My home, I.R. #3. Standing at the mouth of the reserve, we're looking down the old dirt road. We can see quite a ways, but it turns gently rightward. More so than the road, however, we see deep potholes. It's my own belief that there have been cars lost in them. The highways department grades the road every spring, but the potholes are ancient, having existed before time began, and so return the very next day, simply waiting.
Now before we actually start walking, let's have a show of hands. How many of you people have ever been on a reserve before? You may experience a bit of culture shock, but I can't guarantee that. Many things are the same, but things are also different. It's difficult to state what exactly, but you'll probably notice the small details.
Behind us, across the highway, we see a funeral home, and a towing company. Where the funeral home is, there used to be a fruit stand. When I was seven, I used to buy cigarettes there.
Anyway, let's return to the rez itself. Right away, there's two small, two bedroom houses. They're both over fifty years old. There's about seven or eight houses that age on the rez. There used to be more, but they were torn down due to being crappy houses. Right from the beginning, they were poorly built buildings. The carpenter that built them cheaped out on the materials, and pocketed the difference. The band was never able to get the money back on those houses. People still live in them though, condemned as the buildings (and us Secwepmec, it would seem) are. It's that, or live in tents, or leave the reserve entirely and disappear into the cities. And it's likely those tiny two bedroom houses are overcrowded as well, with two people per bedroom, and three in the living room.
Anyway, let's leave these houses behind. We've still got a ways to go.
Past the houses are empty fields. It seems strange to have these fields here, and it's doubly odd that there's no development happening on them, I suppose is what some of you might be wondering. All that space, and nothing.
Well, there's a story there too. Let me take you all back to the mid-eighties. We used to have a potato, cabbage, and corn field here on the left side, and if you stare across the field on the right, you'll see way on the other side an old greenhouse. We had managed to get a grant to develop all this farmland, but we weren't able to break into the market, being shut out by the rich farmers in the area. The funding dried up, as did our interest.
Moving along. We come upon a bit of forest, which now that I think about it, should probably be spaced out, as the underbrush is rather thick. I remember when I was small, and troubled, and walking after dark, I was always afraid of bears coming from that forest.
Now we've come upon the A-Frame, which as the names suggests is an a-frame building. It used to be the reserve band office, but there'd be years when there was nobody working in it, as the main band office is over in Chase. Right beside the A-Frame is where the Log Building used to be. It was used as a meeting place. I remember for a few years, we used to have bible readings there, but attendance was always minimal, especially after we started having bingo on the same night up on the other reserve. I do remember those Christians scared the wits right out of me when they described Hell, and the Apocalypse. I was only eight or nine years old, and I spent the whole night crying thinking the world would end. A week had passed, and the world was still turning, and I never saw any sign of either gods or devils, and I honestly became an atheist right then because of that experience.
Behind the A-Frame and Log Building was the Root Cellar. We kept our potatoes and corn, as well as the farm equipment and machinery, there. My friend (the only other kid my age on the rez) and I used to play around in there, despite the stories my parents would tell us about the Potato Rats, which were apparently the size of greyhounds. Never saw any, although I did look out for them.
Right across from the log building is where my old home had stood. Mind waiting a moment?
We Secwepmectsin believe homes have a soul or spirit. That old house of mine wasn't a happy spirit, although it wasn't terribly unhappy either. Perhaps it was a tad on the optimistic side despite having been built on the cheap. It was a tiny little thing. Two bedrooms, with two people per room, with three in the living room. There were three beds in the entire house. We had an uneasy and even adversarial relationship with the mice though, with which we were waging a long fought war of attrition, which, in hindsight, I think we were losing, as the mice had allied with the termites, and had also built up a huge stock of dog food, which they had used to replace all of the insulation in the entire house. The mice were in it for the long haul, while we were only surviving on food from week to week.
There used to be a parked truck near the root cellar, which me and the other kids on the rez used to play around. All of my cousins were older than me, so they knew a lot which they used to share with me, such as it was possible to get high sniffing gas.
I know. Shocking. Native kids sniffing gas. Oh, how horrid.
We sniffed right up until the point one of us went into a state of.... Don't even know what to call it. The kid wasn't right in the head at all. We all thought the kid would never be the same, and the kid never was the same, although s/hey did recover his/her senses eventually, much to our relief, since we never had to tell our parents. Although in hindsight, that was probably a mistake. Although in hindsight, with the rampant alcoholism on the rez, I'm not sure if anyone would've actually listened to us then. That's when I myself stopped sniffing, though. I was simply too scared of what happened to that kid to continue. Reflecting, I sniffed gas because it was a relief. I never saw it as a solution, but as a way to lift the troubles in my soul and mind. Even back then, I knew life was tough, although I couldn't understand many of the complexities. Still don't, although now I do understand all problems revolve around capital and poverty, as having the former allows you participation in whatever pittance of democracy exists, while being poor damns you into obscurity.
Where my old house used to be, the burr bushes and stinging thistles now stand tall. It's almost symbolic. A representation of the old, which is gone.
The new is right next door. Not my home, of course, but it's one of the new houses bands have been building for their residents, which is basically the same design for every house on the reserve. There's some cosmetic changes from house to house, but otherwise, they're basically all the same on the inside.
Lemme tell you bout the new houses. They're okay. They're definitely worth whatever was paid for them. Seems they'll last for some time. What's odd though is how even these houses, with four or five rooms each, are still overcrowded. Or maybe not. My own home has my parents, my siblings, and their kids. Three generations worth of family in one house. We also take in other kids, usually kids of relatives in the big city who for whatever reason are unable to look after their own children.
Perhaps a few of you are wondering why us siblings simply don't move out then. Let me tell you the reason. We have moved out, each of us, at one time or another. We've had jobs in the city, worked our butts off, but have always returned home. We've always been defeated in our return.
To escape poverty is an incredibly difficult task. You have to work to exhaustion. You have to stay focused. You have to remain disciplined. You must always keep a little extra patience stored away for the days when you're short of it.
To leave the reserve is to escape poverty. You're chained to the perception of the bosses who would hire you. You're a slave to the rent and bills. Food is a luxury for those who make more than minimum wage.
Have you ever seen a spider in a steel sink? It'll run up the side, reach a certain point, and then slide back down. Again, and again.
But we're not spiders. Eventually, perhaps after the second or third time, we stop trying to climb the sink. We all are too capable of recognizing futility. So we remain on the reserve, providing an all too important unemployed mercenary army for the local seasonal jobs: apple/fruit picking, firefighting, logging, and so on, and so on.
Let's leave this topic. Let's leave these houses behind. We've got a walk ahead of us.
Maybe on the reserve, we've got a dozen houses, with maybe two or three dozen on the Chase reserves. But we have maybe four hundred band members. There's something wrong with that, as in we don't have enough houses.
Our walk has taken us past the houses, and we're walking past fields and forests. All undeveloped, although some of the fields are used for hay for local farmers.
But we're coming upon the railway. The railway has used up a lot of lives. People I know, and people I love have died on those tracks. Do they lay on the tracks, and wait for tonnes of steel to end it all? I don't know.
I used to lay rocks on the tracks, in long, long lines, and then take off running. The sound of the rocks being crushed under the wheels could be heard miles away. They had an engineer come into my elementary school after a whole summer of doing that. We were told not to place things onto the tracks, especially not pennies and rocks. I never put a penny onto the tracks. What a waste of money that would've been, in all honesty.
You know, that railway is on native land? We actually never gave permission for CP Rail to build on our land, but still the rails are there. We've never taken any money from CP Rail. They did offer some, some few years ago, but many felt it was a pittance of an amount and an insult, and so we rejected it. What is the worth of our land, split into two, such as it is? Were it whole, and not cleft apart as it is, what could we develop? If we were not trapped between the highway and the railway, how far could we spread our wings?
Our last stop is the graveyard, literally, and even metaphorically. Lots of good people up in there. A few bad people there too. All are gone. Many from disease. Many from alcohol. And far too many from suicide. Weeds grow in much abundance, as we have no one to constantly care for the grounds. The ground is mostly clay, which proves a huge difficulty in digging new graves. There are many forgotten graves back where the trees are now growing tall. Those graves are from the days of smallpox and the flu, when there were so many deaths that entire families were buried together. So many names lost to history, and the most these forgotten people ask is to be left alone. The forgotten graves stretch so far back into the forest that they built part of the highway over top of them when they drove that monstrous thing through our reserve (again, without our permission). It too uses up a lot of lives, but in a different manner than the railway – there's a fatal accident on that stretch of highway every couple of years or so, especially around that blind corner at the rock bluff, right after that straight stretch. (Slow down, people! And don't drink and drive.)
Anyway, such is my home. I think I got most of everything in here. Missed out on the new Health Centre, but it's just a new band office, but without any mice.
Let's return to the highway. As we're going there, I'll think aloud for a bit.
If this were a story of hardship and triumph, we'd have something to show for our generations of poverty and powerlessness From all our decades of adversity, we'd be standing tall and proud with the very solution to all our problems within our hands, held tightly and confidently. Tomorrow, we'd....
Well, in all honesty, tomorrow will remain the same as today, but we may be a bit more positive than negative, or a bit more pragmatic than foolish, or whatever. It may be raining sunshine, or pouring rain, but not much will change.
We will still be struggling, just hoping to get to the day's end with a bit of good news or a funny story to share around the dinner table.
We're all still searching for something better, although we're not quite certain what that is. Living from cheque to cheque doesn't provide much time for observation.
Trapped on this old self-administered concentration camp called a reserve, we've come to view the world as openly hostile. Whatever the Charter of Rights may bestow within a court of law does not apply to politicians hoping for a little success appealing to the very most ignorant of human emotions by declaring they would rollback any progress in regards to First Nations rights via referendum, or by championing the 'opening up' of native lands to corporations as a small political favour to their friends however so much the current occupants of said land object to such treatment. We cannot help but be witness to the governments declaring our own governments as corrupt, and then installing their own choices to soften our protests to whomever we'd appeal.
Should we choose the court of law, considering we're far too poor for any protracted action, we're all too often beset by forced delays, the government's lawyers using many legal tricks to keep any case before a judge from advancing.
And to appeal to the general public is to witness our pleas for understanding and collective action drowned out by the cacophony of the everyday news, and to be regulated to page 17, opposite the ads for strip clubs and adult video stores.
Am I to somehow reconcile my bitterness of hearing of stories of police dumping drunk natives in allies where later on the poor man dies of hyperthermia (and the coppers face as the worst punishment a slap on the wrist), with a vision of Canada that I have never actually observed to really exist?
Whether I offend or shock or startle you with my next pronouncement, I cannot be certain of your reaction, but I must state it loudly and clearly. A Canada in which I am a citizen of equal standing with somebody who is white does not exist (although there are plenty of white people who are equal to me when considering such in reverse).
That Canada, in which all are truly equal, whether in political power or in the court of law, seems a faint pipe-dream that I should not dare envision.
But I do dare, much to my own self-inflicted disappointment.
I admit that I consider myself a Canadian, but such an admission is painful and frustrating, as like redressing a wound over my injured heart.
Anyway, I thank you for your company. Perhaps we'll travel this pathway together, and find that Canada somewhere down the road, eh?