#AStatueForAlex

 

I’ve known the story of Alex Wuttunee Decoteau for quite some time now. A Cree Survivor of one of Canada’s now infamous Residential Schools.  Son of one of Poundmaker’s Northwest Rebellion warriors.  A superb athlete.   Canada’s first Aboriginal police officer – a constable and later Sergeant in Edmonton’s early police force. An Olympian. That time he met King George V and received the royal pocket watch from the king’s own hand. And, finally, dying in the mud of Passchendaele just short of his thirtieth birthday.

I realize that Alex has been honoured by induction into the Edmonton and Alberta Sports Halls of Fame, that the Edmonton Police Service continually honours his memory, and that Edmonton has already memorialized him in the naming of the Decoteau walking trail in Aldergrove.

But. . .

In this Year of Reconciliation declared by Mayor Don Iveson at the final National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in this centenary year of the start of the war that killed so many so young, what could be a more appropriate gesture for our city that to erect a prominent monument – I suggest a statue in Churchill Square or in the plaza in front of City Hall – honouring a Residential School Survivor, an Olympian, Canada’s first aboriginal police officer, and a fallen war hero?  Each November we repeat the words “Lest We Forget” as we consider the Cenotaph and the Fallen it represents.  I think of the words of Justice Murray Sinclair as he opened the final day of the Edmonton TRC National Event: “Never Forget.”  What better way to mark Edmonton’s Year of Reconciliation than a monument to an inspiring survivor of the Residential Schools? An heroic survivor to remind us of the quiet heroism of all the survivors, and in memory of all the children who were taken.

When I had the idea of #AStatueForAlex a few nights ago, I did what any Edmontonian would do: I tweeted it!  I stuck Mayor Iveson’s and Councilor Oshry’s handles onto the tweet and was gratified by the positive response:

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But I fear Alex won’t get a statue if there isn’t a buzz generated.  If you think #AStatueForAlex is a good idea for our Year of Reconciliation, share the idea wherever you can: Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, the comments sections of news sites.  And emails, letters, and calls to city hall, the Edmonton Arts Council and anyone else you can think of.

And learn, and share, and celebrate the story of Alex Decoteau far and wide!

“Just Get Over It!” A Brief Thought Arising From the TRC National Event in Edmonton

 

Call and response:

 

Remembrance Day?

“Lest We Forget”

 

9/11?

“Never Forget”

 

Holocaust?

“Never Again”

 

Canada’s Indian Residential Schools?

“Why don’t you just get over it?!”

 

The above is a rephrasing and expansion of something Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission gently pointed out as he began the closing day of the Commission’s final National Event in Edmonton. Justice Sinclair did not have any anger in his voice or his words as he told the story of being in New York last September for the commemoration of 9/11 and hearing the words “Never forget”. He did mention Remembrance day, but the above reference to the Holocaust is my addition. He was directly addressing his expectation that many at the Event had heard the words “Get over it” in conversation about the Residential School experience.

Why is it, I wonder, that so many can say “Get over it” to victims of childhood sexual abuse, victims of rape, survivors of attempted genocide, and those struggling to be parents when they never knew parents of their own? Why is it that so many Canadians can say “Get over it” to aboriginal people when they would never imagine saying “Get over it” to survivors of Rwanda, Bosnia, Apartheid or the Nazi death camps?

Is it simply racism?

I wonder.

I suppose Canadians like to think that “We” helped to bring down the Nazis, “We” refused to play Sun City, “We” were peacekeepers in Bosnia, “We” and our General tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda. . .

But “We” stood by as the children were taken to the schools. “We” were the police who forced them from their parents’ arms. “We” were the staff who ate well while the children starved. “We” sent the children out to the unmarked graveyard to bury their schoolmates.

Maybe many of us say “get over it” because we have barely begun to confess to ourselves our own complicity in the catastrophe.

It’s long past time for the rest of us to acknowledge our own guilt and racism. Once we have done that, maybe we can ourselves work to get over it.

In Memory of a Man with a Cheetah on a Leash I Saw when I was a Boy

When I was a kid in Sudbury, in the evening, after a day of running through the forest and swimming and canoeing in Lake Ramsey, I went with my father to one of Al Oeming’s travelling conservation outreach presentations. I seem to remember my dad being upset at seeing a cheetah on a leash.  My father has always been a little ahead of his time on questions of universal justice, I think. I remember reading in my elementary school “reader” (I wish I remembered the title of that book!)  about Oeming’s boyhood dream of one day having a natural space to house animals, where the cages would be around the visitors, not the animals.  I remember vividly the image in the story book of young Al tripping over a root as he walked through the woods, picking himself up, and realizing that this patch of land in the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton was what he’d been dreaming of.

A number of years later, I found myself living in Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton. As a teen I went with my family a few times to Oeming’s Game Farm.  Oeming’s park was past its prime and perhaps past its time already.  I remember my father being again uncomfortable in Oeming’s presence.  Perhaps it is witnessing my father’s discomfort with Oeming’s captive animals — for all the sophistry of the cages being for visitors — that has left me with a lifelong dislike of zoos.  Whatever the reason, I have as long as I can remember, felt that humans really should set aside huge areas of the planet as “no-go” areas.  I have a dream of an extension of Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks across Southern Alberta to the Cypress Hills, and in my dream, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter that huge park except for scientific study.  I think I actually dream that park boundaries should be the bars of humanity’s cages.

Whatever the shortcomings of his GameFarm/Polar Park, Al Oeming inspired a love of nature and wildlife in a couple of generations of Canadian kids, making a whole lot of environmentalists who might never have existed.  He may well have inspired some of the very people who ultimately — correctly — shut down his Polar Park.  Oeming with his work and the animals with their sacrifices, had served an educational purpose which just might be the seed of a better world.

If I am in any sense an environmentalist, it is, at least in part, due to Al Oeming.

Al Oeming died a few days ago, asking that there be no funeral, no memorial, only his ashes mingling with the spruce roots he tripped on as a boy in the woods.

Rest in Peace amongst the spruce, Mr. Oeming.

My Favourite Symmetry in the Nadeau-Paquette Mural Project at Edmonton’s Grandin Station

After a tiring evening of gallery openings and late night reading, I dragged myself (and a sick daughter) to Grandin LRT Station for the official unveiling of the updated and finally symmetrical murals at the platform.  It was good to visit briefly with Aaron Paquette in person again (and humbling and flattering to be introduced to Silvie Nadeau as “a very good man”).  The warmth on the platform was remarkable in the few minutes before the official program began and that warm feeling continued throughout.

But I’m not going to detail extensively the activities or the murals just now.  I’m sure others in the crowd will do so on television, radio and internet in a number of languages quite soon.  What I do want to point out is a single and I think powerful symmetry I noticed toward the North end of the murals, a symmetry of celebration and endurance. One of Nadeau’s new panels shows in the mid-ground a modern-day rounddance.  On the opposite wall, in one of two cave-like petroglyphic panels in Paquette’s mural, there is an ancient and timeless rounddance.  I see this small symmetry of detail as an acknowledgement and claim of endurance and hope, stretching from the most ancient times of Pehonan, through tragedies and triumphs to today, on the eve of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s welcome to Edmonton.  Those two circles of unknown dancers are met together across time in this meeting place of travellers just up the hill from the ancient meeting place of Pehonan.  They dance together in the past and the present. We on the platform, on the trains, sitting beside strangers, striking up conversations, smiling as we share our journeys — we are dancing into the future together.

Please forgive my crappy photography!

Mutterings on why Public School shouldn’t be Vocational School

Above all is the need for a thinking education in the humanities.  This need not be at a university, after all there are countless educated fools and many wise illiterates, but we ignore the experience of the ages at our collective peril.  A thinking education can reveal the arrogance of the categorical, demonstrate the insight of nuance, and stimulate a healthy skepticism of ideologues of whatever stripe; political, economic, religious, philosophical, whatever.  It can provide an escape from the necessarily limited bonds of individual experience to peer into the vastness of human diversity over time and in space and provide understanding of how the other guy thought and lived, thinks and lives.  A thinking education can, should, must lead one to penetrate the cant and doublespeak of much discourse, question the premises and assumptions of any assertion and assess its veracity accordingly. . .

Bill McAndrew, “From Mars to Clio: A Personal Journey” in Canadian Military History, Volume 22, number 4, Autumn 2013, p. 92.

I don’t think I can add much of importance to what McAndrew writes in the epigraph.  What follows is almost wholly anecdotal, and so, as I learned in school, of little evidentiary value.

I went to the public school in my neighbourhood in Ontario and Alberta in the 60s and 70s.  My grade three teacher had “B.A.” as well as “B.Ed” after her name.  My mother told me this was a good thing.  In school I learned how to speak and read French.  I learned grammar and spelling and arithmetic.  I learned algebra and geometry.  I learned about the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat. And I learned about the Jesuits.  I learned about the French and the English, about the fur trade, about those early Capitalists, the coureur des bois.  I learned about the structure of our Westminster Parliament, about our Constitution, about rights and responsibilities.  I read Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Blake — standards had dropped since my father’s school days: he read Shakespeare and Homer and Milton.  In grade 11, a brilliant English teacher (while completing his Masters thesis on symbolism in Hawthorne) structured the entire year around Star Wars, giving those who paid attention a fascinating grounding in source criticism.

At the University of Alberta I studied English although many friends had expected me to go into Science.  I began Old English and Latin in my second year.  My Old English professor was also in charge of developing the remedial English courses for first year students entering from Alberta high schools.  It seems that in those days far too many high school graduates couldn’t read their way out of a wet paper bag.  My professor would start each day with anecdotes about meetings with students or Department of Education officials.  The best one was when the officials told him educational standards in Alberta were as high as they’d ever been and he responded by pulling out archival departmental exams going back to the 20s.  There it was in black and white: in the old days High Schoolers were working in language and literature at a high University level compared to the early 80s.

So, at 21, in the summer of 1983, I had a Masters Degree specializing in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, I knew a good bit about the literary sources of Star Wars, I had been given a life-long love of Shakespeare, I knew how our governmental system worked, I had a fairly good grounding in the history of our country and the world at large, I was more or less bilingual and could read Latin and Old English and puzzle my way through Italian, Spanish and maybe one or two other languages if I had to.  I could also handle a shovel, pick, hammer, axe and, through no fault of the school system, I could milk a goat.

At no time in my primary or secondary schooling was I trained for any vocation (except that one typing class in grade ten).  Some of my fellows in high school took a vocational path and studied auto mechanics, welding, hairdressing, etc.  The rest of us were given a general, liberal arts education.

Now, more than three decades later, what has that undirected, non-vocational education done for me?  Well:

I’ve worked.

I’ve served people drinks, cooked them meals, sold them products, built things, repaired engines and hydraulics, mowed grass, calculated fertilizer levels, pruned trees, made porchetta, sourced products for businesses, made art and been paid for it, published scholarly articles, published non-scholarly articles and been paid for them, read a hell of a lot. . .

And, every day I use my high school mathematics, throw out a line of Shakespeare, build on the history and geography and civics I learned in school.

Some people argue that the Public School system was developed to serve Capitalism so it has always been a vocational school system. Well, I think a more correct view would be that the Public School system was developed as a way of producing citizens who would maintain a society in which they could thrive .  Who would argue against such a thing?  When leading citizens of Edmonton and Strathcona got together to create the first public schools in the two cities, guess what? Those leading citizens were capitalists.  They were real capitalists, not corporatists.  They were business owners risking their capital on ventures with no guarantee of return.  I don’t think that form of Capitalism, the real Capitalism, should be a dirty word.  That’s the kind of Capitalism that all the #BuyLocal #HundredMileDiet #FarmersMarket #Vegan #Freegan #Occupy people are screaming for.

And that’s the kind of Capitalism a general liberal arts education prepares a person for.  That’s the kind of education I had.  And that’s exactly the kind of education that Corporatism is uncomfortable with.  How many times have we heard Ministers of Education saying “We’ll be taking best practices from around the world to ensure outcomes which prepare our students for their place in the Global Economy!”?  No longer do they want to help our children to be good citizens, to be successful in their neighbourhood, town, city.  No longer is there even a desire to simply give our children something interesting and challenging to think about.  When people asked me what I was going to “do with” an English degree. I always said “I’d rather drive a taxi with a Masters degree than without.”  I don’t think many of them understood. Those who would understand the answer wouldn’t ask the question.

One morning all those years ago my Old English professor said wistfully “It used to be that a business leader would look at a B.A. as proof that a person had the flexibility to be trained for any position.”

Update, March 13, 2014: I forgot to mention that something that seems lost in all this discussion is that the term “Liberal Arts” simply means the basic knowledge and skills necessary to living as a free individual in a free society. If our political and educational leaders were truly interested in maintaining a free society and preparing our children to live in that society, they’d be working hard to have the Liberal Arts as strongly supported, fundamental parts of every child’s education in every grade. The fact that our leaders don’t do that work really says everything about their agenda for our society

The Alberta Government’s “People with Developmental Disabilities” Agency: One Family’s Experience

Feeling annoyed this morning. For two years my daughter has been a “client” of the Alberta Government agency, People with Developmental Disabilities (PDD). In that period, I have had, on two occasions,  my phone call returned just at the end of office hours on the Friday before the “worker” goes on two week vacation. Both times a voice message was left which demonstrated clearly that the worker had not actually paid any attention to the message I had left with her.

In the two years I’ve been dealing with PDD, I have consistently suggested that the biggest assistance my daughter could use would be to have someone other than her family to get her out of the house on outings, to help broaden her social horizons. Two years I’ve been saying this! So far, PDD has offered to pay for a private agency to teach her to use public transit (something she has been doing already for years) and they’ve offered to pay a private agency – which would also require a payment from us – to refer her to some sort of work or volunteer placement. The only placement on this agencies list of sample placements which was at all appropriate for her was the Nina Haggerty Art Centre — which does not require a referral. We just walked in one day and signed her up.

My last phone call to the PDD worker was to check up on the two year old request for the respite companion. I called on a Tuesday and left a message (of course). On Friday at 4:29 she called and left a message. She spoke as though it was a new request and said that she would get the paperwork going as soon as possible but it would take some time and she’d be away for two weeks.

In two years Alberta PDD has done absolutely nothing for my daughter and the one request we have made, the request we’ve been told has been perfectly possible, has been ignored. Two Years!

I feel so sorry for individuals with developmental disabilities in Alberta – and for their families – who don’t have the private resources our family is fortunate to have.

By the way, Alberta PDD’s “contact” page on their website is a year old blank page.

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Update March 14, 2014: I noticed this morning that the PDD contact page has been updated to something useful sometime since my post appeared — interesting timing.  Also, I telephoned my daughter’s worker again this morning – and left a voice message.  I asked that she mail me all the documents I might need for “family managed services”.  I expect this is a desired “outcome” – why have civil servants manage services for the disabled when that task can be offloaded to families of the disabled?

 

Update 2 for March 14, 2014: the worker and I finally made contact and had a long and not completely pointless conversation.  My takeaway from that conversation, in a nutshell: 

1) Communication has been almost impossible due to a combination of social work-speak jargon, and, more significantly, the fact that the worker has been, she tells me now, basically out of the office since October and my daughter’s file was not transferred to another worker.

2) PDD services seem to be provided to clients through a Byzantine layering of  Government and Not-For-Profit (and possibly for-profit) bureaucracies which do little, I suspect, to aid communication or efficiency.  I have the impression that for every dollar of real service a client gets, there are several (many?) dollars going to various levels of bureaucracy in Government and non-Government agencies.

3) Considering the challenges of being a care-giver for an adult with developmental disabilities, the added stress of dealing with the absurdities of PDD are not worth whatever services might be available.  As I told the worker today, I suspect that many caregivers throw up their hands and shuffle their charges off to group homes.  The worker told me that “that is certainly not our intention.”  Well, the intentions are good, it would seem. Unfortunately, the road we’ve been treading with PDD the last while seems like a bit of a prelude to Hell.

Brief Thoughts on the Contenders for Canada Reads 2014

The book has been the subject of criticism chiefly by those who have not read it and on account of views which it does not express.  But much of what we call criticism is merely suspicion, as much of what we call history is merely imagination.

– Sir John Willison, in, The Federation of Canada, 1917

The conceit this year is “the book that will change Canada” and I’ll try to remember that.

In no particular order:

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood

Good gravy! So emotionless.

Atwood’s Science Fiction reads like a totally unfeeling version of Heinlein or Del Rey with better vocabulary but less hope.  The apocalypse is predictable and a rehash of so much from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and I just don’t care about the characters!

The ideas are as new and as compelling as anything in the best of the 1950s English language Science Fiction, the characters are as fleshed and compelling as the best of the 1970s SF, and the writing matches the ideas and the characters.

And The Island of Dr Moreau.

Okay, I admit that by page 325 or so, The Year of the Flood caught my interest.

I don’t think The Year of the Flood is going to change anything about Canada.  Most of us are aware of environmental issues, of genetic engineering issues.  Most of us have formed some sort of opinion.  I’m sure that few who actually read the book will have their opinion shifted remarkably in any direction.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I really liked Annabel, despite its biological improbability and tidy ending.  Like Hage does with Cockroach, Winter has got a foot in the door on an important issue, but I think Annabel is a little too tidy, and, despite the rape scene, a little too clean to burst that door wide.

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues

I certainly think that raising awareness of the Black experience in Canada is worthwhile.  I’m not sure, however, that a novel about Black Canadian musicians in Berlin in the 30s is the most powerful way to do it.  I wonder whether two previous Canada Reads contenders might have more effect.  Mairuth Sarsfield’s No Crystal Stair or Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring come to mind.  Actually, Brown Girl in the Ring gets the Year of the Flood thing going a bit, too.  Sure, Half-Blood Blues got the Giller and is a fine novel, but I’m not sure it has much chance to “change the country”.

Rawi Hage’s Cockroach

Rawi Hage really does the Immigrant Experience thing — if the immigrant is a kleptomaniac with severe depression but a raging libido.  Clearly Hage knows his Kafka and uses it well.  It would be wonderful if a novel changed the country by really making known immigrant issues to a wider Canadian audience.  Perhaps Hage has got his immigrant foot in the door, but Cockroach is not the novel to smash the door down.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I’ve written already about The Orenda.

I know Boyden and Wab Kinew have pissed off many in First Nations communities, particularly the Haudenosaunee.  I think that may be a good sign.  I also know that the history of early post-contact times is ill-served in the education of the general Canadian population.  I think The Orenda addresses this deficit in a small way.  Again, it is a foot in the door.

But I have a feeling, particularly in Kinew’s hands, that The Orenda will be the battering ram that smashes through some firmly barred and bolted gates separating Canada’s two biggest and most ignored solitudes.  As Kinew has hinted, non-native Canadians for the most part don’t know and don’t care about aboriginal people in Canada, about the history of Canada’s relations with aboriginal people, or the contributions aboriginal people have made and continue to make to Canadian society and culture.  Kinew has also suggested that on the other side — and I would add, in far too many non-native allies — there is an unrealistically utopian idea of what life was like in the old days.

I think, more than any other book in the running, particularly when advocated by Wab Kinew, The Orenda has the potential to truly shake up, and, in fact, change Canada.

Cockroach is my second choice.