Thoughts on a Very Cold but Very Warm Day

The morning of Friday, December 21, 2012 in Edmonton was cold, about -20, with a bit of a nasty wind on the flats above the river valley.  I bundled up and walked from Whyte Avenue north on 102 street, through the alley behind the Yardbird Suite, past the Caboose in End of Steel Park and dropped down one of the staircases off Saskatchewan drive.  The shelter of the bare trees was a relief.  I wound my way down Queen Elizabeth Park Road to the south end of the Walterdale bridge and waited for the light to let me cross the street to Kinsmen Park.  As I waited, a happy looking lady of about my middle age came off the bridge toward the same crossing.  The two flags she was carrying made it clear she had the same destination I had: the latest Idle No More rally and march.

As she came closer she said “Hi!” and gave me a mittened high five.  “I’m Phyllis,” she said.

“I’m John. It’s cold”

“Yeah. I’m thinking I should try to buy some longjohns somewhere.  But, people used to have it a lot worse than this.”

We crossed to the parking lot where people were rapidly gathering around the flatbed trailer with the generator and sound system. Phyllis introduced me to a few of the others, including a few organizers. Reporters, camera people and Edmonton Police Service vehicles and personnel were smiling and laughing with everyone. Two MLAs, one MP and a Senator were welcomed to the gathering.  Hand made signs were handed out to augment the banners and flags brought from home.

I helped Phyllis reconnect her Blood Nation flag to its broomstick pole. She’d absentmindedly hung it upside down.  Shortly after she left to get some warmer clothes from the supply donated by Occupy Edmonton.  We hugged and said we hoped to meet up later.

Once Lewis Cardinal arrived (there were many jokes about “Indian Time”) and the Elders had finished their ceremony, the happy and boisterous line of cold people from a multitude of Nations — First and later — began winding its way out of the parking lot.  A number of vehicles had been provided by various Nations  for the transport of the elderly and disabled and safety requests from the EPS were carefully relayed several times from the speakers’ trailer.

The walk across the bridge was mind-numbingly cold with the wind blowing unobstructed along the river.  The pace was a very slow march, ten or so abreast, banners and flags from dozens of First Nations standing out bravely in the stiff breeze.  As the procession stopped to honour the First Nations burial ground in Rossdale, I looked over my shoulder and recognized Phyllis’ flags.  “Hi, John, how ya doin’?” she asked.  Phyllis and I marched together for a good bit then.

Apart from the regular cries of “Idle No More”, the marchers were quite quiet. Now and then there would be a joke exchanged or, more often, a a word of encouragement or query “How ya doin’?” and regular comments on the cold.  As we were passing Telus Field, I noticed that Phyllis was struggling a bit with her two flags.

“Here, Phyllis, why don’t I carry one?”

And this is how I, a bearded descendent of about six generations of Settlers, came to be carrying a parade dress Union Flag (tied to a hockey stick) beside my new friend from the Blood Nation in a march of several hundred warm and friendly but quite restless Natives demanding respect for the treaties between our nations.  It seemed very surreal, but absolutely appropriate.  Part way up Bellamy Hill, Phyllis ran into her home to warm up for a bit, intending to catch up later.  I gave her back her flag.  I didn’t see Phyllis again in the crowd.  If you read this, Phyllis, thank you so much for being such a friendly companion.

At the top of the hill the march paused again and as I stood stamping my feet I noticed a sort of lonely figure standing in a blue parka at the edge of the crowd.  It was my neighbour who had said she was going to try to join the march part way through.  As we talked, a young lady asked if she could take our picture.  Somewhere out there is a photo of two very pink white people in blue coats taking part in Edmonton’s Solstice Idle No More rally.  I bet there’s a story behind that picture.

On we went, past Occupy’s hot chocolate stand, down Jasper Avenue to the space between Canada Place and the Convention Centre.  I told my neighbour that Aaron Paquette, one of the speakers, had told me on twitter that he was going to try to get a round dance going all the way around Canada Place.  Despite the cold, the turnout was almost big enough to make such a ring, but the dance ended up being a huge oval blocking Jasper Avenue.  As Paquette gave his rousing speech, my neighbour leaned over and said approvingly “He’s like a preacher!”

Paquette spoke stirringly of the fact that the warriors were taking their orders from the women. He cried out “No more Missing Women!” to cheers.  Then he swept off his cap and pointed up at Canada Place and called out (I paraphrase as well as I can, which is nothing as stirring as the actual words spoken) “Look at this building!  This building and others like it across this land have brought so much pain!” and there were a few boos directed toward the building. But Paquette continued “But we aren’t bringing pain.  We are bringing love! We will meet hatred and misunderstanding with love!” And he climbed down from the flatbed.

I made my way through the crowd as the drumming started up once more. I leaned over beside his ear and introduced myself over the noise. There was the briefest moment of hesitation before his face lit up and he took my hand and we had a brief hug.  “I read your piece on the Manitou Stone last night” he said and I felt as honoured as I would ever need to, and then he said “very good!”

Aaron seemed to be shaking a little — perhaps it was the cold but I think it was more the emotion of delivering his speech. He said of speaking before the worked up crowd “That’s not really my thing.”

I replied as urgently as I could “No. No, it is your thing.”

Shortly after we shook hands again and said I had to get going.  I left before the continuation of the march to Churchill Square.  I caught up to my neighbour and we rode the bus home together, along with a group from Fort Smith who had come down for the event.

Canadians, please understand that Idle No More is not about handouts or any of the other ignorant or bigotted things that are said against the movement.  Idle No More is at root about nothing other than the Rule of Law.  Yes, there is talk about the environment, about housing, about education, and about money.  But every single one of those issues means nothing without the underlying demand that we all, First Nations, Inuit, Metis, European-, Asian- and African-Canadians, and, most importantly, the Government — the demand that we all honour and respect the Rule of Law in our land. That Law is rooted in the Treaties which created the partnership and sharing which has made Canada.  Tragically, after the War with the United States two hundred years ago the partnership has been obscenely unequal.

Now is the time to educate and be educated. Now is the time to meet ignorance, fear and hatred with love, partnership and sharing.  Now is the time to honour completely the Treaties, the source of all that is Canada. It is the time for all of us to know and to celebrate that we are a Treaty Nation.

Grab your flag, whatever it might be, and march with Phyllis and I and all the rest into the future! We don’t want you to be left behind.

8 comments on “Thoughts on a Very Cold but Very Warm Day

  1. jill ferguson says:

    John, Phyllis is the daughter of that last hereditary chief of the Blood nation…we just call her, Phyl-the-good-looking-Indian…you are most fortunate

    • And, Jill, if you’re talking to Phyllis, let her know that I’d be honoured to march beside her again anytime, whether it’s carrying the flag of my long-ago ancestral land, as I did on the 21st, or the red maple leaf of my homeland, or the Fleurdelisé of my father’s birthplace, Quebec.

  2. I was most fortunate and feel honoured even if Phyllis were just “Fred and Mary’s Mom,” or “Joe’s sister.” Her family heritage (and good looks;) are just the icing on the cake.

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