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Guest Post: Why Me? Why NOT Me?

I posted a short quote from a baseball player, of all things, in the “He Said/She Said” section. It was Mel Stottlemyre, a baseball coach and certifiably Famous Dude within the world of MLB, shrugging and refusing to pity himself for being struck with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. “Why me? Why not me?” he said in a Steve Rushin article in Sports Illustrated a decade ago, and I’ve never forgotten. (It must be an example I need to remember.) Thoughtful reader Michael Freeman made his comment into a short personal essay, which deserved prime real estate, and here it is:

I don’t know who actually coined this phraseology first, but it took me a long time to come to the same conclusion, if not the same exact language. A coin has two sides, different sides unless you are lucky enough or crafty enough to possess one of those phony two-headed coins of con job fame.

An argument, or debate, in its simplest form has a pro and a con. An island has an east and a west coast. A game has a winner and a loser. Why can’t every why have a why not?

I was leaving an AA meeting one time. I had just joined in the group commiseration of throwing our proverbial dirty laundry into the centre of the table, and shared ideas as to how to proceed. Each meeting is a safe haven where all are welcome to share and discuss and come away feeling just a little bit better. And it usually works, for many, at least along spiritual and emotional lines, but I have always had the nagging of physical discomfort knocking at my door. Daily. Persistent. And at times, relentless.

I stood at the bottom of a staircase bemoaning my condition: festering leg and back pain and a mind distracted by its impact. I hesitated for but a few moments,

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The Creator’s Game

My high school classmates from Six Nations called it “God’s country”, and it’s never been too hard to see why: a river, forests, dark night skies and pretty good farmland. It’s what remains of a huge grant of land along Ontario’s Grand River by the British crown to the Haudenosaunee, the league of the Iroquois. As part of my Canadian summer gotta-do list, I went to watch lacrosse with an old friend who loves this indigenous gift to the sporting world more and more, though he was mainly a hoopster when I first knew him. Here is an athletic

Actor Graham Greene joins Tom Longboat and E. Pauline Johnson among the best-known people from Six Nations — unless you know lacrosse.

context in which the Aboriginal community that I know best takes enormous pride, and a backseat to nobody. The Junior A loop in Ontario has become an Iroquois league of its own.

My hometown of Caledonia sits next to the reserve, and you may have heard that the relationship between the two communities has been a little rocky, suburban developers and Native land activists finding their paths and their words clashing. This isn’t about that; there’s more on the dispute here, if you like. Still, it’s been awhile since I was on Six Nations.

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Grand and Random Musings

I could see it coming down the tracks from a long way away. I’d been preparing for it. But like most of you, I’ll continue writing and thinking in a way that is SO last year. Yup, it’s 2008, though I’ll likely continue to mark ’07 on my cheques. Beyond that, though, I can muse randomly about what 2007 was and what its successor might be.

First, all the blessings and possibilities of the New Gregorian Year to you and your precious crew. (Facebook “friends” don’t count.) As a member of the Baha’i community, I have learned to get more stoked about the new year, the New Day, at the spring equinox in March. It has more sun, for one thing, and the promise of still longer and warmer days not far off. Spring has become my season of hopeful resolution, and the melting and greening give me all the symbolic reinforcement I need for my own mid-life reloading.

But I still like to do a little reflective burrowing in this season, too. Long years in school have made late December a sacred time, even apart from herald angels and good Christian news and renewals. Retreat. Restoration. Stock-taking. A tallying of accounts. What’s good? What needs bettering? Where’ve I been? Where’m I headed? (Did I ask for directions?) I break out the new planner book, and look back at the old one for clues and leftovers. I try to see my life in terms other than ‘what NOW’ and ‘what didn’t I do yesterday’, not to mention the vague and recurring suspicion that I do have other dreams beyond laundry and e-mail maintenance. And so it goes. I love the slightest hint of a fresh start.

They could sure use that in Pakistan. It seems that the Christmas break always brings tragic news from abroad, which perhaps is intensified and given a longer look because of the rampant peace and relative contentment that most people in our part of the world can appreciate, and often don’t. Kenya is now boiling over because of election strife. So while I revel in my good fortune and the chance to reflect upon my deeds, hopes and learnings, there is no shortage of reminders that I should do this with a thought for the larger world I live in. I have a lot to learn about that; a taste for Thai, Indian, Persian and east-African cooking does not, unfortunately, quite qualify me for planetary citizenship. (Gotta be a few global Brownie points in there somewhere, though, dontcha think?)

I found out on New Year’s, thanks to a favourite Web log, that January 1, 2008 also marked the bicentennial of the North American abolition in transporting slaves across the Atlantic. The “peculiar institution” persisted in the U.S. for decades more, of course, but this was a big step. So, happy that! Let’s hope, too, while on the subject of racial harmony and reconciliation, that the banks of the Grand River — where my small-town, southern Ontario roots share soil with earlier arrivals, the Iroquois peoples of the Six Nations — find a renewed sense of brother-and-sisterhood. Whether we’re thinking locally or globally, there’s one human race and one earth. We’ve all got to live together. And that includes my little family, and yours.

When we got back from our Haliburton/Haldimand holiday swing, my backyard ice rink was in sad but snow-muffled shape. On New Year’s Day, it got buried deeper, a sweet and flaky dump that went on and on. But then the scraping and pitching (and back spasms) began, followed immediately by a one-man bucket brigade from the basement. (I’d frozen the outside hose pipe, like a doofus, meaning that I had been flooding our basement bedroom while I resurfaced the rink.) More weight-lifting for the ol’ dude, and lots of repairs, but the rink is strong again. As I write this, a briefly homeward son (Dave, from studies at McGill) is playing his little brother Sam in a goofy, chatty game of 1 on 1 hockey. The sun is smiling, and so am I.

Blessings. Peace. May there be growth and contentment chez vous. Hope you’re looking forward, and smiling, too.

A Long Look Back at Longboat

For a certain slice of the sport-loving public, Africa doesn’t immediately summon mental images of devastation by AIDS, ethnic strife, desertification or hunger. For devotees of distance running on road and track, Africans are the graceful, superbly fit athletes who dominate their sport in an almost unimaginable way. Moroccan, Ethiopian and, to an astonishing degree, Kenyan runners are the perennial champions of the most ancient and elemental athletic contests of them all. Never should we minimize the traumas of that deeply abused continent, but it is good to see Africans as winners and heroes.

Yesterday, at the Boston Marathon, Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot won for the third time. His countrymen came second through fourth, and have won the classic race fifteen of the last seventeen years. I became a fan of Kenyan running during the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, at each of which Kipchoge Keino won a silver and a gold medal on the track, from 1500 metres to the steeplechase. (And while we’re only a couple of days from remembering Jackie Robinson, here’s another brilliant athlete who is even a greater man. Please click here for more on Keino.)

So, go, Africans, go, but that isn’t even what I wanted to write about today. For me, and for a lot of Canadians, especially the down-home friends on the Six Nations reserve, the Boston Marathon yesterday was most importantly the 100th anniversary of the record-setting run of the great Tom Longboat. (There was a very fine Longboat tribute by James Christie in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. Highly recommended.)

Though he ran so long ago, now, Longboat’s career arc is a fairly familiar one to us. It was all the more so in the days when an athlete’s already brief career was an insistently amateur one: to be an Olympian, or to defend his Boston Marathon victory, there was to be no salary, no endorsements. There were severe competitive restrictions for those who “sullied” their sport by accepting prize money. Indeed Longboat, still young and having trained largely on his own, was not welcome on Heartbreak Hill in 1908 because he had made a few dollars with his feet. His fall from grace was also accelerated by the enduring racism and privation experienced by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. We love to kick our stars when they fall, and Longboat took an especially spirited beating. (Published references to him, even when he was winning, are, by today’s lights, cringe-worthy in their ignorance and stereotyping.) Longboat was a source of enormous national pride when he was winning and was ignored, or openly despised, when he no longer was. His reputation, badly damaged in early- and mid-century, is being redeemed, thanks largely to the efforts of a more contemporary running man, the quiet Canadian hero of sport and equality, Bruce Kidd. Kidd’s 1992 biography offers a modern and more sympathetic view of the Onondaga athlete.

I loved the Globe’s photo. There’s Tom Longboat in knee-length khaki shorts with a black leather belt and black high-top shoes. It is a picture, though, of a body made for running. The legs are thin and unusually long, the shoulders broad and well-muscled for a distance runner, perhaps because of the lacrosse and other tough sports that he loved to play. And it’s a familiar face, somehow. I went to high school in Caledonia, just after the graduation of more local Six Nations running legends named Anderson or Bomberry. But we all knew about Longboat, in a hazy sort of way. Some reports referred to him as the “Caledonia Cyclone”, as one of his earliest successes came in a race at the town fair, but he wasn’t from town.

Years later, teaching and coaching in that same school, I had a young Longboat on my basketball team. Reading a frustrated account of a Canadian sportswriter trying to interview the tight-lipped Tom, I couldn’t help but remember coaching young Todd – a relative, I’d guess from the Globe photo, though I was never able to find out – and feeling good whenever he was sufficiently at ease to smile. I don’t know if I ever got a complete sentence out of him, and I never knew exactly where he lived. He wasn’t an outstanding basketball player, but he ran his guts out and rebounded hard against far bigger guys. Our school didn’t do much with track and field, so I don’t know how well Todd had inherited the running gene. He was tough, I know that, but here’s another Longboat I need to find out more about.

So here we are, 100 years after one of the greatest victories in the history of Canadian sport, remembering with greater justice and comprehension the career of a magnificent athlete. It’s far too late for Tom Longboat, of course, who died in 1948, but idealism compels me to wonder out loud: where are the young native athletes who can be inspired, as the youth of Kenya were by Keino, by the legend of “Cogwagee”? History knows him as Tom Longboat, a young Onondaga man who ran the rural miles of Grand River country and made himself the best in the world. I hope that we shall see the likes of him again.

ODY: Week 11. Cryin’ the Blues

Thanks and congrats to those of you who read all the way through last week’s long and sentimental entry. Even Old Dogs miss their Mums. (And their Dads, too, although that is not news for this wrinkled puppy.) It was another week of plugging along in the OD Year, and although some of my practices weren’t as inspired as I would like, I am fairly astonished to report that I’ve played guitar for 77 (and still counting) consecutive days. (May discipline be contagious: today’s Day 3 of my new stretch ‘n’ strength routine.) And PERISH all thoughts of what I can’t yet do…

I have been thinking about my peculiar way of going about learning to play, which is slow and inside-out. I haven’t been as interested in the quick score, the easy song that I can play and say “Whoo-hoo!”, as I have been with trying to really understand what I’m doing and develop a solid base of skill. I’d like to be more hungry to attempt and master new elements of guitaristry, but I want to win Tortoise Style. My old high school football mentor, Coach Woody, had a dismissive term for those who started fast, pedal-to-metal but couldn’t really sustain their interest and commitment. “Sprinters,” he’d snort. With ankles like mine, speed is no longer an option, so I’ll enjoy this ponderous pace and whatever milestones (hmmm, metre-stones?) I can reach. Eagerly. Son Ben, the IA, has some concerns about my GG’s group teaching method, with its emphasis on learning some of everything over our ten weeks together, giving us enough “so that you can teach yourselves the guitar after we’re done”. The IA is not a fan of this approach. He thinks there’s way too much material, and not enough short-term objectives to reach and be inspired by. I can see that point, and I want to get smarter about really mastering a few fun and recognizable tunes. Still, I like the depth of the foundation I’m getting, and I’m in this for 365. We’ll see.

I heard an interview last week with Dunstan Prial, an American journalist, talking about his 2006 book The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. I was fascinated, especially by Prial’s description of a 73-year-old, nattily dressed Hammond shuffling to a Carnegie Hall microphone in 1984 to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughan, that blazing comet of the blues guitar, was only the most recent discovery and protégé of Hammond, a list that started back in the ‘30s with a black guitarist named Teddy Wilson and a white clarinettist named Benny Goodman. The list went on. Count Basie. Pete Seeger. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. George Benson. Bruce Springsteen… For Prial, Hammond had a brilliant ear, not only for musical genius but for the great social milieu in which it might be heard. And in a business noted for bottom-line, flavour-of-the-month heartlessness, it was intriguing to hear of Springsteen’s gratitude for the warmth and inspiration of Hammond, and his lament that such a culture no longer exists for young artists.

Can’t tell you too much more about the book, but I picked up the Double Trouble recording from Carnegie Hall, and how would you explain this? (How do I?) Hammond introduces the band, bullied to shorten his remarks by an impatient audience. (Even Prial, who was there that night, wondered who IS this old guy?) Then Stevie and the lads launch into “Scuttle Buttin’”, which Prial described as “a lightning storm of circular blues scales played at earsplitting volume”. My throat tightened, my heart raced and my eyes leaked. OH, MY. On the Six Nations Reserve near where I grew up, there is a widespread embrace of the blues. (Aboriginal experience and an identification with the blues! Go figure, eh?) And among a lot of the young men I used to coach and teach, there was a near-worship of Vaughan. Though I’ve always liked the blues guitar, and am a particular fan of the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, I’d never gotten all the way into SRV. I knew about “Pride and Joy”, of course, but hadn’t really heard the licks in a hungry-eared way. But wow. Where’s all that weeping come from? I love the feeling in the blues, the plaintive longing that is so haunting in Roy Buchanan alongside his explosive, note-bending creativity and speed. And perhaps my own learning has helped me understand a little better what these guys are doing, and to know at an intestinal level how much they had to sacrifice, how fiercely they needed to love, in order to be able to Do That Thing. 

And maybe I was choked by the certain knowledge that I will never be able to play like that. I adore skill, dig virtuosity. The democratic note in punk-rock philosophy – hey, anybody can play, and everybody should! – is a fine thing, though it sometimes goes so far as to be perversely snobbish about skill. But I admire excellence and I WANT it, though it chills me blue to be so savagely reminded – but hey, thanks, Stevie Ray, and God bless — how far away I am from it.

“Those Animals Over There!”

There’s a curious new pastime being developed in Caledonia, Ontario. Every once in awhile, but mainly as the feature attraction of a long holiday weekend, two groups of people get together for a not-so-sporting competition. In other times and places, it might have been a game of lawn darts or horse shoes. To be thoroughly contemporary, it ought to be beach volleyball with lots of photogenic young bodies and extremely happy beverages. But nobody’s selling beer with these recent, bitter small-town scenes.

Another long weekend brought another long staredown between Caledonia citizens and their counterparts from the Six Nations reserve. (And on both sides, no doubt, were some “ringers” who don’t get enough front-line action! in their own communities.) The Aboriginal protesters insist they’ll be camped on that proposed subdivision until land claims negotiations are complete. Townsfolk are tired of having their sleepy ‘burbs disturbed. And now a judge is rattling the windows: Hey, I made a ruling. Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?

And another line has been crossed. Not that it hasn’t been muttered before. Not that it wasn’t probably among the verbal grenades lobbed on Monday, but I don’t think anyone in town had yet offered up such an Ideal Soundbite for Canadians to digest with their breakfast cereal. Something’s got to be done! is the essence of the cry from all sides. One good citizen of Caledonia, though, living too near the confrontation to stay entirely sane, has flavoured the stew with this morning’s radio rant about “those animals over there!” Oh, my. Those animals.

How many of these statements would our blustering friend (my former neighbour) agree with? Indians are not human beings. We should just round ‘em all up and throw them in the pound. (Er, jail.) I don’t care what they’re complaining about, I have the right to rising property values. I have the right to choose the kind of people I want for neighbours. I am proud that my children know how I feel about these freakin’ savages. I want something done NOW, and I don’t give a shit about the consequences…

He’s frustrated, and may already regret his words. It’s not an easy time for any of the players in this sad spectacle. I lived in that town for much of my life, and I’m no stranger to impatience. (Consider the ironies, though. The contenders — and I’ll say it again, there are many more sides than two there — all consider this a matter of the law. The contest is played out by people who had nothing to do with creating the centuries-old problem. And now the townsfolk are being made to endure just a taste – slowness, intractability, the feeling of one’s home under siege – of what Aboriginal people have known for decades upon generations…)

But the mutual taunting, the racial one-downsmanship, and the lust for battle that parts of the crowd demonstrate? The eagerness for any kind of satisfaction, no matter how trivial or temporary? It all forgets one essential thing. It’s what Mr. Lawrence, one of the wise old heads of the community, knows. He shook his head at the silly, scary playing of the long weekend Blame Game back in May, and told me this: We have to remember one thing. No matter what happens here, no matter how people behave, Caledonia and Six Nations are still going to be neighbours when this is over. In an ever-smaller world, so are we all.

A Little Nightmare Down Home

It’s a sleepy place, with a languid river running through it. People have nice lawns and enjoy quiet. But in 1996, I was taking my new wife, a city girl, home to live in my little town, and she was worried. “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” I understood, but my roots were deep and everything was there – my mother, my kids, and 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!”

Prodigal son that I am, I’d always thought so, but I’d also come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (Caledonia is three times bigger now, yet its downtown has suffered. There are three stoplights and two Timmy’s on the main drag. Too much!) Diana fit right in with my family and bore up well under all that local history, but she found interesting conversations hard to come by, never mind 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?!” I know how she feels. I spent the better part of my life in Caledonia, and wish I was there now. I always tried to convince my students and my children (and myself) that Real Life is right where we live; there’s no magic source of delight and importance Somewhere Else. Well, town and reserve teens can’t complain about boredom now, and I have the small sour pleasure of not having to explain that I grew up “in southern Ontario, near Hamilton, you know, about an hour from Toronto”. (I also lived and taught in Hagersville during the Great Tire Fire. It’s small-town vindication of a weird and ironic sort.)

Here’s the thing: I know these people, on both sides of the now-famous barricades. For our shared six years in Caledonia, Diana and I lived around the corner from them in the town’s first condominiums. They had been built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers stuck in the current dispute) about 1970. Then, to this chauvinistic north-side kid, they seemed a ridiculous distance south of the river, since the downtown, the arena, older homes and the original stoplight were on my side of town. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that appear in newscasts are farther south still, along with the new rink, library, high school and streets (Laird, Tartan, Douglas, McKinnon) in this Scots-flavoured town. Dear old Caledonia Baptist, my north-side childhood church, has its new south-end sanctuary right next to the disputed housing development.

John Henning played first base in the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was that it cost forty bucks. John had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket between pitches; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we won several games after years of being pounded – and became a touchdown machine when the Blue Devils dominated.

Listen: John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, shared science labs, hallways and playing fields with kids 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 of various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Thomases. So were the Hennings. I wonder how these young men from a parallel world, guys we “went to war” with as adolescent athletes, have felt about those barricades.

For too long, they separated a quiet town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow, from a single mill, along the banks of their cherished Grand River. The barriers were tangible, often tense and angry, but they weren’t exactly new, just obvious. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend such divides didn’t exist. I’d spent enough broiling afternoons running the bases at the Ohsweken fairgrounds, enough road trips with Martins and Montours, enough basketball refereeing at J.C. Hill school, that parts of Six Nations were clear (and dear) to me. Until I got to high school, though, much of it was mystery. Some still is.

For some Caledonians, though, it has been easy to live as if the reserve wasn’t there. That time is over, and that’s not all bad. Suspicions and stereotypes have deepened, and buried antagonisms have surfaced right on TV. (To think it all happened on Argyle Street!) However, this is also an opportunity to build understanding of a more than merely tolerant kind. (“Tolerance”: something we have for bad smells or uncomfortable shoes.) We need to better know and cherish the tangled history along the banks of that lazy river, and the needs and hopes of the communities that share it.

I was back home on Victoria Day. I was among the hundreds waiting by the barricades. I hoped for calm; some didn’t. I was ashamed by the lobbed insults, sorry for the cops, and sickened by the certainty of greater violence. I cursed the damage to community relations, and my own helplessness. Diana and I drove to Ottawa that night with foreboding, awakened grateful that riots hadn’t enflamed a darkened town, and were astonished that the barricades came down later that day.

So peace is possible. So Caledonia is an interesting place. (Who knew?) It’s a piece of geography that speaks of Canada, and the months and years to come will tell us a whole lot more.

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Forum section of the Hamilton Spectator on May 29.

Oh, To Be Young and Aboriginal!

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail is a blunt and practical woman, a columnist I always find interesting even when I don’t agree. (On the other side of the coin of opinion, Globe-ster Rick Salutin often strikes me the same way.) She had a column yesterday on the Caledonia/Six Nations standoff. Said standoff, with its barricades and its bipolar policy of mutual assured inconvenience, has this worst quality: it makes it look as if there are two sides, a White Towny one and an Aboriginal Activist one. This is another of those persistent and phony dualities, so easy to set up and so damned difficult to extract from people’s thinking. There are MANY sides to this thing. Anyway, back to Ms. Wente.

She begins with an assault on cliché, one of her specialties. The politicians haven’t learned anything from the last standoff at Ipperwash, we’ve been hearing, but Wente says, “Baloney. They learned everything from Ipperwash. Above all, they learned not to touch a native protest with a bargepole.” Her frequent tone is one of weary dismay. She can dish out caustic commentary, but mostly isn’t a slave to cynicism. “As usual,” she writes,

the roots of the dispute are buried deep in ancient history. Who knows where justice truly lies? Not I. I doubt the myriad of lawyers and mediators, who have laboured on this case for many years, know either. The paperwork now amounts to a staggering 70,000 pages….  In any event, for many native people these disputes aren’t really about the facts. They are about respect, recognition, and identity. The politics of protest are enormously empowering. The young adults who make up the majority of the protesters grew up on images of Oka. What would you rather be — a 20-year-old high-school dropout with dim job prospects, or a Mohawk warrior in combat fatigues…?

 The “dropout” comment is inflammatory – it’s another overstated either/or view of the reality that exists for native youth – but the comparison does contain some much-needed seeds of white understanding of the long-term combination of despair, stoicism and anger that lives in Aboriginal communities across Canada. And Wente, alongside her rejection of the “politics of protest”, shows some comprehension of the history that has created it. (Though she undermines her credibility a little with a reference to the “Six Nations Reserve in Caledonia”. South and west, actually. Yikes.) But she is like a lot of Caledonians these days, and many pretty bright Canadians: she wonders what’s wrong with native people, especially the young.

After all, the explanation goes, consider their advantages: tax-free buying, tuition-free education, and the best country in the world to live in. What’s their problem? Here’s Wente again. “Today the opportunities for young aboriginals in Canada have never been better. And yet, it’s hard to see the opportunity all around you when you’ve been nurtured on so much grievance and injustice….Many of the injustices were real. But how do you move on? How do you make peace with the modern world when you are haunted by ancient wrongs and obsessed with a romantic version of an idealized past?” She summons an alternative example, the story of Skawenniio Barnes, a Mohawk from Kahnawake Reserve who is on her way to the Ivy League on full scholarship. I agree with Wente: Ms. Barnes is a brilliant example, someone with great talent and drive who “changed the script”. But when the columnist goes on to say that this student’s wonderful – I would even say heroic, miraculous – accomplishments and prospects are “worth all the land-claims settlements in the world”, I shake my head.

I, too, wonder how far we go with apologies for historical wrongs, and the re-packaging and re-naming of land. I wonder when enough is enough, but I don’t doubt that land will be (must be) part of Canada’s attempt to get anywhere near justice on matters Aboriginal. But if whites think native people are so deeply fortunate, with all their perceived “extra rights” and advantages, how many would want to exchange positions? Maybe it ain’t so easy being red. Maybe we should be trying harder to answer this excellent question: Why aren’t there more like Skawenniio Barnes? I’m pretty sure we would be abashed and ashamed if we actually listened to honest answers.

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.]