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Friday, March 7, 2014

My mother, the once and future Cree Indian.






My mother was born in a hallway of St. Joseph’s hospital during a heatwave circa WWII. All the doctors were at the front and the place was understaffed, only new nurses running around panicking. My grandmother, Stelle, remembers hearing “Can we get a doctor here?” right before she went unconscious and was delivered of a baby girl, her second child, my sainted Mim. By the time he got to the hospital, her father Charles had dirty hands, so he put her in a curled newspaper to get a good look at her. She was cute alright but she kept leaning her head to one side. Everytime he moved it, her neck was retract and she would squeal and her little head would fall slightly to the side. This bugged Charles and so he brought her back to the hospital only to discover that she wasn’t the only one. It turns out that a nurse had delivered her – not a doctor – and that this same nurse had delivered all 35 babies that same night. And whatever technique she had used gave all the babies rye neck. The treatment was quite simple. One person pins the newborns shoulders to a flat table and the doctor carefully moves the head back and forth a few times. But the cure of stretching the sore muscle was almost worse than the ailment; my grandfather said the screaming would make your knees weak. Since the mother’s were still recovering from birth, the fathers had to come to the hospital everyday for weeks to have this done. But some of the father’s couldn’t be in the same room as it was happening, it was too much. So they asked Charles to hold their babies shoulders while the doctor worked. Pretty soon Charles was holding all of the babies, nobody else had the nerve. What’s really funny is that they let him do this with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The treatment must have worked because my mother has the best posture of anyone we’ve ever met. But sometimes, when the seasons changes, she gets a terrible pain in her neck…

Shortly after her birth she needed to have her birth certificate registered, and Charles went downtown to get it done. When he walked into the office the registrar handed him a piece of paper that asked him to list the basic details; name, date of birth, location and … nationality. And below that it listed a hodge-podge of ethnicities and country names. It said something like

Check the box: English, Germany , Irish, Scottish, Italian, Isle of Man, Lithuania

Charles walked back to the front of the line and interrupted the registrar. 
“Where’s the box for Canadian?” he grumbled. 
Oddly, there wasn’t one on the paper. 
“Where’s the box for Canadian?” he said a little louder. Charles believed in the power of volUME! 
The registrar, understanding the problem but not wanting to deal with it, began to stammer and called his manager. The problem was that Charles had no intention of identifying himself as Irish, to some – especially those in a strictly protestant town – saying you were Irish was like saying you were poor and stupid. Besides, it wasn’t true. My mother was Canadian. The manager called his supervisor and on it went all afternoon. Words were exchanged and paper may have been thrown but by the time Charles left the government office my mother was officially listed as “Cree Indian”. The last choice on the list, the closest in Charles’ mind to Canadian.

Within weeks letters began to arrive at the house addressed to my infant mother; threatening letters advising that she return to the reservation, that she would not be allowed to go to school off the reservation, that she would only get her benefits if she returned to the reservation. (A quick point of process here; there is no Cree reservation within 200 miles of where I am sitting. There is a Mohawk reservation, and when I did my grade 7 project on First Nations I learned that the majority of people in Southern Ontario were of the Algonquin persuasion, and you can even google a map of all the First Nations in Ontario, but none are listed as Cree. I have always, always wondered where they intended her to go because apparently the letters weren’t clear.) Charles ignored the letters. If you’ve been reading this blog you know he had plenty of practice ignoring government letters. When my mother turned 6 and it was time to register for school, there was a problem. They advised that she was “out of district” and could not register at the local catholic school. The same school, mind you, attached to the same church to which Charles had just finished donating money. I am not sure what happened, no one really talks about it, but Charles went back downtown to the government office and after a long afternoon of shouting and paper throwing my mother had a new birth certificate issued.


I think it’s romantic to imagine you have a secret double life that no one knows about, the life you were meant to life. In this life there is only authenticity and wonder, no pain and sorrow. This life comes at the expense of your real life, the one in which you build character and burn the fat off your soul, or add to it. The secret is precious because you keep it and once told it becomes different. Because words are things. So, what is in a name? Surely not something so weak and vexing that it that can be re-written or spelled incorrectly on a government form. What really is a nationality, if it can be interchangeable with another as time passes and borders are re-assigned? Only the meaning that you put into it. It only means something valuable or awful if you give it that power. I was on my second drink at tex-mex bar when the waitress walked up, “If you don’t mind” she said, “Can I ask what nationality are you?” I side-eyed M and she blurted “Irish!” which is hardly true but the waitress said “Oh! Because when I saw you order the tequila, I thought you were Greek”. WTF