Indigenous lives, white agendas: A lesson

February 20, 2020

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Twenty-one years ago, when I was far less cynical about the potential of journalism to wake people up about climate change, I wrote a book called Vanishing Halo: Saving the Boreal Forest (Greystone/Douglas & McIntyre, 1999). Commissioned by the David Suzuki Foundation, the book’s purpose was to raise awareness about the coniferous crown that serves as the earth’s northern lungs: the array of plants, wildlife and people that inhabit the boreal region, the forest’s importance in mitigating the effects of global warming, the industrial activities that threaten it, and solutions for preserving it—including co-management regimes between industry, local communities, and government that emphasize traditional knowledge and ecosystem-based use.

The research included a visit to the Hollow Water Reserve of the Anishanaabe First Nation in Manitoba, located in the southwest corner of the Canadian Shield about two hundred kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. My main interview subject there was Garry Raven, a trapper and former gold miner who, as I would put it in the book, had “overcome poverty and alcohol abuse to become a productive member of his community” and “a force to be reckoned with” as an Indigenous land defender. Our interview took place in Garry’s wood-framed chalet uphill from the Wanipigow River, a home surrounded by stands of poplar and birch. When my local contact and I arrived for the meeting, a plume of smoke from the chimney was rising gently into the still morning air.

Chapter Two of Vanishing Halo opens with dutifully workmanlike reportage of my interview with Garry, including his thoughts on the impact of industrial development on his community, its environment, and the local economy. Like any half-decent journalist earning his keep, I made sure to include lots of physical details about Hollow Water and its hardscrabble, edge-of-the-world vibe on the perimeter of the boreal zone. The writing, I think, captured the rugged isolation of the reserve’s location on the fringes of Lake Winnipeg, and yet—despite contamination by industrial pollutants—its still vibrant ecosystem (including an abundant supply of medicinal plants like juniper, cranberry, blueberry, Labrador tea, sweet grass, balsam, poplar, and tamarack). In an ironic counterpoint to the natural surroundings, I included a passing reference to the brand-new pair of heavy-duty snowmobiles sitting outside Garry’s chalet.

What was missing from the published account of our conversation was any personal reflection on my experience in Hollow Water and how I felt about it. There was nothing about my encounter with Garry Raven beyond the subject matter I had come to see him about; nothing apart from the local information I was there to extract from my host before taking my leave and moving on to the next bit of research for the book. Nor did I share anything about the protocols of our encounter, the unspoken rules for intercultural contact I was obligated to respect and observe if our meeting were even to take place. The fact I provided no physical description of Garry, who today I recall only as a slightly overweight, middle-aged Indigenous man, tells you how single-minded I was in my deadline-driven pursuit. There was also more, a lot more, I could have said about those snowmobiles.

I had come to this remote corner of Manitoba at the invitation of the Future Forest Alliance’s Don Sullivan, whom I’d met at a boreal forest conference in Tartu, Estonia a month earlier. While at the conference I told Don about the book I was writing, and that I hoped to balance all the facts and figures with some human stories from the bush—particularly in First Nations communities where traditional knowledge informs the people’s stewardship of their natural resources. Don replied with a generous offer to fly me out to his province and set up some interviews on aboriginal land. When I arrived in Winnipeg, he told me about Garry Raven, his brother Raymond, and Anishinaabe elder Fabian Morriseau. He said I should bring gifts to honour these men for sharing their stories with me.

“What would you suggest?”

“Well, some good tobacco is never a bad idea.”

Tobacco?! Really? I had visions of a cheesy Hollywood film featuring a heroic white figure making a big deal of handing over thick bags of weed to an Indian chief dressed in the Full Warrior, played of course by a white actor caked in red face paint. Such essentializing clichés were so embedded in my white, suburban middle-class mind that the very idea of tobacco as a gift to the men I’d be interviewing seemed embarrassing. Perhaps I should have asked Don for more information about my hosts, so that I could have surprised them with something a little less, well, predictable. But saying nothing I went ahead and bought a few bags of what Don assured me, a non-smoker, was decent tobacco. Garry, who I met first, must have sensed my awkwardness. For when I handed him the tobacco he merely nodded, looked at it thoughtfully for a moment, and then put it aside.

“So. Why have you come here?” he asked. “What’s the purpose of your project?”

I immediately launched into a five-minute monologue on who I was, what I had done as a writer, and what the book was about. I tried to impress my host with a bit of name-dropping (there was the Suzuki connection, for starters, plus the fact I had interviewed Nisga’a chief Joe Gosnell, and other Indigenous elders, for my previous book), and some of the knowledge about boreal forests I had gleaned so far from books, academic papers, and interviews in Estonia with boreal ecologists from Russia and Scandinavia. I just, you know, needed some Indigenous perspectives to authenticate my research about life in the boreal bush.

All these years later it occurs to me how crassly opportunistic that pitch must have seemed to my subject-in-waiting. Garry Raven had, after all, met more than his share of do-gooder white urban researchers who waltz into First Nations communities, say all the right things to ingratiate themselves, then take what they need before disappearing forever; the kind of academics or journalists who move on to the next big story or book project on their “to do” lists with no further engagement in the community that had so briefly fascinated them. When I was finished justifying my existence, Garry looked at me and smiled.

“Can I see your hands? Let’s have a look.”

Oh. Such an intimate request, only minutes into our meeting! I looked over at Don, sitting off to the side between us. He shrugged, as if to say, ‘Do what he asks.’ I presented my soft and unblemished, computer keyboard hands to Garry, who whistled at the sight of my immaculate fingernails.

“Whoa. City boy!” he exclaimed with a chuckle. “You don’t get out much, do you?”

“Well, I do ride my bike a lot, and occasionally get out for a paddle,” I offered weakly.

My host, his eyes narrowing, had something else in mind. “Come on, put your coat back on. I want to show you something,” he said, leading Don and I back outside into the biting hard cold of a mid-winter’s day in Manitoba.

“You see that?”

I stared out at the forest near the edge of a small lake, thinking I was in for a long, rambling story about the Anishinaabe people and their land, told outside in the freezing cold instead of where I’d rather be, nestled indoors by the fire Garry had lit for us.

“No, I mean the skidoos.” He was pointing at his snowmobiles. “You ever driven one of these?”

He walked me over to them, inviting me to sit on one.

“Nope, can’t say I have,” I admitted, accepting the invitation.

“So, here’s what I want you to do. You see that tree over there, the tall birch sticking out from all those poplars?” He was pointing at a thicket about two hundred and fifty feet away, apparently accessible from a trail that ran along the edge of the small lake to the left of the forest. I could see tracks in the snow leading out to it.

“Yeah, I see it.”

“I want you to take this thing and ride it out there to that tree, then ride it back here and park it. Then we can talk.”

I looked out at the deep snowdrift, and at the narrow track running along the lake beside the forest. Then I noticed a series of bumps I would have to drive through for the first part of the ride. What lay beyond it, on the way to the birch tree?

“But I don’t know how to—“

“It’s easy. Here’s the ignition.” He turned on the motor as I sat. “Here’s how to reverse. Here’s how to put it into drive to go forward. And here’s the gas ped—”

At the slightest touch of the gas pedal I pulled away from Garry with a violent jolt, propelling myself rapidly forward through the snow. Off I went, the white city boy getting his first taste of boreal adventure. As I struggled to keep the snowmobile skis inside the crisp new tracks of the existing trail, my entire body was jiggling from all the bumps I was speeding over along the route. I felt a rush of adrenaline on realizing how little I understood about this kind of machine—and, for that matter, about the boreal forest and its people.

How little it would take, I thought, to wipe out this skidoo, roll over and kill myself! Even if I avoided being crushed by it, how possible would it be to turn this thing over and back up again? What would I do if I was alone on this skidoo in the middle of nowhere, crashed and became incapacitated? How would I survive? I could still hear Don and Garry chatting behind me, back near the chalet, as I approached a corner of the trail on the edge of the tree line, perilously close to the water’s edge. It was hard to prevent the skidoo from running at high speed, so there was very little reaction time as I left the open area and the trail began to narrow with the gathering forest.

Scared shitless, I began to feel that the snow drift to my left, less than a foot from the bank overhanging the lake about five feet below the trail, was on the verge of collapse. Without thinking, I pulled hard on the handlebars and lifted my butt off the seat, then shifted my body weight to the right so I could keep the skidoo on the trail. To this day, I am convinced that my split-second decision was all that prevented me from dumping into the ice-cold water below—a fate that, far worse in my mind than possible hypothermia, injury, or even drowning, would have pre-empted my interview with Garry and Raymond Raven and Fabian Morriseau; a result that would have sent me home with my tail between my legs, having proven unworthy of the boreal forest I had presumed to take on as a writing subject.

Having barely extricated myself from such a disastrous scenario, I calmed down enough to finish negotiating the remainder of the trail. After turning the skidoo around at the birch tree, I was prepared this time for that treacherous curve on the way back and so easily returned to the spot outside the chalet where Don and Gary had continued smoking while they waited for me.

“Well, that took balls,” said Garry, as if riding the skidoo had been my idea. As if my life hadn’t just flashed before my eyes. “How was it?”

I must have feigned enthusiasm and told him it was great fun, resisting the urge to cuss him out for putting me at so much risk. But then, for Garry, sending me out on his skidoo had clearly been a test: since I, the white journalist, held all the cards for narrative control (he knew I would be taking whatever he told me in the interview and using it however I wished, without his having the opportunity to review drafts and thus comment on how accurately I had characterized his community and its stories), it stood to reason that I should be taken out of my comfort zone a little, only fair that I should be made to feel vulnerable while braving the elements on his turf.

My little skidoo adventure was Garry’s subtle but effective way of taking back some power from our lopsided interviewer/interviewee dynamic; a gesture that would put me in a better position to hear his stories with humility, thus establishing a better foundation for equality between us. Sure enough, as we returned inside to the warmth of Garry’s chalet and his raging wood fire, my hyperventilating simmered down and I was able to enjoy each sip of the hot tea he served me. Now my host had my complete and undivided attention. Garry, for his part, seemed more welcoming now that I had tried out his snowmobile and pronounced it a fabulous machine. His initial hesitance now gone, he seemed completely at ease about my presence at Hollow Water.

“So,” he smiled. “What would you like to talk about?”

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