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Caledonia Gets Interesting

Back in 1996, when I was dragging my new wife back to my little town, she was worried. A city girl, she wondered, “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” But my roots were deep and my sons were there, as was my job teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school, so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back to Caledonia, Ontario. “A Grand place to live!”

I’d always thought so, but influenced by my Diana, an environmentalist and Jane Jacobs admirer, I’d come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (It’s three times bigger than when I was a boy, but its downtown struggles. There were, as of our 2002 move to Ottawa, three stoplights in town. Too much!) And my bride did find it dull, and though there were lots of JamesHowdenHistory and family there, interesting people were hard to come by, let alone excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” Well, my blissful life sentence in Caledonia was commuted after thirty years, so I know what she’s talking about. And I’d like to be there right now. I know these people, on both sides of the barricades. For our shared six years, Diana and I lived in the town’s first condominiums, built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers at the centre of the current dispute) in the 1970s at what then seemed an absurd distance south of the river; the town’s business area and its older homes were all on the north side. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that have been appearing in national newscasts are farther south still.

John Henning played first base on Caledonia baseball teams the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was it had cost forty bucks. John also had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket while he played; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we nearly won the league after years of being a patsy against larger schools – and became a touchdown machine as the star running back when the Blue Devils actually won.

And John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, had the experience of sharing science labs, hallways and playing fields with guys from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate for shorter periods with various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Martins. So were the Hennings. And I can’t help but wonder who, among these young men from a parallel world with whom we all “went to war” as adolescent athletes, might now be on the other side of that barricade.

It’s a divide between the town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow from nothing along the banks of their cherished Grand River. Today, the barrier is vivid and tangible, tense and angry, but it is not new. It just used to be quieter. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend it didn’t exist. For some Caledonians, like many Canadians, it was easy to live as if the reserve itself wasn’t there.

That time is over, for now, and that’s not all bad. There’s great potential for entrenching suspicions and stereotypes in the heat of this conflict, but – and call me naïve, if you like – there is also the chance in this standoff to build understanding: of the tangled history along the banks of this lazy river, and of the needs and aspirations of the two communities that share it. It’s an interesting place now. It’s a piece of geography that shows us a great deal about Canada, and what happens in the days and months to come will tell us a whole lot more.

[This entry was later expanded into a Hamilton Spectator Forum piece that you can find here.]

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