By Emil van der Poorten –
The prohibition on the publication of material that might relate to the General Election due to be held on the day after the Sunday newspapers hit the stands this week, has offered me the opportunity of taking a journey down memory lane to a small piece of my existence more than 30 years ago.
There are going to be many diversions in this story and for them I’ll make no apology because I think they are relevant to that narrative.
It was 1981 and I was about to take my second trip back home to Sri Lanka when I was asked to present myself for an interview in Slave Lake, in the northern half of Canada’s western province of Alberta, colloquially known in Canada as “the land of the blue-eyed sheikhs,” thanks to it producing huge quantities of oil and natural gas which had the province’s coffers overflowing with petrodollars, leading, on one occasion to the government of the day, faced with a huge budget surplus, giving every man, woman and child a cheque for $1000. This had some unexpected political embarrassment attached to it when it was discovered that some older folk who were born in the province but had moved away in their infancy, qualified for and received this payment! This proved to be the one time that my family were direct beneficiaries of the fossil-fuel-generated wealth of the province!
Since my arrival in the southern part of the province, I’d worked in the livestock feed industry, first as a commodity buyer, buying feed grains for what was then Canada’s biggest (cattle) feedlot with a capacity for 50,000 head, despite the fact that I’d proclaimed to those who interviewed me for the position, that the only cereal grain I was familiar with was rice and that the job I held since my arrival in Canada in 1973 – as an accounts clerk at British Petroleum – in no way qualified me for the position. For whatever reason, they hired me and I started working in Alberta in December of 1975, having driven across the part of Canada that separated Toronto from Alberta in early winter, with a young Sri Lankan for company, leaving my wife and two children in Canada’s largest city to join me later in December.
One of the commonest (polite!) questions asked of people of colour in Canada then was, “What was the extent of your culture shock when you moved from a very different warm, southern Asian country to what is a predominantly ‘white’ Canada?” My stock (and honest) answer to that question after I took up my new position in Slave Lake in northern Alberta, used to be, that moving from Sri Lanka, (essentially as political refugees long before the term came into common use!) did not jar us in a cultural sense, given the fact that we belonged to a class that was raised with ‘western’ norms and values. However, moving in December 1981, from Claresholm in Southern Alberta, from a countryside dominated by white ranchers, producing more than 60% of Canada’s beef and where the “conservatism” practiced was more akin to fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity of the most reactionary kind – to the land of the Cree and the muskeg – was a cultural shock!
Alberta (the south of it, anyway) was predominantly “cow country,” and was often referred to as “the Texas of Canada, except that, in Alberta, the b.s. is on the outside of the (cowboy) boots!”
Yes, I’d lived amidst farmers and ranchers for six years, attending my fair share of summer barbecues, probably drinking more Rye whisky than I should, and, generally, “living like an Albertan” except when my “communist” views ran afoul of the establishment, sometimes with catastrophic results in the matter of employment security! I did too, get back into writing for publication in a local newspaper owned by a man of large-L (as in supporting Pierre Trudeau’s Federal Liberals) Liberal persuasion, a breed so endangered in that province that many thought he owed his survival to the fact that the Tory establishment in the area needed him as some kind of token of or ornament to the fact that “democracy prevailed in the province!” I remember Jim Nesbitt very vividly because when I was ultimately fired by my employer on the specious grounds of “staff rationalisation,” he told me the real reason: that I had unwittingly crossed journalistic swords with a nationally-syndicated columnist, a post-war immigrant to Canada, suspected of having Nazi roots, and who had complained to my employer about my “communist” scribblings and copied him, as editor of the newspaper that had published one of the offending pieces about which he’d lodged his (alcohol-fuelled) complaint to my employer. While I still remember the late Jim Nesbitt, the owner-editor of the Brooks Bulletin very fondly, I trust I will be forgiven for not thinking of John Schmidt, the agricultural columnist, in the same terms!
Anyway, my next stop after Brooks was Claresholm – a beautiful little town where, as its town logo proclaimed, “The prairie met the mountains,” – which proved a great place in which to live and try to raise two (Sri Lankan-born) children.
My involvement in community life gave me a taste for what I subsequently discovered to be community development enterprises and I began applying for positions in a provincially-funded but municipally, grass-roots-controlled, social program with a completely preventive focus.
For my second interview, I flew up from Calgary, the city of oil barons then and now, to the provincial capital of Edmonton and then proceeded to drive a rented car the 150+ miles north to Slave Lake.
While I had seen aboriginal people (Indians) in Southern Alberta, with the Blood Reserve, the largest of its kind in all of Canada, within a stone’s throw of Claresholm, the experience of encountering them in the stores of what passed for small “urban centres” did not prepare me for the preponderance of Northern Cree in the town of Slave Lake and the surrounding muskeg country.
I had an interesting interview with the selection committee of the volunteer board that ran the program and left, for Claresholm, with an overnight stay with Sri Lankan friends in Edmonton that night.
Within a matter of days, my nine -year old son and I were winging our way to Sri Lanka for the first time in eight years and, while I was in the country of my birth I had my offer of employment among the Indians!
On my return to Canada, I gave my employer notice of termination and, on its completion, left for Slave Lake, selling the home which we’d had built, the west windows of which looked across a narrow strip of farmers’ fields to the foothills and the snow-capped Rockies beyond.
What followed were the years I look back on most fondly among the thirty-three I spent in Canada.
The boundaries of “my” program enclosed an area about 4/5 that of Sri Lanka – it was about 20,000 square miles as compared to my homeland’s 25,000. Where the similarity ended was in the matter of population: the total population of the Lesser Slave Lake Family & Community Services program was about 12,000 souls at that time (and, no, I have not missed any zeroes there!).
Travel over unpaved “dirt” roads, often 150 miles in length, 12 months of the year, attended by winter blizzards, icy surfaces, mud like you couldn’t imagine in spring and fall, and the densest clouds of dust I have ever encountered during the height of summer when everything that was frozen in the long winter seemed to have been burned to a crisp by the scorching heat of the brief summer were part of my “northern exposure!”
For someone who was born and raised in the mid-country of Sri Lanka, this was a very different life, indeed!
Often, given the fact that the journey between Slave Lake and one of the “isolated communities” I served could take up to six hours (if the road wasn’t impassable!), I ended up in my sleeping bag on the floor of the local schoolteacher’s home or in that of a member of the community who, even if the cuisine he provided was of a quality leaving something to be desired, shared what little he and his family had more than gladly.
I had invaluable help from a man to whom I’ll owe a debt of gratitude till my death for passing on the wisdom he did so gently, giving me an invaluable introduction into the Cree culture which was so very, very different to that with which I’d grown up and which, at least in the matter of lip-service, we still try to adhere to in Sri Lanka. To Lorne Larson I owe a debt of gratitude that I shall never even try to repay.
The northern Cree came from a simple trapping, hunting and fishing culture where one was engaged in providing for one’s family from the trap-line in winter and (primarily, whitefish) from the lakes in summer, wood-smoking what their nets yielded. Essentially the same preparatory- and preserving-technique was used in the tanning of moose hides – for their beautifully bead-embroidered jackets, moccasins and mukluks – as well as for tanning the beaver pelts, first stretching and scraping the flesh off them (as was done with the moosehides) on wooden frames made from the willow that grew readily in the muskeg of the region.
Of necessity, personal survival was priority number one,. Concomitant with that was the survival and protection of one’s immediate family. Since, children moved freely between families, that protection did not extend into the kind of “child-protection” necessitated by urban life. If your child happened to be in my house at meal- or bed-time he was treated like mine.
The Cree that I worked with and who were my friends in “the isolated communities” of the Slave Lake region had, historically speaking, moved, in less than one generation, from a culture dependent on the canoe and snowshoe to one where there were television re-transmitters permitting them to watch the Playboy channel, soap operas and all those other great “cultural symbols” of the white world outside: from “pre-wheel” to the electronic age! The resultant social dislocation; the massive unemployment; the wholesale dependence on social welfare; the astronomical suicide rates and drug- and alcohol-abuse and gas-sniffing were, unfortunately, typical of aboriginal communities in many parts of the world who were subjected to the “civilizing” influence of the “enlightened Christian culture” of the not-so-distant past.
It would take a rather long book even to relate my own experiences in Canada’s north with some of its aboriginal people, something that neither time nor space permit at this time. However, in closing, for those interested, I’d suggest a reading of the Olive Patricia Dickason’s “The First Nations of Canada,” considered the definitive work of its kind and, perhaps most important, an eminently readable volume by a woman who, before she embarked on a career as an academic historian was an extremely skilled print journalist on some of Canada’s most highly respected newspapers.