes time. His children? The grandchildren? Fine, just fine! They have a loss to deal with too. And yes, they are all helping out, being very supportive. These were easy answers but no less true. As much answer as he felt up to giving. Had he felt able he would have said something more complex.
Six months had passed since Janice died. His state remained mixed as were his feelings, more or less as expected, as much as anyone might expect in the wake of being widowed. But one feeling left him perplexed. A man who worked at understanding, he sought other words – out of joint, disoriented, and even stunned – but surprised is what he started with and what he came back to. It felt closest to catching this unanticipated condition.
He thought he had resigned himself to certain inevitable things; the stillness of the house, the absence of her sounds, cooking his own meals, doing the laundry. It hadn't helped. Each morning he made the coffee but many times automatically made enough for both. Only when he reached for two mugs did he realize what he had done. He'd sigh, maybe say damn as he put one back. Bringing in the paper or sipping his first cup he'd wonder what they'd have for breakfast, what she might want. Later in the day, going out the door, he might call to say he would be back in a few minutes. And then those painful moments in the night when he reached for her and she wasn't there.
They lived quietly after the children left and more so once he retired. When he looked back he saw how little heed he’d paid to this. As he thought about it he became aware there had been pleasure in the quiet, especially on those mornings when he let her sleep a while longer, almost as if he was protecting her from the intrusions of the day. But even when both were up and moving around it was a quiet house. They watched a little TV in the evenings. The radio was on only for news or weather. As the day unfolded they might talk about chores or errands, what one or the other might like for supper, plans to see a movie or getting together with this friend or that part of the family. Perhaps the most noise came with her phone conversations. She always was animated when she talked to their daughter, to her sister or to friends. Afterwards, she would share the news and gossip.
Now her voice wasn't there, nor any of the other sounds he had paid little attention to. He could hear the quiet. But it wasn't just quiet; it was still.
One morning, as he carried his coffee to the table, he experienced a strange sensation, as if he were moving against something, as though the air was thick and resistant. This brought to him an old memory. He had been at a beach and waded into perfectly calm water, creating small ripples with each step, the water heavy against his legs. He watched the ripples flow away and, when he stopped, had observed how the surface returned to its mirror-calm state. He remembered noticing how the water, windblown the day before, was smooth, almost congealed. How could it be so still? At that moment the air in his kitchen felt like the water, resistant, thick. He could see no ripples of course and even if he had they wouldn't last. It struck him then as it did now that he had no influence. The thought surprised him then and again now, in a way even more sharply.
Some days he thought he should give up the house, get a smaller place. Others who had been widowed did, often so quick to sell it seemed rushed. Was it a true need to move on or just to get away? And if to get away, from what? Each time the thought came he dismissed it; he wasn't ready.
He and his cronies once in a while had talked about the next stages of their lives, moving from homes to apartments and, at some point, on to assisted living, what Stu liked to refer to as assisted dying, a lame bit of humour, the kind she often didn't hear. When she did she might nod or smirk or occasionally say this one was better than the last. He missed those exchanges and was surprised he missed them, something that had not played – or so he thought – much of a role in their marriage.
Her death, as these things go, was uneventful. The oncologist called it a quiet cancer, for women a silent killer, one that drained her life away. She lost appetite, weight, strength, slowly and inexorably. He assumed there would be pain. She experienced very little, for which both were grateful. When it came time she went to hospital and then into palliative care, where, for no reason he could figure out, he felt surprise at the remarkable attention and compassion she received.
It all went well. He and Janice talked. They had few reservations about their life together and those either had were irrelevant at this point. The timing wasn't what she hoped for but on the whole she laid claim to a good life. So, let it be, an attitude consistent with the way she lived.
Considering all this, considering her equanimity, Stuart was surprised. In fact, he was surprised from the moment of her death, surprised she died. And he was surprised not only at her equanimity but his own as well. Shouldn't he have made more noise, been more demanding, found some way to put up a fight.
He wasn't a believer in miracles; he hadn't prayed, not in the private way so many do, praying for what and to whom? He was a practical man, one who sold life insurance. People died and he made his living out of calculated bets on when that would happen. Yet somehow, at some level in his being, he hadn't expected it to come to this. It did and he was surprised.
He was surprised that six months later he was still feeling surprise. Was this some inability to come to terms with a normal life event? Had he not prepared himself as well as he thought or as well as Janice thought she had prepared him? This is all nonsense he said to himself. It takes time, as everybody knows. The first year you survive. You may not really grieve until the second year. By the third year you should start to pull out of it; rough guides, known expectations, familiar to him. Nor was grief a new experience. He had been through it when his parents died, a brother, a childhood friend, others. So what was it – a failing on his part to come to terms with his grief? He wondered about this but the words didn't seem right.
It came to him it wasn't just surprise but something else, a feeling, a weight. This was closer, the words helpful. Finally, on its own and not out of effortful searching, a word surfaced – presence. Yes that was it. He knew by the feeling that came with the word, a sense of fit. There was a presence within him. This surprised him in such a way that he snickered, then fully laughed. Men his age don't snicker nor do they have presences. Those come from other people's imaginations, from cheap novels or thriller movies.
What he sensed wasn't like any of that. He wasn't fearful. He didn't think he was going crazy; he wasn't the sort. But it was there, had infiltrated at some point. He thought about this and thought about how long it had been with him. Of course, the answer was obvious. He shook his head at the fact he hadn't sensed whatever it was, his head shake one of surprise; it had been there all along.
As he thought and reconstructed he recalled it appearing at the moment of her death, as he was saying to himself 'she's gone', this thing, this presence, seemed to take him over. His recollection was of something like a full body blow, almost stunning him. It settled, gripped his whole upper body. He remembered feeling it was a struggle to breathe.
In the moment he had needed to cry, but couldn't. This thing, this grip, seemed to prevent that. Their daughter, at his side, hand on his back, was crying. He wanted to cry too and he wanted to offer comfort as he always had. At the same time this sensation, this force held him and stopped him. He remembered feeling surprised and noting he hadn't realized grief was so physical.
People’s grief took different forms. He had heard the crying and the wails, seen the distress. Some prayed and spoke of god, others touched or kissed the dead person, said I love you, said goodbye. It was all very emotional or maybe even social because, he knew, some were concerned with doing or saying the right thing. But at no time had anyone spoken of this physical sensation. Surely he wasn't unique?
In the minutes after her death he was able to set it aside. He finally turned to his daughter and they held one another. His tears came. They did say the thought and felt words; she was a loving mother, a loving wife, a good woman. This was all sincere. They had loved her, did love her.
A few hours later, after the initial rush of feelings and words and things to do, alone in their bedroom, it came back to him. He felt the force, gripped again almost to the point once more he thought he couldn't breathe, and yet he did breathe. He realized it wasn't that kind of force, not panic, not a heart attack. It was tight in such ways and yet somehow wasn't life threatening.
He slept, ate, shaved, talked to his children, was hugged by his grandchildren, offered condolences by friends. The funeral happened three days later. He was numb throughout, remembered little. The eulogy, given by one of her lifelong friends, was only meaningful to him weeks later when he read it. He wished he had been more present at the service because the words were thoughtful and moving.
In all of this, both caught up and numb, the physical sensation merged with all the others as if it no longer existed or at least he was no longer aware of it. And now, six months later, as he pondered his ongoing sense of surprise, it came to him that it was still there – the heaviness, the grip, the sensation of impaired breathing.
He wasn't much of a reader and certainly poetry was an unlikely interest. Yet, he found himself wondering if some poet had written about this. Should he give it a name? Could he name it? The word presence got most of the sense but not quite all. This thing within him had not just the feeling of presence, but almost a form. Yes form, a kind of form. And then the word entity came to him. That's it, an entity, a grief entity. What an odd term! But yes, he thought, maybe the sort of thing some old poet may have written about.
In the life insurance business he had many times seen clients through the loss of a spouse, helping them establish their claims and, in the early days, even delivering the cheque. He listened to their grief, their stories, the enumerating of both pleasures and regrets. Some cried and occasionally he held them. Some were lost and he did what he could to give them direction or to get them back on their feet. But none ever talked about this feeling, this presence, this entity, this physical thing that seemed to be his grief.
He lay in bed one morning, something he had cautioned himself not to do, fearing the habit, knowing a truth, for him at least; the less he did the less he would want to do. It would be neither wise nor healthy. But on this morning he lay there because Janice had been so present when he woke. He could feel her, almost as if she was in the bed, her weight pressing down on the mattress, creating its small indent, her warmth radiating to his body. He wanted to reach for her, to touch her.
He knew if he persisted in these thoughts they would turn to something else, the ache he felt so often. He directed his mind away, first seeing her as a young woman. This settled him and he relaxed into memories, smiling as his recollection came to the last time they made love.
She had been diagnosed, her condition beyond treatable, her strength waning. He had begun to do more, not quite nursing her but helping in little ways with chores around the house, with shopping, bringing her tea in the evenings, some of the things she had done.
It was a rare morning in which she awakened first. When he opened his eyes she was watching him as if she had been waiting. She smiled, kissed him and said she wanted to make love. Are you sure he asked, a first thought, a natural consideration. His second thought was perhaps a little self interested; he liked the idea.
Love making hadn't always been an easy or comfortable part of their marriage. Still, there were times when it went well and both enjoyed the act as well as one another. In a way it got better as they aged, happening less frequently of course, and with more difficulty. Strange, but it was those difficulties that brought something different to them. The physical limitations became a source of humour as joints creaked, muscles spasmed, sometimes in the middle of passionate moments. Disentangling after prompted laughter as well – a knee wouldn't bend or a leg wouldn't straighten – the simple movements of their young bodies now clumsy and humorously complicated.
They began as always with little kisses – lips, tongue, finger tips. He caressed her side and back, ran his fingers through her hair, touched her breasts – familiar pleasures. The softness of her skin often surprised and thrilled him, as it did in that moment.
She had once teased him that he 'took' her like a savage. They laughed because it was a rare occurrence and many years since either had felt such arousal. In this moment he was gentle, tentative. She made him look at her, meet her eyes. I'd love if you could take me in the way you used to, she said.
He kissed her, stroked her cheek, asked if she was ready. She gave him a searching look, a light smile and rolled so her back was to him. She could not have born his weight nor could he have sustained it. Taking her was slow, careful, perhaps fraught with care. She moaned, he waited, wondering for a moment what it meant. She moved and he moved as well, gently as they felt their pleasures. She moaned again and then they lay still. He held her pulled tight into his body, nesting, cradling. He moved once more and then from time to time, returned to stillness, holding her, listening to her breathe. And then, in one of those still moments, he heard the rhythm of her breathing turn to sleep.
He lay that way until he felt his erection diminish, let himself drift into asleep. When they woke, which they did at the same time, she rolled to face him, kissed him and said thank you. I'll remember this as your parting gift. Her words caught him and he cried. She put an arm over his shoulder and around his neck, pulling him to her. His crying turned to sobs. She pulled him close, shushed him in the way we shush crying children. It's okay she said, it's okay. We've had a good life.
On one of the evenings when he was invited out to dinner – this had become a regular occurrence with friends and family – he tried to share with his hosts this strange condition he was experiencing. He told about the physical sensation, the grip, the sense of some independent physical force within him, the laughable words he used like presence and entity.
Aline had been one of Janice's circle of friends, a lively, talkative woman. Her husband Ray was a decent man who Stu had known a little in their early years and to whom Stu had sold life insurance. They weren't close as a foursome but got together from time to time to play cards or take in a movie.
Oh Stu, she said, reaching for his hand. You miss her and you're lonely, that's all it is. Stu nodded in agreement, added, what she said was true, but there seemed to be more. Ray, a pragmatic man, asked if Stu had spoken to a doctor. You never know at this age what's going on inside. Stu hadn't thought of that. He had had an annual check up not long before Janice's death and all was normal. He agreed he would make an appointment.
But, if it isn't anything the doctor can identify, tell me what you think is going on. Both looked at him; Ray shrugged, Aline smiled one of her gentle smiles.
One day at the Seniors Centre, sipping an afternoon beer with his cronies, Bill asked him how he was doing, added with emphasis, how are you really doing? Stu took a moment to consider and decided it was okay with these friends to give more than the usual answer. He would try again to articulate what he was feeling. Some people describe their grief as if it were a hole in their lives, he said. I can see that. Where Janice was is now empty. It's one of the things I felt when she died. But what I'm carrying is different. It's not an absence but more like a presence, one that holds on to me. Sometimes it feels like I can't breathe or can't swallow. But, in reality, those functions are never impeded. Sometimes I feel heavy, almost weighed down. The feeling goes away, but whatever was behind it remains and seems to hover, waiting to take hold of me again.
Bill and Laz looked at one another and then at Stu. Bill shook his head. I don't get it. Laz said, tell me more. Stu tried but shrugged in the end saying he really had nothing to add.
You used the word presence, Laz said, as if something were inhabiting you.
Stu nodded and said a qualified yes. There is in a way, he went on. It's like some sort of being or entity. No, he backtracked, not being. It doesn't present itself as something alive. It's just there. Sometimes it's a weight, sometimes it seems like a force, other times I just know it's there without any particular feeling.
Well, obviously it's your grief, Laz offered, but, in your case, something unique. Like Bill, I don't get it but you've got me curious.
Oh hell, Wilf chimed in, with one of his typical I-don't mean-to-be-insensitive-but comments. I think you just need to get laid.
Bill reacted instantly with, For god's sake Wilf, have a heart.
No, I'm serious. It's all about sex isn't it, even at our age.
Every once in a while, over the years of their friendship, Stu would surprise them with a comeback to one of Wilf's low-brow utterings. This time he said: So, if that's the case, all I'd need to do is find a woman or take myself in hand.
Wilf chuckled. When's the last time you did that?
The fact is, Stu went on, I have no sexual feelings at all. Whatever this thing is, it isn't that.
Stu did see his doctor who suggested it was likely the depression normal with grief. He offered medication and also encouraged him to join a bereavement group. Stu said he would consider these.
A few days later Stu found himself wandering the house, opening cupboards and drawers. He stood for a long time in front of the cedar closet that served as storage for their out-of-season clothing. He touched a winter coat Janice hadn't worn in several years, stroked its fake fur collar. He had always liked the feel of it, remembered nuzzling her, the fur a pleasant sensation on his cheek as he kissed her neck or nibbled on her ear. In the moment he could feel her shiver. He brought the collar to his cheek, pressed his nose into it, could smell a hint of her, of a perfume she used to wear. But this is no good, he thought. I can't live like this.
He turned to another cupboard, one containing different memories, their odd little secret as she had called it. It held an accumulation of unwanted gifts which, for reasons neither was ever clear on, they had kept and added to over the years. He reached for the oddest of the lot, a jug or maybe it was a vase. It was in fact, a wine chicken they were once told, her great aunt's wedding present, brought for them from Italy. Both found it laughable and ugly. But, they had been wary about throwing it out, great aunts in those days to be feared. They giggled sometimes at their conspiracy and wondered at others, especially after the aunt died, why they hadn't disposed of it. Maybe it was valuable. But no, that wasn't likely. The aunt, known for her exotic gifts, was also known for being cheap. She probably bought it at a street market for a few lira thinking it would impress the less-worldly folks back home.
It was tall and placed at the back of the shelf. As he reached and lifted to bring it forward his sleeve caught a small, equally ugly figurine. He realized in an instant what he had done and watched helplessly as the porcelain figure tumbled to the edge of the shelf and fell to the floor where it smashed to pieces on the tiles.
He stood back, still holding the great aunt's gift, looking at the clutter and shards of the broken piece. He had disliked it almost as much as the wine chicken and, in an uncharacteristic way, he had disliked the person who gave it to them. It was from a cousin of his who had imposed on their hospitality many years earlier, asked to stay a night, turned it into a week. She was demanding and unpleasant, Stu embarrassed he was putting Janice through such a thing. Afterwards, Janice told him it wasn't important, he was making too much of it. When the gift arrived several weeks later he wanted to throw it in the garbage. Janice had insisted they include it in their secret collection.
And so it grew over the years: A caddy of decorated highball glasses to be used for patio gatherings, a small pile of crocheted doilies, someone's early attempt at oil painting, someone else's handcrafted pottery cheese plate, a Swiss cuckoo clock. Three shelves full of this detritus. He looked over the collection and down again at the floor feeling an odd satisfaction with the mess at his feet.
Then, for reasons he couldn't explain, he let the wine chicken fall from his hands. It too smashed on the floor. He reached for one of the highball glasses and let it fall, then another; picked up and dropped the cheese platter, the cuckoo clock. He stopped, stepped back, breathed a half chuckle, felt his head shake slowly from side to side, smiled. What would Janice say, he wondered?
He went to a nearby closet, got a broom, pulled a wooden tray from the collection, swept up the debris and threw it all, including the tray, into the garbage. He returned to the living room, poured himself a small amount of rye, sat in his usual chair. The thought came to him that his behaviour was surprising. Likely he had never done such a thing in his life, certainly he had no memory. The word surprise made him check on the surprised feeling he had been carrying. Odd, he thought, it seems to have lessened. Maybe I should go and clear off the rest of those shelves. But no, he wouldn't do that. It was too much out of character. Still, he felt a kind of satisfaction in what he had done; wished Janice had been there to enjoy it, even to have helped. She would have, he thought. It's more something she would do than me.
In an instant he was in tears, sobbed, shook, wrapped his arms around himself, held. Moments passed, maybe longer, before the sobs subsided. When they did his thoughts came clear. He saw, knew without a doubt, Janice had been present, acting through him, dropping those things. He began to laugh, laugh as though it was a joke. And in a way it was, Janice in her unique fashion saying goodbye.
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