Like the young man across from me on an airplane, headed west. Overheard snippets of conversation. The man, my age or a bit younger, being asked if he’s from Regina – the polite chit chat of a middle aged couple establishing roots with their seatmate (this happens more often on flights out west, I’ve noticed).
No, the young man is not from Regina. He’s from Cape Breton, and this he says with quiet conviction. And as he continues explaining why he’s out west (work, of course), the proof of his declaration is borne out in his accent, the rolling vowels, the touches of Gaelic which remain in the pronunciation, whether he speaks a word of it or not.
Time passes, the cabin quiets down. Snacks have been munched, drinks sipped, garbage collected, and at one point I glance over and notice that the young man from Cape Breton has fallen asleep, head against the window, hands clasped neatly on the seat tray in front of him. Something about it catches me, enough to write about it. The thought of how homesick he must be right now, how it was revealed in the quick and proud way he placed himself as not from somewhere, from somewhere else. How much he must dread chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet, knowing it takes him away. That perhaps his gently clasped hands would rather be put to work back home, on Cape Breton Island.
How different it feels to be going home. How much you can tell about someone, just from the way they fall asleep on an airplane, quietly taking no more space than needed, hands one on top of the other, as if in prayer. He must be polite, respectful. And what am I, the one sneaking furtive glances from across the aisle in my own chronic wakefulness? Writing on an airplane. But I find the image so striking I can’t help but look again.
Maybe I’m just channeling Alistair MacLeod. Or maybe I recognised something of myself in him, when I used to fly back east, away from home.
When I was a kid, we learned about Louis Riel. We learned that there used to be a lot of bison everywhere and that First Nations people from various groups hunted them using bows and arrows and buffalo jumps and buffalo pounds, and that they made use of every part of the animal, down to the sinew. We were taught that a lot of place names in Saskatchewan, including that of the province itself, came from First Nations words, though besides place names, I knew no words in any aboriginal language. We learned that they had signed treaties back a long time ago which meant that the white people got most of the land. We learned that some bad things had happened, like residential schools. I attended maybe one powwow somewhere at one point in my life. This is not to cast aspersions on my teachers, who were good teachers. They were doing their jobs, teaching what was required of them from the curriculum. So we had to learn about some aboriginal stuff, but we also had to learn about a bunch of other stuff, and that was just the way it was and I didn’t question it. Always a good student and a thoughtful person, I figured I was pretty well-informed. I even went through two university degrees and by the end of it all I thought I was pretty smart, I knew a lot of stuff, I was no dummy, and I was certainly not ignorant.
Or so I thought. Last year I applied for a job with a cultural organization, and during the interview I was asked how much experience I had working with aboriginal people. I knew the question was coming, and I was honest in my answer – “none so far, but I’m interested in working with aboriginal communities.” It was the “right” thing to say, and it was also true. But I didn’t admit that I felt intimidated by the process, that maybe, it was easier to just go on mostly ignoring my aboriginal neighbours as I had done all my life to that point. It was pretty easy to do. There were no reserves within a couple hours of my home, I didn’t live in a city, and so I could go about my life without coming in contact with very many aboriginal people.
I got the job, and not long after I started, I attended a cultural event where I was supposed to talk about my role and the organization I worked for. I was supposed to talk about culture. It was the first time in my life that I was the only white person in a group, a fact of which I was acutely conscious. I was nervous that I would say something stupid, offend someone unwittingly, nervous that I would be regarded as the White Girl sashaying in with all my materials and my ready offers of “help.” I was smart enough to realize as soon as I arrived that I was not there to teach anyone anything. I was there to listen. And to learn.
I fell back on the comfortable, old “where are you from?” icebreaker to start connecting with people. I got answers like Beardy’s, Gordon’s, Standing Buffalo. I knew enough to know they were referring to reserves. But I had no idea where any of them were, and I didn’t ask. I realized, with that squirmy, embarrassed feeling – in fact, a burning-faced, ashamed feeling, that I had just stumbled into my own ignorance.
The map of Saskatchewan is “easy to draw, hard to pronounce!” as kitschy t-shirts proclaim with glee. It’s also hard to understand, just looking at it. Road maps are different from geological maps are different from the maps we carry around in our own heads. I realized in that moment that the Saskatchewan I knew was just one version of it, and a highly skewed version at that. I couldn’t place any reserves except for a few. They had no meaning in my map of Saskatchewan, and yet they meant everything. Their existence enabled my great-grandfathers to claim quarter-sections of land as their own. My home and everything connected with it, every single emotion tied to this particular patch of earth, owes its existence to those reserves and the treaties which had created them. And I knew so little, I this well-educated, self-aware, proudly intellectual person. I knew nothing at all.
That was the day I began my real education, the one I did not have access to in elementary and high school, the one I did not go looking for in university because at the time, it didn’t “interest” me. A year after my lesson in ignorance, I know that I have lessened it. I know better, I know more. I have faced uncomfortable truths and difficult realities. I have been welcomed, I have been taught. There is no going back, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There is only going forward, and this journey has only just begun.