When we pulled out of the driveway on April 29th, 2015 I had one thing in mind—getting to Newfoundland in six weeks. I couldn’t have imagined that six years later, almost to the day, I would be sharing the story with you.
Six weeks felt like a dauntingly long time. But we had over 7000 kilometres to drive, 60 or so workshops to deliver and 40 or so destinations to visit. “We’ll just take it one day at a time,” Tex told me. We met hundreds of knitters. We told stories. We listened to stories. I met sweaters and examined their stitches, yarn and designs. I made note of their frayed edges and people’s earnest attempts to fix the holes and give the beloved garments a few more years of service.
Somewhere around Kenora, Tex started to question what he’d gotten himself into. “I had no idea knitting was such a big thing.” If he said it once he said it a dozen times.
Knitting is a big thing, but I was struck by the expanse of Canada…bigger…much bigger than knitting. The country is truly awesome. It is all the things you already know…the coasts, mountains, prairies, lakes, farms, forests…stop me…I don’t want to get started on the superlatives. It’s all been said so many times before and said much better than I can say it. But I never grew tired of the changing landscapes. Even when we finally visited the tiny outports in Newfoundland, exhausted and eager to return home, I was fascinated by the craggy coastline and the temperament of the Atlantic Ocean.
I hadn’t intended to write a book about the road trip. I was writing my Phd dissertation at the time and that was enough to put me off writing altogether. But once I graduated and put the gruelling project behind me I began revisiting in my mind the places we’d been and as the experiences moved into the past they became story…a story I wanted to tell.
Writing the book was much like the road trip itself—daunting but fascinating. I was peering out the window again. I could hear the hum of the road and feel the wheels turning. But this time they weren’t taking me through wheat fields and stopping so I could wonder about the height of land or the red rock outcroppings. This time they were taking me through the questions I had about my country. The wheels stopped at issues of race, naming, colonization, business, gender, privilege…so I could reassess the social, economic and political aspects of being Canadian. I ended up a less critical Canadian and a more self-reflective, patient and hopeful one.
The book is available on line and will be in your bookstore this week. Thanks to Douglas & McIntyre for their hard work and awesome team…and you really need to get this book so you will be able to see for yourself its very very cool cover (even if I do say so myself). I designed and hand knit it in the mood of the book. The review in the photo is in the April edition of Chatelaine Magazine.
It’s so easy to be thankful. Waking up in the morning is enough to fill our hearts with thanks…for life…for love…for a place to live…for daffodils. Then there are the everyday things for which we give thanks. Thanks for taking out the garbage. Thanks for washing the dishes. Thanks for remembering my birthday.
The older I get the more I find myself expressing my thankfulness. Thanks for smiling and laughing out loud, it brings such joy into the world.
It’s also easy to receive thanks. I love to hear “Thank you” for taking out the garbage or doing the dishes (on those seldom occasions).
I’m not as good at receiving expressions of appreciation for the big things I do. I have a strange need to undermine my work and deflect attention away. Maybe it was my mother who taught us that pride was not just wrong but it was the worst of all moral failings. Or maybe it was the church that buried any exceptionalness of women under the accomplishments of men (other than our ability to cook and the like). Or maybe it’s my whiteness and having worked in First Nations all my life it’s never been my place to call attention to my work.
Whatever it is I find accepting big expressions of appreciation much harder to receive than to give. But I’m embracing this one. Here’s the story.
I’ve been working with the most amazing team—five First Nations people from around the province (Doug Harris, Niki Lindstrom, Marilyn Johnny, Bev Smith and Mona Bill) on an engagement project—talking about the upcoming changes in housing and infrastructure in First Nations. After almost a year I’m passing the project along to someone else and moving on.
The team showed me huge appreciation…an Orca drum, a shawl and words and words and words of gratitude. I felt it and I thank them back.
Finally finished. The last photo credit in. The last edit made. Growing up Elizabeth is now a thing. You can even preorder it at Orca. Cate and I are wiping our brows and getting excited about launch events…stay tuned.
As with all books, this was a labour of love. Hundreds of hours of labour to birth a little story (this one with over a hundred photos). While getting the details right was gruelling work, collaborating with Cate and Elizabeth was all pleasure.
Working with Shauna White and the kids at Bayside Middle School was fun, inspiring and encouraging. For those of you who bemoan the next generation, I think we have nothing to fear. They may not be like us, and I am thankful for that, but many of them are eagle-eye focused on making the world a better place. I hope they don’t lose their vision, like we did.
And, as always, I can’t write about writing this book without mentioning Jean Jordan, who’s idea it was. I cursed you at times along the way…why did you get me into this? But it was a story you wanted kids to hear and you were right…thank you thank you thank you.
I know it’s your day but right now I can’t get over thinking about me. I’m the mother of a 45-year-old son. That’s something. Once I’m over obsessing about how old that makes me I’m going to celebrate your wonderful human beingness.
I only wanted one thing for my children—that they should change the world. I realized early that didn’t mean the whole entire world for all time. It meant their world, our world, and as much of the bigger world they could affect.
Adam started doing that at a very, very young age. He could talk before he could walk. He shared interesting ideas before he was out of diapers (don’t go there…he was trained before he was three, I’m sure). He began to read as soon as he saw words. He entertained us with stand up comedy routines before he went to school. He wrote political papers in middle school. He discussed books he’d read on anarchy and Marx and religion and more and debated philosophy in the smoking pit in high school. He was an interesting and wonderful kid.
Adam slammed into life when he was a teenager and beat it up for years trying to make sense out of the human condition. He did a deep dive…not fun for his mother nor for him and others, I’m sure.
But he didn’t just survive, he thrived and that’s his story to tell. My story is that I’m grateful for how he has changed my world. I’m grateful for how he unapologetically takes on the bigger crazy world we are all trying to navigate. He’s right sometimes, he’s wrong sometimes, but he’s real all the time and I’m grateful for that the most.
I raise a toast to our significant others—the one or two bubble buddies who have gone the distance with us and are still here. And a toast of appreciation to Tex…he’s the special guy who has not just put up with me but has made my life wonderful in spite of it all.
When Tex and I got married three years ago we said something about for better or worse, in sickness and in health and for richer or poorer. But we didn’t commit to spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months or 52 weeks of the year together, just the two of us, excluding any and every one else. We didn’t sign up for that. We had never even thought of such a thing.
Tex and I met on the road. We spent our relationship shunting each other back and forth to the airport or ferry checking our schedules to plan when we would see each other again and how many days we would spend together.
As an example…three days after our wedding Tex kissed me goodbye in Calgary, where I spent the first month of our marriage in an artist in residence program, and he drove off across the country. That was our relationship…we loved it.
COVID isolation hasn’t been easy on any of us. We all have a story about how it has impacted our lives in a specific way. I’m thinking we should all turn to our bubble buddies and raise a glass in honour of their unique struggle and name the thing they have put up with and put out there to make this crazy time work.
Take Tex, for instance. He was a footloose, self-made, curious world traveller, deliberately never married, deliberately never becoming a father…stubbornly independent. Getting married was a huge departure from his plan…and then becoming Grandpa Tex to 8 kids…another huge departure. Two years later add the 24/7 thing of COVID…where he almost literally has had his feet nailed to the floor. No more travel, co making everything and where we don’t even know what independence means anymore…it is currently undergoing a complete rethink…never mind the hit COVID itself had on his big, strong, previously healthy body.
I’m acknowledging his struggle and celebrating the growth in our relationship. For us, this has been the worst and the best of times. Thank you thank you thank you, my love, for climbing into and over this mountain with me.
Even if I had known what this strange and intense reality would be like, I would have chosen you to be my bubble buddy.
My seasonal wish for my friends and for the world:
“May 2021 bring an intense desire in each person’s heart and a policy imperative on every governing table that the year will focus on the pursuit of good will.”
It sounds heady but without good will we have chaos and 2020 brought us as close to chaos as my stomach can tolerate.
I’ve always wanted something more for the season than Merry Christmas or even happy holidays. It’s not surprising. I am a 60s girl and we didn’t just want a good day or even a good season, we wanted bigger. Merry and happy are not enough, not when you are looking to change the world. Peace on earth was our banner mantra.
The trouble with Peace on Earth as a Christmas greeting is that the birth of Jesus didn’t bring it about as the angels predicted. In fact, the Bible itself says that Jesus would also bring conflict and even the sword, which history has liberally demonstrated.
On the other hand, even though the earth doesn’t look anything like the peace I dreamed of, we’ve made some successes since the 60s. Science Today says that humans are less likely to die in conflict today than 100 years ago (at least from a Eurocentric point of view). So Peace on Earth is still worth repeating over and over, year after year.
However I think the greeting “Peace on earth and good will towards man” is back to front. There must be good will first if we are going to have a hope of peace. The western world’s reduction of military conflicts may give us reason to celebrate but recently good will has suffered a full frontal attack. Even the simple instruction from our mothers “be nice to each other” has been replaced with “be nice to people like you” and, further, “be nice to people you like.”
The pursuit and defence of individual rights has trumped (pun intended) our intuitive sense that we are not islands. We are social creatures and need to have the necessary skills to work together. And that requires good will. Yet we are drawing lines around ourselves/our groups and retreating behind the chants, the hash tags, the memes that support our side. We strike out at others’ indiscretions with the venom and self -righteousness of our pitch-fork wielding, witch-hunting Puritanical or other intolerant ancestors. We have now given power to the crowd to determine who is and who isn’t okay. Kids at school know how that can hurt.
I see these characteristics in myself. My tolerance for arguments I disagree with is waning. I find myself resorting to judgemental conclusions like “that is simply ignorant” and “they must be completely stupid” way more than I would like. Watching the US presidential side-show leaves me with a profound sense of disorientation—humans are worse than I had ever imagined and I already had an ambivalent relationship with the masses.
So this season I’m pitching good will. I am concentrating on sharing, kindness, tolerance, gentleness, concern, compassion, humility… I’m breathing deeply, slowing down and taking time. I don’t need to understand you. I just want to acknowledge you as you are and extend to you good will—that intangible thing that brings our lives, and could bring the earth, peace.
I started writing stories 21 years ago. I was a natural story-teller and an inquisitive listener—I loved that part of being an oral historian—but I was not a writer.
My vocabulary consisted of a handful of words and the collection of strange phrases my father used like heebie jeebie, oddie moddie and sixty-fifty. He was a worldly-illiterate Bible reader (almost the only book in our home). But I always loved his wonderfully creative, if unsophisticated, way of communicating. I attended university during the 1990s so I was marginally more literate than him, but when I tried to write I couldn’t find words to fit my ideas. Stringing one sentence after the other, after the other, after the other made my head literally hurt to touch. Worse yet, making sense out of pages of sentences was excruciating.
The only reason I was writing stories 21 years ago was because in 1992 Diane, my sister-in-law, had interviewed more than 70 former students of Kuper Island Residential School. I had gone along to write the notes. She promised the people that we would share their stories—that other people would finally know what went on at Kuper. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. No one did in 1992. What we heard was horrifying.
But Diane would not let it go until we had fulfilled her promise. She pestered me to write the stories into a book. “I can’t,” I would tell her. “I can write notes. But I can’t write a book. Especially not this book.” Can you even imagine? How could I put such profoundly disturbing and, up until then, almost entirely unwritten stories, onto the page using my pathetic vocabulary and almost non-existent writing skills? From my Bible background I called up the feelings expressed by Moses who also felt inadequate, “Please, Lord, send someone else”.
Fast forward to the late 90s. A group of us decided to write residential school stories for our local school using Diane’s interviews and others we had collected. A long story truncated. I drew the short straw. The writing was left up to me. Difficult does not begin to describe the process. I found an editor to help. A publisher found my stories and offered to publish. I said no. Diane continued to pester me. She had made the promise. This was her way to fulfil it. Finally I conceded. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School was published in 2001. Twenty years ago.
I had never imagined becoming an author. Being published was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact I found the very idea of people reading my writing terrifying.
Being an author was an odd thing. My name (along with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, who worked on the project) were on the front of the book but they did not, in any way, reflect the crowd of people who made the story. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I was a tiny piece of an unimaginably complex and distressing puzzle but I didn’t know where my piece fit. Amazingly, the book is still in print. It has sold many thousands of copies and in 2018 it was put on the BC schools’ curriculum list.
Awful as that experience was I was hooked on writing and I soon began what I call “Stories from my kitchen window”. From where I lived in Tsartlip First Nation I watched my kids and the neighbours’ kids making sense out of their world. The view from my kitchen window was a cross cultural landscape where people got along, where they didn’t get along, where who you were was determined by the colour of your skin and where you were defined by your parentage. As you can imagine my whiteness coloured everything.
My stories were wispy glimpses of kids getting up in the morning and facing the day in the sort of world that I lived in. I crossed cultures. Of course I did. I lived in an adopted home. One where I was never entirely comfortable nor entirely welcome. But I was a mother and it was my kids’ home so it was my home as well and it provided the window from which I observed the world.
I didn’t just write kids’ books and young adult novels, although at that time they were my favourite stories. I dabbled in social commentary, history and personal essays—18 books altogether by 2020.
Twenty years after my first book was published, books number 19 and 20 are finished and will go to press in the spring of 2021—at least that’s the plan. In April, Douglas & McIntyre will publish Unravelling Canada my first travel book. You might have guessed that it’s travel through a knitting lens. In May, Orca Books will publish Growing up Elizabeth May, my first biography (for middle school age kids). COVID might mess with the publication dates so I’ll write more about these books later.
I am celebrating this anniversary in an unusual space for me. I don’t have a book on the go. Don’t worry. I have a textbook to start and an interactive ebook to write, so I’m not out of the business. But I am enjoying a very short calm. For once I am not struggling to find words. Or bewailing the ones I have found. I am riding out 2020 in this empty space. Perhaps not an entirely empty space, you might see more blogs than ever before because, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a writing addict.
I love Facebook. It’s not a confession that comes easily. I try to be smart, savvy and somewhat sophisticated (I have real trouble with that one) and loving Facebook doesn’t fit the profile. I know the issues. I’ve read the same articles about the evils of social media as you. And I’m not someone who generally feels strong fuzzy affection for mega manipulative corporations. Besides that I’ve got my own problems with Facebook. Mostly I resent the time I spend on it. Facebook is the worst enabler of my procrastinator self.
But I still love Facebook. If it weren’t for Facebook I would not have gotten a surprise package in the mail from Debra Bell with a message—“a gift for you”. Two beautiful green masks. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Debra. In this COVID world I am learning to feel love in the strangest ways and for people I hardly know. I’ve been acquainted with Debra for years and we’ve met in person at craft fairs once or twice. But Debra is a dear Facebook friend. I know her stories, her industriousness, her joys and her pain. I “see” her more than I ever saw my friends before Facebook. She is a new kind of friend and one that I cherish.
If it weren’t for Facebook I wouldn’t know an amazing man from the north who is sharing his journey through dementia. Can you imagine such generosity? I get to have intense conversations with committed NDPers who hate my politics but value good arguments. I am aging with friends from Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Zealand and the United States. Through photos I watch the subtle changes in their skin, their eyes, their hair as they gracefully move through time. And then there’s Bernie. Without Facebook I would never have a random friend named Bernie who lives in London and posts the most British angle on everything.
The other day one of my students wrote in her assignment on stress “the best stress reliever is laughter”. On Facebook I have found a new reason to laugh out loud. I particularly love the twisted, slightly raunchy stuff that comes from my dear niece Angel. Maybe it’s northern Chetwynd humour but I love it.
I am even learning to appreciate the annoyingly negative conspiracy theorists who can’t say a positive word about anything. How else would I have the privilege of getting inside those minds? And when they get repetitive I do have the free will to move on (I’ve always thought conspiracy theorists need to think more about free will).
The western world has had a dictate…don’t talk to strangers about politics and religion. That has never worked for me. Now, on Facebook, I get to reunite with people I went to Sunday School with and others from the same church whom I’ve never met. We all have similar unresolved issues in our post-fundamentalist lives and we get to talk about them, freely, across the globe. Who would have thought?
So, for now, for a million reasons, I am just going to unapologetically love Facebook. In a few years or months, or maybe even days I may feel differently. But one thing won’t change. I’ve got friends. Good friends. And I have never felt such love and appreciation for so many people from so many places before. For that I thank you all.
Save the date. I am doing that thing that people do…retiring. I’m not retiring me. I’m retiring my current work. I think there is a difference.
I eat and sleep housing. You’ve probably heard me say it before…that the work goes on and on and on… Working on housing can never stop, not until everyone has a safe, life-affirming place to be and to become.
I also live and work in the First Nations housing field and have done for what feels like forever. It started almost 50 years ago when I moved to Tsartlip FN and I realized that Canada was not the country I had imagined. It was the housing that struck me first. How can this be Canada? That when I crossed the road and realized that the people over on the reserve side didn’t have access to decent housing? How can it be that my hard working husband and I cannot borrow money or find any way to build our family an adequate home?
Later when I worked as Tsartlip’s housing manager I began to figure out how deeply rooted the problem was and how the housing system was a manifestation of the racist government housing programs– strong words but the programs were, in fact, the problem itself. I knew there was only one solution. First Nations needed to take back control of their housing…government bureaucrats were absolutely the wrong people to be making the decisions.
A lot has happened since the 1990s when I started working in the housing field. These days I work with a team of First Nations people, working towards the transfer of the care and control of housing from the Government of Canada to First Nations authority. If that sounds like a strange job, it is. Why, you might ask, in 2020, would Canada still have control over housing in First Nations? That was the topic of my Phd dissertation and I can’t answer that question in a few paragraphs. However, for now it is enough to say that Trudeau’s Liberals have finally resolved to get out of the business of delivering housing services to First Nations.
In 2016 the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, then Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced that the federal government would support the creation of First Nations institutions to replace the Indian Department. “Perhaps you might want to build your own CMHC,” she said. She was speaking in Ottawa to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs’ Committee and Housing and Infrastructure (CCoHI). I was a member of the committee as one of the BC technical reps. I heard what she said. As soon as we got home the other two BC reps and I got together and wrote a proposal to get the government to put their money where their mouth was.
We began to organize. If government was going to get out of the business we were going to be ready. In fact we were not going to wait for the government to “give back” control we were going to go and get it.
BC First Nations are like that. They were the first in Canada to take control of their own health services, they have world-class programs for the homeless and are innovative leaders in FNs education. They worked with the provincial government to turn UNDRIP into DRIP-A, the first legislation of its kind in the country.
BC First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) said yes, let’s establish our own authority. In 2019 they mandated the BC First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council (FNHIC) to create an institution and to make the transfer a reality.
It’s an unimaginably complex task. We have been listening to First Nations for several years. Their responses include “Yes we need to take control. The sooner the better.” “We have to make sure we don’t just mirror the mess already in place.” “I am excited to make our own mistakes and to fix them.” “Don’t transfer the government’s disaster onto our table without the means and the capacity to solve the problems.” “There are so many ways to improve. Let’s get started.” “Let’s make the new authority a truly by First Nations, for First Nations institution.”
Rarely do we get to be a part of finding the solutions to the big problems. Rarely do we get the opportunity to work with people who share the same vision and assume the responsibility to actually make it happen.
I got to do just that. For three years I’ve worked with the FNHIC developing the engagement strategy, creating teams of First Nations experts to do the work, listening to hundreds of First Nations people share their visions and concerns. I’ve written policy papers and analyzed government documents. I’ve worked with First Nations across the country as well as teams from the federal and provincial governments.
The next question is how do you stop doing the thing you have dreamed about? When does the time come to leave the dynamic group of people you helped create? The answers began to emerge in my mind after I rounded the bend towards the magic number of retirement. “I’m 65,” I would say to others. To myself I would say “I am 65 and most other 65 year old grandmothers are not getting up at 5 am for the first flight, travelling all over the country and living out of a suitcase.” When COVID 19 put an end to all of that I began to work more than ever. There would be no end to it. Unless I put an end to it. So I will and I have.
It’s the right time for me to move over. The space I occupy should be filled with younger energetic First Nations visionaries. This is their thing. I helped bring yesterday to today and will always be there to help bring today to tomorrow but I’m stepping over and out. January 1st I will reduce my input into FNHIC to a single project contract. By March I will be writing a paper for them and when that paper goes to print I am done.
Like I said. I’m not retiring. I’m retiring this work…perhaps the most important work of my life. Right now I’m thinking about what Kenny Rogers said “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…”
I will continue to contribute to the field, mostly by writing about it. This will not be the last you will hear from me on the topic of housing on reserves in Canada – promise.
Not so. We have our own version of the fire right here in British Columbia. We are not having a democratic election. We are having a ‘snap’ election and those two things are very different. I think it is profoundly significant that the meaning of snap is to “break or cause to break suddenly and completely”. John Horgan is, indeed, snapping democracy as we believe it should be by calling an election one year before the set date his party previously committed to.
Generally British Columbians believe that democracy has something to do with the will of the people, that elections give leaders a mandate because the public has spoken, that people not only have the right to vote but they are given a reasonable opportunity to vote, that anyone who works hard enough can become an MLA by running an effective campaign and mobilizing the constituency, that political parties stand behind certain beliefs and values…and more.
Not so this time. Snap elections don’t support any of those beliefs. Here’s a few reasons why John Horgan’s snap election has put democracy under fire:
Politicians can only claim to know the will of the people if they listen. Thirty days during a pandemic makes that extremely difficult.
Political parties can only claim to have a certain mandate if the issues are clear and the people know what they are voting about. Again a thirty-day campaign in a time when all the normal campaign communication instruments have been disrupted makes a mandate moot—the people don’t have time to know enough about the issues to give a mandate.
Mail in ballots must be received by Elections BC by October 24 otherwise you are going to the polls in person. Given the short time to notify people and given that most people will just assume they are voting in person like they usually do and given no one knows what COVID restrictions will look like in the next few weeks, this is democracy under fire. I bet Trump would have paid a lot of money and a lot of Russians to have the opportunity to put that little democratic obstruction in place. Oh, and who’s going to want to wait in the sort of in-person line-ups to vote that we’ve got coming up?
New MLA hopefuls just simply don’t have time to mobilize in 32 days. Even people who have thought about it for awhile. Having worked beside my son in several elections I know what it takes and it takes more than a month. This snap election has broken that possibility.
I naively thought that one of the most important values of British Columbian political parties was democracy and that they operated under the imperative to promote democratic practices. The NDP has not stood behind that value…not in this snap election.
I have lived most of my life in First Nations community. It is there that I learned a meaning of respect that I have never encountered in mainstream Canada. I can’t put a definition to it. It’s more than my definition. Simply put I have come to know it as a deep relationship with the whole environment in which I exist. But I will say what I believe it is not—a snap election is not respectful.
And one more thing: you might say that people vote on the record of the government and not on elections, that elections are almost unnecessary. On that note it’s the perfect time to snap that little bit of democracy. The record of the NDP—think pipelines, Site C, teachers—has been obscured by COVID and Bonnie Henry. No wonder John Horgan called a snap election.