Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tapped (Pt. 4 - Conclusion)

I am a Sundancer. I have prayed at the tree. I have made an offering of my flesh. If it were not for the tree I would have gone mad. There was a point in my life in which I had become so overwhelmed with what I saw and the reality of it all.

We had lost everything. It was all gone and there was nothing that could be done. Our language, our culture, our ceremonies, our values, our stories, our way of life have all faded into history. Crushed with bureaucracy, lies and willfully racist or willfully blind Canadian public.

I was living in Toronto at the time and I realized that I had not touched the earth for days. I would leave my tiny rented room and I would walk on the sidewalk to the Subway station and head to Queen St. W. I had made myself alien to the earth. A great confusion settled. Sadness. Anger. Madness.

I dreamed I was walking down Queen Street on a glorious day and the street is lively but not too full. I am crying like a lost child. Sobbing. I am overcome by this feeling of hopelessness and I can hide it from the world no longer. I stumble down the street in tears of outrage and no one could care on a glorious day and the street is lively but not too full.

In the next moment, I am walking in a forest almost immediately my burden has been lifted. I come to a large poplar tree and it begins to speak to me. It tells me that nothing has been lost, "We remember everything. Whatever you need to know just come to us and ask."

I am renewed by this dream. The next day on my walk to work. I acknowledge all the trees on the street stopping to offer tobacco at some and hugging others.

I did not know how to take the words of the tree spirit and put them into practice in my life. I did not know how the tree was supposed to teach me the language or long lost cultural practices. All I knew is that I believed the answer to be true and if I were not the one who could crack the code the answer was still there for others. This was enough to carry me forward.

It would be many years later that I would see the tree that spoke to me when I attended my first Sundance.

It was the spring following my fourth and final year as a Sundancer that I had set upon the notion of tapping Maple trees and making Maple Syrup. Despite my dreams and teachings and all the things I had learned over the past two decades and despite my sincere offering at the beginning of the process I cannot escape the realization that I had committed a sin.

I have punctured holes in four Maple trees that were three quarters of a century old and all their sap is bleeding out onto the ground.

This happened because I just start doing things for me and it is all because of me that this is happening and all the focus becomes internal and disrespectful. My ego pushes more forward and I must be right. I cannot be wrong.

I should have taken more time. I should have asked more questions. I should have been more respectful. I shouldn't have drilled so many holes. That was the thing. That was what was wasteful. I should have stopped at one.


Over the first four days, I am able to collect enough sap to have my first boil and I fill two large stainless steel pots about three quarters full, maybe 25 liters in total.

I begin the boil at lunch break and stoke the fire after work, maintaining a steady steam but not boiling. I talk to my father in law Fred about my problem with the steel spigots and how most of the sap is being wasted especially now that the weather has hit the pattern for peak production.

I don't tell him this weight I feel; but I don't know if it would have made a difference. He did not grow up in a world where waste was tolerated.

He recalls his grandmother sending him out to collect elderberry vines to make their own spigots. He remembered elderberry being on the property some years ago, but hadn't seen any for a while. He suggested I try Sumac since it had a cork like centre similar to the elderberry vine.

We are blessed to have sumac all around our yard. This is a beautiful plant, it's called a tree but it's more in between. It grows to about 10 feet and it has has long lance shaped leaves that hold bright burgundy seed cones that slash red across the summer green.

This time of year the leaves are gone and the seed cones have dulled to a darker purple but it is easy enough to find. The sumac is always looking for attention.

The sumac like the dandelion grew in my esteem as I tried to remove it from my garden. It's extensive and aggressive roots snake out just inches below the surface and new plants can begin anywhere along the chain.

I had to admit that despite the troubles it caused, it was a hardy as well as beautiful plant and the truth was it would one day take that garden back from me with no bad feelings.

I also knew that the fruit of the sumac, that blood purple cone of seeds, was edible. I had come across this fact in a survival guide I had perused and had put theory to the test soon after. Although slightly bitter and with a fuzzy texture that is nowhere near pleasant; it is not entirely unappetizing. I could imagine with the proper nutritional engineering the taste could become quite acceptable and even delectable.

I once again made my offering of tobacco. I then used a tree snips and cut down one sumac about four feet high and what I guessed to be the proper circumference. I then snip into five inch lengths.

I use a large screw driver and push a hole through each one with relative ease.

I take my hand made spigots to the trees and the one closest to the road. The one that got the first sun of the day and the best sun of the day and wore the hole that had leaked barrels of sap for all the world to see.

I removed the wasteful steel spigot with an easy twist and put it in my pocket. It was obvious that my sumac spigot was too large for the hole, but that was good, you can't cut things bigger.

I started to tap the spigot in. The bark and secondary layers of the sumac peeled back creating an airtight seal. When I hit the right depth, liquid came quickly out of the end of the tube. I hang a pail on the notch carved into the spigot and it collects at an incredible rate. The drip, drip, drip is music. It was the old way. It is a beautiful thing.

That night my wife and I boiled the Maple sap down to maple syrup. We got about two cups. It was divine. Over the next ten days, I was boiling every waking hour and getting about one quart a day. Miraculous. A taste beyond compare.

I research Maple Syrup and am amazed at its superfood qualities with trace nutrients, metals and minerals that are quite beneficial to human beings but can be found together in no other natural source.

As a family we began to drink the sap and there was always a pot of maple sap tea on the fire. There were numerous health benefits associated with the drinking of the sap. It is cleansing and rejuvenating and an absolute boost for a time of year when the winter time blues have threatened to set up permanent residence.

I discover Maple trees growing along our driveway on both sides. Despite the fact that on one side the black walnut trees have choked out everything else and on the other side the swamp has drowned  or is drowning all new trees. If we didn't make this driveway, there would be no Maple Trees here. The idea washes over me and it is my belief that the reason these things happen is that the Creator wants us to be happy. It is why medicine is sweet and berries are bright.

My grand children observe this whole process. I show them the marks on the tree where Grandma's Grandma tapped the same tree over 50 years ago. In their memory they will know that their family has always tapped these trees.

The memories of the great grandparents direct the grandfather who passes the traditional knowledge onto grandchildren and connects six generations in a moment.

This was part of the answer.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tapped Pt 3

When I get close, I can see that the pails are mostly on. That's the best part.

All around the spigots there are stains from wasted sap that has bled out and onto the ground.

A wound spilling out. Wasting away for no purpose. I have done a terrible thing.

I check the pails that remained fast and they do have some collected.
A cup or so in a few and three or four cups in others.
The first one, the one I did with the most care, has a couple of liters.
I reset a couple of pails. I return my collection to the sugar shack.

The stains on the trees are bright as flags of blood in my eyes
I drive past on my way to the radio station.
On the tree nearest the road, the sap is running so heavily it trickles
like the beginning of a mountain stream.

I have done a terrible thing.


Lincoln Manning runs Two Eagle Automotive which is next door to The Eagle 107.7 FM - Your First Nation Radio Station.

Lincoln has tapped trees and made his own Maple Syrup in the past. I tell him that I am looking for a plastic spigot of some kind that would be large enough to fit into the holes I bored into the trees. He smiles and steps out from behind his counter and walks to a shelf. He hold up an white spigot. He says that he sold a few for the very same purpose.

Lincoln does a fair business with the farmers, builders, fixers and general do-it-your-selfers from the non-Native communities in the area. They like the location and selection. They love the tax free for all business model.

I buy one that is the closest size I can approximate.

We talk some and when I ask if he thinks it will work, he smiles that smile that wishes you well and you can never tell.


After work, I stand at the tree with the white plumbing spigot in my hand. I see myself pushing and twisting and screwing with force this white plastic spigot threaded to dig and scrape into place. Plastic thread cut into hard maple. There is no way that is happening. It'll just make things worse.

Why did I make so many holes? What the hell were you thinking?
You have to be so right, right now.
Look at that. All of those trees. Those old trees.

I don't know if anyone else is seeing that. Nobody is saying anything.

Two weeks of this. Will it start to run faster.

I keep getting some though. I might be ready to boil this time tomorrow.


Science has not configured an accepted theory on why sap runs. It has to do with the extremes of temperature in spring in this part of Turtle Island. It has to be below freezing overnight and warm during the day.

The mechanics are agreed upon although there is no why. There are no leafs on the trees. Why does the tree require sugar and nutrients from the earth to be carried from top to bottom? What is it feeding.
Although it is the sugar that our bodies require, it is the minerals and other nutrients that are contained within Maple Syrup make it the true Superfood.

Maple Syrup healthiest sweetener

54 beneficial compounds in Maple Syrup


Friday, October 4, 2013

Tapped - Pt 2

Come morning it’s grey and blowing, active weather, the meteorologists call it. Anxiety has made for a restless sleep and I know that despite what I don’t know, I did something wrong. I jump up and begin getting dressed. 
“What’s wrong?” says my wife. “Nothing,” I lie. “I am going to check my pails.”

I walk up to the main road along our long driveway that runs 200 metres from our home back in the bush. (Or “back the bush” as my Anishinaabe family likes to say). There are dried limbs and other debris along the way. My anxiety grows. 

I know that I have made a commitment and now, I fear, it is one that I cannot maintain.

I don’t need to get to the trees to know that my gut feeling is correct. I can see a silver maple syrup pail lying almost on our driveway. It has been blown off the tree and across the ground. 

The wind picks up and rolls the pail a little further to drive the point home.

I pass the last bit of shrubs and tall grasses and I can see most of the pails have fallen off the trees. Only the one I did with my granddaughter remains fast.  All the others, that I must now acknowledge were done with haste and hubris, have not held.

I check the one pail and there is about a cup of sap inside. I take it off the hook and walk over to my in-laws who I know will be up have their morning coffee.

I share the results of the first night. The liquid is brown. That’s not right, it’s supposed to be clear. I’m not sure if that’s bark or rust. I tell them most of the pails have fallen off and the spiles that haven’t been pulled out are way too loose to be any good.

My mother in law smiles, my father in law asks if I drilled the holes up to the mark he had made. I tell him I did, but the trees were really hard and it was difficult to keep the drill straight. “So you made the holes too big,” he said, none too pleased. “That’s what, I figure,” I reply.

“What are you going to do?” My mother in law asks. “I don’t know,” I say, “try and fix it, I guess.”
I get another drill bit and head back to the trees with the vain and futile hope that somehow I can drill the holes smaller. How do you dig yourself out of a hole?

I’m thinking that with a smaller bit I can go a little deeper and then tap in some more and perhaps that will hold. It sort of works, I get some drip but there is no way the spile will be able to hold up the pail. I get a ball of bailing twine and tie up the pails into place. It takes more time than I have, but when I’m done it looks like it could work.

I head to work, happily deceived.

When I get back home I can see the pails are still on the tree and feel momentary relief. As I get closer I can see the spiles have fallen out, some are on the ground others in the pails. There are only a few drops of liquid in the pails.

I repeat the morning’s process. I don’t know what else to do. The strong winds make sure that I will have to repeat again in the evening. I tell myself that once the wind dies down, this can still work.

The weather breaks overnight and a warm front rolls in. I sleep hard, making up for the previous nights restlessness. When I wake up the sun is shining and I hear birds singing. The strong winds are a memory.

I feel so relieved. Now, that the winds are gone, it’s possible that everything is going to work out.
I walk up to the trees. Beautiful spring morning, I smile gratefully up to the sun. The sun's warming grace tells me it’s all going to be OK.

When I get to my trees, I see that things are far worse than I could have imagined.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tapped Pt 1


The trees had not been tapped for over 50 years. I had never done it. No one had done it where I grew up. There was no such thing as tapping trees in Northern Manitoba and anywhere else in Manitoba, as far as that goes.

I had visited a Sugar bush to buy Maple syrup a few times since I moved to southwestern Ontario but never toured the bush itself. I don’t know why the sugar sap ran here and not elsewhere. I had never given it a thought. After I had seen my first black squirrel, I learned not to be surprised on the hemispheric shifts in flora and fauna from where I was from and my new home in the southernmost part of Canada.
25 years pass. The idea floats here and there. Talked about, mentioned in passing and forgotten. I can’t say for sure how it found a foothold. From where, what or whom came the inspiration. Maybe it was a dream or something other whispering in my ear at night.

Someone helped to nudge the notion along through the ether and into this world. All I know is that one day I knew that I was going to do it and I set about converting idea into action - dream into reality.
I ask my in-laws, the elders in the family, for direction. My father in law shows me the trees he had planted with his grandmother when he was a little boy. 

Five beautiful hard sugar maples that by his estimation must be around 70 years old, his mother had tapped those trees but he had never done it on his own. My mother in law, as well, remembers tapping trees as a child but had never done it when she grew up.

My wife told me she can remember being a little girl looking up at her grandmother as she went about tapping the trees. She remembers her grandmother’s kitchen filled with steam as the final water was boiled from the sugar and she remembers her grandmother holding out a spoon with a touch of liquid magic for her tongue.

That was the last memory.


I begin my research online, watching videos on youtube and tracking which one I felt was most helpful. When my in-laws are visiting one day I show them and they smile at the memories. “It looks simple enough,” I say. And they smile at that.

I visit a local sugar bush and ask if they have spiles, the metal funnel shaped spigots that you tap into the tree to drain the sap into the buckets. “We have plenty sitting in a bucket in a storage shed. We don’t do it like that anymore, these days we all use plastic tubing,” he says.

The modern sugar bush is no longer a group of trees with individual spiles and buckets.  The trees are tapped with plastic spigots that are connected to a series of tubes that run the sap from a number of trees and drain into a barrel. Some have it so automated that it drains into the barrel, into a filter, then right into a boiler that drips out syrup.

I am only going to tap a couple of trees, I tell him. I buy a dozen spigots, hooks, buckets and covers for 20 bucks. I am pretty sure that we both feel that we kind of ripped off the other guy.

When I get back, I share that I have the tools to get started. The next big part is to be sure that I have the right bit for the hand drill to make the holes for the spile.

My father in law takes that task, he asks me to leave a spile with him and he will figure it out. He’s a carpenter, I’m a writer and I am happy to have him figure that out. 

He calls me up about an hour later. He shows me a block of wood with a spigot sitting snugly inside. He has it marked with a piece of tape. “You have to go this deep, but no further,” he tells me. He is serious about this.

My father in law who is jovial at the best and worst of times is serious about business when it comes to his trade as a carpenter and as one who has lived much of his life dependent of Mother Earth to provide, he is serious about harvesting.

I take my granddaughter with me and we go to tap the first tree. I offer tobacco to the tree and to the Creator. I begin to crank the drill and the bit moves easily through the bark and the first layer of flesh but I struggle when I enter the meat of the tree. They don’t call it hard Maple for nothing.

I pause, reset my feet and hands and then begin to crank again. I wobble a bit but I keep going until I hit my mark.The clear liquid begins to leak out the hole. Excellent.

I take the spigot and I tap, tap, tap and then I see a drop of liquid come out the end. That’s it. I put the hook on the spigot and hang up my pail. We hear the tinny plink as the first lonely drop hits the bottom of the pail.

I look at my granddaughter and say, “looks like we are in business, my girl.” She beams her big warm smile.

We do it three more times, two spigots on two trees in total. I am getting weaker as I go along and truth be told, I start to hurry. The last couple holes require more stopping, more resetting of the feet and hands. When I tap these spigots in, they don’t fit snugly.

I know right away that this is going to be a problem. My only comfort is that I don’t know what I’m doing right so there’s a chance, that I don’t know what I am doing wrong.

As I prepare the report for my wife, I realize that I have just made a partnership with the trees and I have no idea what that means and how long it will last. For some reason I thought that I could give it a go, see what happened and if it didn’t work out; I could just stop.

I tell my partner, “I’ve just started a ceremony in which I don’t know what will happen and I don’t know how or when it will end. As soon as I put my tobacco down and put holes in those trees, I made a commitment to honor that ceremony until the sap is finished running. I didn’t realize that until it was done.”

I don’t sleep well. I’m bothered by the fact that the last two holes I drilled were obviously too big, the early spring weather echoes my unease.  The winds blow hard and steady all night long.

Monday, September 9, 2013

For Native Americans the Guitar is like the Horse - Part 1

It was the late 90's and it was a music event that I believe to be the Aboriginal Voices music festival although I'm not entirely sure. I was talking to Keith Secola about guitar players as it seemed like there was something happening with a lot of young guitarists beginning to make a noise in the scene. Secola said "For Native Americans the guitar is like the horse. Once we got it we started doing things with it that no one else ever did before."

I thought, "That it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard". I loved the poetry of it. I didn't know if it was true or not, but it sounded true enough. And it was cool as shit. No doubt.

At that time Derek Miller was causing waves in the Toronto scene with an absolute electric live show with his band Universal Light. Miller would later join Secola as a member of the Band of Indians for one fantastic album, Finger Monkey which was released in 1999. Miller also toured with the legendary Buffy Ste. Marie in this period and released EP's and albums including Samples and Universal Light with Montee Sinquah.

Miller's tireless commitment to his craft not only as a player but a storyteller is seeded alone in his room, fired in live shows and flavoured with experimentation and collaboration until finally captured in studio with Music is the Medicine in 2002. In 2006, he released Dirty Looks and in 2010 he released Derek Miller with Double Trouble, an album recorded with the late Stevie Ray Vaughn's band, Double Trouble. The album would include Damned if You Do, a duet with a man known as one of the great guitar pickers in Nashville, Willie Nelson.

At the same time Miller was shaking things up in Toronto in the early 1990's, a family band from the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota was turning heads in the American midwest. In 1996, Indigenous had a track on The Honour the Earth CD that stood out alongside tracks by Alternative stars of the day, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Matthew Sweet, Luka Bloom and Soul Asylum. It was also worthy to stand with Native American heavyweights, John Trudell, Joy Harjo and Ulali as well as environmental heavyweights like Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Cockburn and The Indigo Girls. In an album promoting the defense of Mother Earth, the lyrics to their contribution explain the reality, as well, if not better than the the iconic songwriters on the record.

Benearth her lonely soul
her heart has turned to stone
because of the things we do
and we don't want to
change the things we do

In 1998, Indigenous released Things We Do. The year before, I  saw them play a show at the ballroom in Sioux Falls, SD that had the most dangerous mix of drunk bikers and drunk Native Americans that I had ever seen in my whole life.  My mood shifted completely when the band hit the stage. It was all about the music. Mato Nanji turned his guitar into a electric lover literally licking licks from the instrument. He played behind his back, behind his head and between his legs and I am sure if it was possible to pull out lighter fluid and set the guitar ablaze he would have done that as well.
When the band found the groove in the title track, Mato was lifted with his brother Pte on Bass and sister Wanbdi on Drums. They took us all along.

It is a glorious thing to feel. All together we are raised higher by the power of music and the power of the guitar to open up the gateway to the other side.

(Part 2 - Link Wray invents the power chord and Micki Free keeps Jimi Hendrix alive.)


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

This is no Hidden Holocaust

This is no Hidden Holocaust.

They took away the children and did experiments on them.  They starved children and watched them become ill and took notes. Children died. They took notes.

How much more do you need to know to accept the truth that the Canadian Government in colloboration with the Churches, Big Business and now, Academia implemented a program of cultural and literal genocide against the Native people of this country.

Their intentions were no less than those that fired the Holocaust of Europe. If we are judged by own judgements, their actions are worse. If we believe it is a greater sin to break a spirit than it is to break a body, then there is no comparison.

They beat the language out of the children. They raped the children. They buried tiny bodies in shallow graves. Murderers and rapists. We knew that they were murderers and rapists. We knew that they hated our spirituality and our way of life.

They starved children and took notes. They watched children raped, murdered and they took notes and starved children and took notes.

We knew it was Government. We knew it was Churches. We knew it was Big Business.

Now we know it was Academia as well.

This is no Hidden Holocaust.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I was wrong about the Lone Ranger

A little while ago I tweeted the cover of Rolling Stone magazine featuring Johnny Depp in Tonto costume and make and words like "Johnny Depp strikes a "I can crap out Native American stereotypes as easy as this" kind of thing. It was funny enough, but it was mostly bitter.

I had seen the commercials for Lone Ranger . I thought the movie looked horrible. In the sense that every movie looks horrible these days. Things are blowing up and flying at you from this future or that past and everything in between. All in stimuli crushing 3D.

Lone Ranger seemed to be another in a line of Depp Films that for me includes all the Pirate sequels, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows that left me cold. Yet, the box office success for these films over than Shadows have been astronomical.

I was trying to remember the last time I had enjoyed Depp in a performance. It would have to be Sleepy Hollow, if you don't include Rango. He is one of the great actors of this generation and I no longer anticipated any of his work for a very long time. I watched some of all of his recent films and it is not for me.

Then I read about Depp getting paid $65 million for some of these films, maybe more and it just seems crazy. I thought if Young Depp could travel to the future would he kill Old Depp. I asked myself the same question a few years back when I was working in Ottawa, I didn't work out well for me.

Then there was The Tonto thing. The talking Tonto thing. The monotone monosyllabic Tonto thing. Where you got the feeling that the Lone Ranger considered Tonto only slightly more intelligent than Silver.

What is Tonto? It is not a Native American trope although we like to see it that way. He is the stereotypical other who helps the White protagonist for no other reason other than he is White. A dynamic which appears over and over again in American and Canadian popular culture.

He is also Native American and through a history that began with a radio show and continued onto movie newsreels, comic books, television and film Tonto has become the single most enduring fictional Native American character in history.

Why would Depp who claims Native American ancestry, who directed a Native American themed film "The Brave" in his debut as a director and who starred in one of the most critically acclaimed films of recent years with a Native American theme "Dead Man".

Why in the world would Depp take on the most stereotypical Native American characters in all of popular culture? Why? Why? Oh, yeah. $65 million dollars.

So, I wasn't going to see it. I was going to mock the movie in advance and that was it. But, I did see it only with minor protests. My family was visiting from out West we had planned to see a comedy but all films were sold out. It was cheap Tuesday. The only film available was Lone Ranger. All right, I will go. And I promise not to complain loudly, yell at the screen or laugh inappropriately as dramatic scenes that are not working.

The film reset the Tonto character as someone who is outside of his own world. He doesn't' have a tribe. He grew up alone obsessed by both vengeance and guilt. He isn't a Sidekick. He is someone into whose story the Lone Ranger enters.

Depp may be mugging to the camera and eating scenery like the shark in Jaws but in the Native American history of the clown and the Trickster it is absolutely what the performance requires. If you relate it only to the Blackface mimicry of bug eyes and big grins you aren't reaching far enough back in the performance history of North America.

When an actor goes over the top it is often labelled a Vanity performance and when you take producer credit the whole film become a Vanity Project. There is are scenes early in the film that blow that notion up and ones that caused a bigger audience response that any of the special effects.

Armie Hammer the actor playing the Lone Ranger cuts an imposing 6' 4". Depp is not Hollywood short, but he is regular people short. Those scenes where he is walking side by side with Hammer sometimes with the camera shooting them from above. He looks really, really short. In one scene Tonto is referred to a "crazy little Indian".

This is not how it is done in Hollywood. No one calls Tom Cruise short.

Height has always been the greatest special effect ever created by Hollywood. It's like he's saying how can you trust Hollywood to tell you history when the whole thing is smoke a mirrors.

When the film starts to drift into Native American fantasy and a character is revealed to be a cannibalistic Windigo you wonder once again if the stereotypes of old Hollywood are creeping into the film. Spoiler alert, it turns out that some people are just evil.

It is all splash and entertainment and it is all of little consequence. Yet, the speech that matters, the most heartfelt oration of the movie comes from Chief Ten Bears, played by Saginaw Grant. There is no Tonto speak from the Native American actors. It is the most real thing in the film and that's the only thing that matters.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Elijah Harper and the Meech Lake Accord. South Africa and The Canadian Media.

I had put this blog aside with the intention of focussing on fiction and writing that was not current events and news related. The recent passing of Elijah Harper, the Cree man who stood up to the powers that be and changed history in Canada reminded me that our story is not always being told honestly by those whose profession is based upon sharing fact.

The journalists, the storytellers of record, have ignored Native People at best.  At worst they have been eager allies in historical and cultural genocide. It is said that journalists write the first draft of history. Other voices must be heard. Our voices must be heard.

When I came to the profession, I came as a convert. I had attended journalism school with the idea that it would be a good place to get the background required to work in advertising. I hadn't given the profession any thought.

I had a job the previous summer in building where an Advertising Agency was leasing space. The guy that worked there had a Mickey Mouse watch and all the walls were covered with images from some of the big campaigns they had done in the city. A grown man wearing a Mickey Mouse watch.  It sure seemed like a better way to make a living than filing papers or swinging a sledgehammer on the railroad. I was going to be a Mad Man.

I decided that the Program in Journalism for Native People would be a place where I could get the writing and production background required to get a step up in the field of advertising. Instead, I met Native People from all over the country who had come to the University of Western Ontario in London, ON with the singular goal of telling the stories of their people. They wanted to tell the stories of their communities and their families and their histories. Their own lives and their struggles. Their truth. A light switched on. I looked at myself and the things I had seen and heard and experienced. I had stories to tell.

I never thought it strange that the Masters of Journalism students were using computers and the students at the Program were using typewriters. Manual typewriters with carbon paper. It wasn't the tools. It was always about the stories. I thought they were learning the same thing. Give voice to the people. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comforted. Just the facts, ma'am.

At CBC Radio in Winnipeg, I had a first real time lesson in how the media operates in Canada. We were witness to the rise of the nations against South Africa and the outpouring of protest to end this totalitarian state.  Racism and Fascism upheld by constitution and brutally, horrifically enforced. It was a story of great historical importance a lesson to all humanity about what is right and wrong and it was unfolding before our eyes.

I had heard at the time that there may be a connection to the regime in South Africa and Canada. That in fact the South Africans had built the Apartheid system following the lead of the reserve system and The Indian Act legislations right here in Canada. A local angle on a big international story. I also thought that this was our job. We tell the story as honestly as we can so that our audience, our fellow man, can not simply judge but hopefully learn.

I remember the looks, the venom in some responses and harsher silent disdain. Being told that this was an out right lie and had no basis in fact let alone truth. I was 23 at the time. Still unsure and trying to keep my head above water inside the Mother Corp. I didn't push back, but I knew that the reaction suggested that the truth was being denied perhaps ignored.  (The story has never been fully investigated to my knowledge and it is an important event in defining Canada. See links below)

I have always been skeptical of the media since those early days and it has served me well. There are numerous other smaller examples but most significant is the reaction of the Canadian media to Elijah Harper and the death of the Meech Lake Accord.

The Meech Lake Accord was negotiated to bring Quebec into the Canadian Constitution. The province refused to sign the Constitution of 1982, which brought the constitution to Canada from England.

The Meech Lake Accord provided no consideration for the Native Peoples of Canada. The negotiations for the Meech Lake Accord were so drawn out the deal required unanimous support from all the provinces. In Manitoba this meant that all Members of the Legislative Assembly had to provide a yes vote in order for the Accord to live. Elijah Harper was an MLA. He said, "No". The Meech Lake Accord died on the floor of the Manitoba Legislature.

In the days that followed, the debate raged over who was responsible for the death of the Meech Lake Accord. It was unsettling. The facts seemed straight forward. The media seemed to be scrabbling together, in an unspoken and determined manner, to denounce and deny that Elijah Harper, A Cree Man had single handledly crushed all their machinations.

If Newfoundland would have done this and the Supreme Court that and on and on. There were all these things that could have happened but didn't that caused the thing that did happen to happen. I felt like Will Farrell's character from the movie Zoolander, "I feel like I'm taking Crazy Pills." Although the reference was yet to exist.

We chugged along with the newspaper. Nativebeat, the Beat of a Different Drum. It was all passion and faithful to the cause.

That fall my wife and I were invited to "The Gathering of the Giants." It was a fundraiser for the UWO Master's in Journalism Program and it brought together all the greats in Canadian broadcasting. Shelly and I along with other young alumni from the Masters Program were going to ask each of the Greats some questions on stage and then have dinner with them.

I had never driven into Toronto before. I had no idea what rush hour traffic was. I didn't know it wasn't an hour. We were too late.

Dean Peter Desberats interviews our Giants instead.(I still feel bad for Peter about that. He worked as hard anyone I know to give something back to Native People. He sincerely believed that journalism was the key to changing things for the better. There are many of us who owe our entry into the profession to Dean Desberats.)

My wife was going to sit with Barbara Frum and I with another Giant. We would both have to explain our lateness and have dinner in the company of those who dream to one day be a Giant or those who want to sit at the table with a Giant.

Lloyd Robinson, Barbara Frum and a whole bunch of Peters -  Mansbridge, Gzowski, Jennings
And I'm sitting with someone I do not know. I have done no research what so ever. That wasn't bad journalism. That was life. We are giving everything we have to publish Nativebeat, I am working at CBC in Toronto, we have 5 kids and a sixth on the way. When I was told I didn't need to do any research. I did none.

I explain my lateness. He seems understanding and we begin to chat about the evening. "It's too bad that you didn't arrive in time to do the interview. What questions would you have asked?" I tell him that I would have asked the same questions. He's puzzled, he thought all the young journalists would do their own research and craft their own questions. I told him that was my understanding. I explained that two weeks before the event we are sent a list of questions and told to stay on script. He seems perturbed. I agree it's not in keeping with the profession.

He soon adjusts and then asks, "What would you have asked me, if it was up to you."

I can't say at this time how quickly I responded. It could have been whipsmart, I don't recall. I do know that it was the question that had me puzzled.

"Why doesn't the media acknowledge that Elijah Harper killed the Meech Lake Accord?" I did not know at the time whether the Giant I had sat with had written anything about the Meech Lake Accord. All I know is that he took great offence to my question. He came back with stern force. My question was a direct attack on the credibility, the integrity of the whole room.

He went with the Wells Defensive. "We don't know what would have happened in Newfoundland with the Clyde Wells government..." That kind of thing.

I responded with the response I had prepared. "But we are journalists. All we have are the facts. Not what could have happened. The facts are. Elijah Harper said "No" and the Meech Lake Accord died."

He never spoke to me for the rest of the night. My wife was also ignored, but her lateness was a big enough sin at the Frum table.

In the morning of Elijah Harper's death, I watched the media coverage closely, in early reporting he was described as "key player" and "played a role" in the death of the Meech Lake Accord. As the day moved along it soon began to change and an expression closer to the truth emerged. "His vote killed the Meech Lake Accord", reported the Winnipeg Free Press. It was important that the fact is stated as simple as that in a newspaper of record.

It was acknowledged. It would have been nice if his place in history was more reasonably accepted and openly discussed during his lifetime. Although, I suspect that he did not seem to hold much concern in that regard. In the statement released by the family the focus was on his interfaith work.

"He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word. He will have a place in Canadian history, forever, for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding."

Elijah Harper showed the world that one person can stand up against the government and the media and all the forces at their disposal and single handedly change the course of history. That is a fact.




Canada's Long History with South Africa

"It is not often realized that Cape Town was one of Canada’s first foreign missions, being established in 1906, and a pre–World War One veterinary research program between the Canadian Department of Agriculture and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute was Canada’s first international cooperation program. We were allies during the First and Second World Wars, engaging in joint training initiatives as part of the Commonwealth’s efforts." - Keeping the Dream Alive

Providing a playbook

Canada’s support for Israel has taken many forms, but perhaps its greatest gift has been a real-life how-to guide for establishing and maintaining a settler society that includes an array of strategies, tactics, and programs for taking land, subjugating Indigenous populations, and weakening their resistance. It’s also worth noting that many of these tactics and strategies were used by the South African apartheid regime, including the Bantustan system and the use of the Dom Pass to restrict the movement of black South Africans.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The End of 2012 Piece I Could Not Bring Myself to Publish At The Time

Death. This year has to end in death. 
What else? It was supposed to be the End of Days and for many it was, more than any other year that I can remember. 

More than I would ever care to see again, but I know that I probably will. My losses, heavy as they were, are light in the light of the day. 

Where war and genocide continue unabated around the world. Where murderers have easy access to combat weapons. Where losses of Native youth to murder, suicide, violence, accidental death and chronic illness are beyond comprehension. 

It begins with poverty and displacement. According to the United Nations, First Nations children in western countries live in Third World Conditions with an estimated 80% of urban children under the age of 6 living in poverty. The number of Aboriginal children involved with the child welfare system across Canada rose by 71.5% between 1995 and 2001.

The one time light upon the hill has twisted out of control just as the tornadoes that set upon them like monster wasps. A crazed man with weapons of mass destruction kills 20 children aged 5-6 and half a dozen adults. In the days to follow, sales spike for the guns used in the slaughter. This is why America is the scariest country in the world. Self-defense is constitutional. Self-destruction is gospel.  

Yet our suffering pales. In Syria, it is estimated that the nearly two year old civil war has claimed almost 50,000 lives. At year's end the UN - Arab Leagure envoy Lakdar Brahimi told reporters, "If nearly 50,000 people have been killed in about two years, do not expect just 25,000 people to die next year - maybe 100,000 will die." Bodies are piled and burned, piled and burned. Is this where the Arab Spring dies and the dreams of democracy in the Middle East?

Dec. 21, 2012 came and passed with a fizzle. It was not the end. It is perhaps the beginning of a new dawn as many Mayan would say to anyone that would listen.

My mother shushed talk of End of Days, "when your time is over that's your End of Days." She found the talk offensive. Offensive to the life we have. Offensive to the day we have today.

It is time that the people who have been predicting Apocalypse are silent and silenced for their disrespect of the life they have and the life around us. For the real life losses that we must endure.

There is a tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 - The year in review

Last year's newsmaker of the year for 2011, Chief Teresa Spence deserves to be acknowledged as the individual newsmaker of the year. But Newsmaker of the Year has to go to the Idlenomore Movement, the grassroots and online revolution that is growing everyday. It was the year in which the people stood up and declared, we will be idle no more. Where will the movement go in 2013 will be the testament of whether it comes to an end or becomes the change we seek. A revolution of spirit and ideas and vision exercised in every action.

Another social media campaign brought attention to the issue of Native American mascots on sports teams. Ian Campeau aka DJ NDN of a Tribe Called Red started a facebook and social media campaign to pressure the Nepean Redskins. Metro is the largest and most widely distributed free daily newspaper in Canada. On it's website it asked readers if the Nepean Redskins should change their name because it was racist. Almost  85% of responsdents said the name was racist and should be changed.
A Tribe Called Red recorded Canada's new championship anthem according to a poll on CBC Radio. Their song Electric Powwow   was not just the championship anthem it was the anthem of the summer of 2012.

It was a great year for music with standout releases by Plex (Demons), Janet Panic (Samples), Chrystal Shawanda (Just like you) which included my choice for single of the year, Fight For Me.

Bear Creek has nailed it with their  album Right Now. The drum group from Sault Ste. Marie  has written an anthem of their own with "Together Again".

Why is Don Amero not huge? The Winnipeg boy has got it all. Great songs, great voice, great looks and charisma to burn. His album "Heart on my sleeve" lives up to its name. The songs are intimate and almost too sincere but Amero's honesty carries the songs to another level. Beautiful work, world class pop.

My favourite record of the year was the soundtrack to the Documentary "Searching for Sugarman" one of the most inspiring films of recent memory. 

It was my good fortune to work with the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival this year and had a chance to see some films that are not easily available outside of Native film festivals. I thought that Smoke Traders was the most controversial and compelling documentaries I have seen in a while. The protagonist in the film is challenging First Nations across Canada to seize their rights and participate in a potentially multi-billion dollar a year business.

My favourite film of the festival and huge audience favourite is the mockumentary More than Frybread, The film is "llol" literally laugh out loud funny. It is also endlessly quotable - "The wolves will even cry when they hear his name."  "He's the Jim Morrison of frybread." "There's a reason it's called Navajo Frybread, because Navajo Frybread is the best." "It's not about being overconfident it's what I call visionary."

Flooding Hope - The Lake St. Martin Story is the heartbreaking story of the intentional flooding of the Manitoba First Nation by the province of Manitoba.

The opening night film with actors Chaske Spencer and Tantoo Cardinal in attendance was Shouting Secrets.  A family drama that was not written for a Native American family but which evolved into a Native American family during development. The performances are wonderful across the board and the use of a cellphone message in this indie film is one that I bet will be seen in some big Hollywood film down the road.

Dakota 38 is the story of the largest mass execution in the United States. Under the orders of Abraham Lincoln, 38 members of the Dakota Sioux nation were hung at the same time on a massive gallows built for that sole purpose. It's the Lincoln film that Steven Spielberg doesn't want you to see.

In another story that lit up the twitterverse, Justin Beiber declared his Native heritage in Rolling Stone magazine. Unfortunately he described his lineage as "enough to get free gas". The teenybop star's comments inspired a pilebag from all corners with many Native people joining in the fun. Was that really necessary? He's a kid. The fact that he is acknowledging his ancestry is a good thing. Do you honestly believe that there aren't many young Native youth who have as little understanding of their own heritage, history and rights. Beiber's comments were a condemnation of the Canadian education system more than anything else.

And finally, the feel good story of the year, Native boys bring home the cup.  Jordan Nolan (Ojibway) and Dwight King (Metis) were part of the surprising Los Angeles Kings team that brought the City of Angels its first ever Stanley Cup. In the celebrations every member gets to take the cup home. Which also gets my vote for image of the year and it was the picture of Jordan Nolan holding the Stanley Cup over his head while standing on a bridge with the words "This is Indian Land" painted on it. Come on Toronto Maple Leafs think about it, the last time you won the cup, George Armstrong was the captain.