Dream-walking the Trail

NWMP trail map Eastend

This week I sat down and traced a trail across southern Saskatchewan. I had help: two photocopied RM (rural municipality) maps provided by Hugh Henry of the SK Historical and Folklore Society. For a few hours over a couple of glasses of good Spanish wine I guess-timated how far we could walk in a day, where we might stop, where there might be abandoned farmyards or churches with outhouses, where we could park an RV and when we might hit a small town where there would be showers. Then I sent the schedule off to Hugh, who with his better knowledge of the land made some important corrections, and suggested places where we might need horses to scout the trail ahead of us.

Wow. Just having the 20 day schedule in front of me makes this summer’s walk seem so much more real. Outside it was -19 in urban Verdun. But in my mind’s eye the prairie grass waved, the heat beat down on us, and we looked for miles and miles over rolling prairie toward Val Marie, or Mankota, or Eastend.

“Build it and they will come” are the famous words from Shoeless Joe, Kinsella’s novel, also about the plains, that became “Field of Dreams”. We are building it, step by step, in our imaginations. We will see when, and how, we actually walk this path of dreams.

NWMP Trail general

Lac Pelletier memories

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It’s January in Toronto, a glacial wind in your face, a cloudy, gritty, dirty-snow winter day. Somewhere in the middle of the never-ending curtain of noise that always plays in a city, one sound in particular sits up in my hearing, calling for attention. It’s a motor gurgling. Eventually I notice. Where have I heard that before?

And then, without any more thinking, I hear what, in downtown Toronto in January, that sound most certainly CANNOT be. I hear a boat’s outboard as you pull up to the dock, the propeller free-wheeling in neutral just before it turns off.

Standing in my parka, hearing that sound, I’m instantly transported. Somehow I’m back to a warm summer evening decades ago. I feel the light gold-gilded across Lac Pelletier and the twilight heavy with insects. I’m sitting on a boat rocking gently in the water, ready to take out the last skiiers of the day. Our voices are quiet, the lake unnaturally calm, as if it’s waiting. My shirt off, as it has been all day. Mind empty of anything but the moment, my only teen-age responsibility making sure there’s gas for the motor. Never knowing such a clarity of existence would be what would pull the older me back, so many decades later, on a cold and snowy afternoon, for an envious peek.

So far from North York Mills. Our memories are time machines. But they’re touchy ones, triggered by who knows what and when, here and gone again, taking us where they want us to go.

Sir John A’s birthday and the ‘Indians’

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So.

Sir John A. Macdonald – he of the vest, the big nose, the whiskey bottle, and the reins of government – is 200 today. This afternoon in Kingston Ontario’s city hall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a speech to kick off the year-long 200th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister.

Such anniversaries are always political, especially in an election year. But with luck, this anniversary will also be a learning opportunity. Especially for those, like me, who are “settler”, or “newcomer” Canadians, there’s a chance this year to find out just how wrong is our founding myth of the kinder, gentler, Canada. In retrospect, Sir John A. fits right in with some who are pushing to remember Canada as a military, conquering nation. Because, against the First Nations, under Macdonald and others, we were all that, and worse.

To mark the 200th anniversary, you might want to get a copy of “Clearing the Plains”, by James Daschuk. It’s a riveting and disorienting re-telling of Canadian history. From Chapter Six onward, Macdonald figures prominently. For example: “On 24 March 1882, the prime minister announced to Parliament that all Indians in the territory of Assiniboia would be removed, by force if necessary, from the land south of the proposed railway.” Growing up in southern Saskatchewan, I came to wonder why there were no aboriginal people around. Now I know. Reading Daschuk’s book, you realize that they were systematically lied to, starved, beaten, cheated, and forcefully relocated. The treaties, once signed, were ignored, since the true goal was to clear the land for European settlement, for the railway, and for the (often Montreal) investors who were looking for a profit.

Macdonald was the architect behind much of this terrible attack. But he was not the only one. The Liberals, when they were in power during that period, were even harsher in their treatment of First Nations. Some have even argued that, judged in the light of the time, Macdonald was better than most. Disturbingly, both Liberals and Conservatives hid their power and money-grabbing behind ideals of so-called “Christian statesmanship”.

Daschuk concludes his book with this telling statement: “The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.” This summer, I’m hoping, with a group of others, to walk the North West Mounted Police Trail, a 275 km half-forgotten path that was crucial to that 1875-85 clearing of the plains. That will be our small way to mark this ambiguous anniversary.

Love and the Rhythm of Walking

From Paul Salopek’s most recent post. Paul is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who writes the “Out of Eden” blog for National Geographic, while walking the world. He’s now in Turkey. This beautiful piece of writing is taken from “The Geography of Desire” post, at: http://outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/05/the-geography-of-desire

“There comes an old, old longing while walking through the world. Walking, you learn each new landscape the way you might explore the face of a lover—up close, by grazing your fingertips over the features, without distraction, with a sort of doomed attentiveness, acutely aware that each mile sliding by is gone forever, knowing it won’t hold. The best walking and writing must happen this way. You begin to move forward, eyes closed.”

some talk, some walk

K Jan 2015

While I spent much of my day writing about pilgrimage, a true peregrino was in my living room reading Albert Camus. My nephew was in town for a stopover, carrying everything he needs to live on my couch or, if need be, rough (including a mandolin, for busking). He’s between trips here, there, and everywhere. He’s most recently back from South America, off again in a couple of days, likely to be tree planting in BC come spring. When I told him my grand plans for walking the North West Mounted Police Trail, and explained some of the history behind why we should re-learn the cultural and environmental changes that have done so much damage to First Nations and to the rest of us, eventually he nodded in understanding. “That’s a trip I’d be interested in,” he said, finally, picking a complicated arpeggio on my guitar. “But I would go by myself. And I wouldn’t make a documentary.” I went back to my writing and he went back to being the kind of pilgrim I sometimes write about.

Soon Enough

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The few lights that are on in my apartment this January 1 evening don’t so much illuminate it as provide a counterpoint to the darkness. There are candles here and there, gusts of winter wind at the door. We are at the change of years, a liminal moment, a threshold time. Folks don’t go out much today. Everyone prefers to stay at home with soup, maybe a movie. It’s quiet on my street. My boots, recently repaired, sit at the door. Soon enough, we tell ourselves.

This year will be, I hope, a good year for pilgrimage. I’ve heard from Concordia University that the Vieux Montreal – Kahnawake student walk that’s part of our Department’s summer-term class on Pilgrimage will most likely be accepted for what’s called the “FundOne” initiative. That means that Concordia will advertise our 34-km pilgrimage for crowd funding, to help pay the costs of the students. Old Montreal is so close to the Mohawk territory, and yet so far away. If you’d like to contribute something to help this worthwhile walk, there will be a chance!

Our own conference will take place May 8-9 at Concordia, under the title “Indigenizing Pilgrimage”. This doesn’t mean only Aboriginal and First People’s pilgrimage, although it certainly includes that. It will be about ALL the ways we can, and should, from Sussex to Saskatchewan, connect our intentional, transformative journey to the actual physical places through which we move. Sara and Christine and I managed to get both of the keynote speakers we had dreamt of having – Raymond Aldred, a Treaty Eight Cree and professor in Calgary, and Simon Coleman, a pioneer pilgrimage scholar and professor at the U of T. It will be a great event.

And in July, if all goes well, I will be walking, together with Hugh Henry of the SK History and Folklore Society, and some – how many? – others, 300 km across the southern plains and low hills of Saskatchewan, tracing with our feet the North West Mounted Police Trail. Raymond Aldred has said of the First Nations’ need to recover their past that “when you have no history you have no future.” I am hoping that it is equally true of those of us who are from settler stock, that when we re-visit, re-walk, and remember our past in a new way, particularly by remembering the generations of ill treatment of First Peoples, we might also re-imagine and re-create our future together in new ways as well.

There is another gust of wind at the door. It is winter in Canada/Turtle Island, but that doesn’t keep the pilgrimages from beginning. I’m feeling the itch to walk.

 

 

 

 

The Watchful Trees

up close painting

The Watchful Trees (Ode to a Prairie Birch Wood)

Matthew Anderson Nov 2014

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I could lose myself here.

Paper-bark peeling

white bone from the green,

your quiet, revealing

what I might have to mean.

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Here the dead are not buried.

It’s all boom and bust.

A hardy, short-lived pioneer species

is what they call us.

Come to break the treaties.

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My leaving stopped the dying.

It stanched the blood-flow.

You were rooted, you had to stay,

I learned to fly; I had to go.

At least if they ask, that’s what I’ll say.

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I’ll tell them the story

of how hard you grew me up,

my birthright a knife,

instead of a cup.

Sharpened steel to hold close, in case of real life.

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I could lose myself here.

Your paper-bark peeling

back ghosts and regrets. Such blood in this place.

Your quiet, revealing,

what I still have to face.

(painting by Janice Donato)