During this pandemic I had the chance to interview film-makers Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer about their film Butte. Butte was shot in 2006 on the Blood Nation (Treaty 6 territory also known as southern Alberta). Here is our conversation!
Anyone who says – or thinks – Canada is not racist should read Bob Joseph’s short book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Every Canadian should read it, period. By quietly recounting facts from kidnapping children to banning language, Joseph shows how horrific Canadian policies against First Nations and Inuit peoples have been. Is it only in our past? Jim Daschuk, who wrote Clearing the Plains, points out that because of institutionalized racism and its effects on health, Indigenous individuals can continue to “expect a 15-year shorter life span”
Pandemics made things worse. Deadly epidemics became a fact of Indigenous life immediately after first contact with Europeans. Indigenous resurgence happened, not because of, but despite such ongoing policies. During research with Daschuk’s files, I found some surprises in the “quarantine reports” of the Government of Canada from 1893 to 1919 (RG 18, 1893-1919).
I don’t know who Inspector McGinnis of Battleford SK was. But during one of many smallpox epidemics at the beginning of the last century McGinnis wanted to deny quarantined Nêhiyaw (Cree) families sufficient food. We know that proper nutrition aids the fight against disease. Malnutrition results in more deaths. McGinnis wrote to his superiors about the Indigenous families that The worst feature of the disease [smallpox] seems to be that when we quarantine them a demand is made for food which we have to give them as they live only from day to day when at liberty. In the case of large families [this] … is expensive (dated March 7, 1904).
Reminiscent of some Chief Medical Officers today, it took a medical person to point out the obvious to the bureaucrat. On March 19, 1904 Dr. Patterson, the Dominion Officer in Winnipeg, wrote: I note what Insp. McGinnis says about the expense of rations. This cannot be helped. When these people are quarantined, they cannot be allowed to starve.
For those of us Canadians who have had minor troubles securing groceries during the Covid-19 pandemic it’s worth learning from this past. Only three months previous to the above report, on January 19, 1904, McGinnis was again sent a sharp rebuke. Note that despite the reprimand McGinnis was NOT removed from his post, a protection of the guilty that sadly still goes on today:
Your quarantine report dated 11th instant received and has been forwarded to the Indian Commissioner for his perusal. The Commissioner directs me to say that you have no shade of right to burn anyone’s shack and that you have no right to use your position to do such autocratic actions and you will be good enough in future not to burn down any more shacks.
In January, in the harsh winter of northern Saskatchewan, this unnamed family was ripped away from their shelter as McGinnis’s official “response” to “other people’s lives.” This is but one example: Tanya Talaga, Charlie Angus, and Louise Skydancer Halfe, like Daschuk and Joseph, tell the stories of how in the Residential Schools, where overcrowding was accompanied by malnutrition and often, abuse, disease outbreaks turned the institutions into death traps.
During a time when governments and health officials are seeking to decide between health and safety on one side and economic concerns on the other, Canadians should avoid continuing a racist past, and look for wisdom from Indigenous thinkers. Writers such as Margaret Kovach Sakewew p’sim iskwew, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson remind us that behind the health of all communities are principles of relationality. “All my relations” is an Indigenous concept, but one from which Canadians urgently need to learn, especially in a time of plague.
It’s Hillary behind COVID. That reject.
And Bill Gates – here he swallows, the saliva
pools. And I think about how far spite,
like infected droplets, spools and projects.
They engineered the virus with China,
To keep Trump from re-election.
Otherwise (his finger to the camera)
You tell me! How could this happen?
I would, but he won’t, stop. I’d start
with the Golden Rule, maybe. Or to not bear false witness.
I’d remind him that the death that struck the Byzantines
came first from fleas, not Muslim armies.
Or maybe this so-called Christian would speak less,
knowing Martin Luther in his preaching
warned Wittenbergers against public meetings
during the days of Black Death.
You’re Sheeple, he interrupts, his history
flat-screen empty. You’re cows.
How can you talk to someone for whom there is no time but now?
No victims but us? It may be a novel virus,
but it’s not novel. The Spanish flu didn’t need Obama to do
what it did back then. Each time, it seems, we try witches, name
evil eyes, put the homes of Gypsies and Jews to flame,
afraid of one virus only to be infected by the other;
the real conspiracy, the tragic legacy of those who claim
we’re only safe when someone else is to blame.
May 3, 2020
I poached the pears in maple syrup.
Saving their browning skins, together with
a wizzled orange and a hardening lemon
my first miracle; the carmelized marmalade,
hot and sweet from our spoons,
the second. Who could have known
tetris-ing perishables would be so satisfying?
Those old hotel soaps slivered
to avoid unnecessary outings,
toilet-paper rolls on door handles,
the plastic that once cossetted chocolates
cut for ice-cube trays.
I suppose it won’t be long before normal
is normal, again. Remind me, then,
please, some evening we’re out for dinner,
our garbage-bins full,
the song-birds muted,
just how good these pears tasted.
Matthew R Anderson
April 30, 2020
Liturgy for a Pandemic
Each Thursday at eight, we stand at our lintels
to clap for care-workers we hope never to meet.
Behind the fence, unseen neighbours bang pots.
When the antiphon dies, I linger outside.
A blackbird trills. From the hushed street its partner answers.
In our city the pandemic spikes, aloof as the cats
who watch our prayers from behind the glass.
Matthew R Anderson April 25, 2020 Chilwell (Nottingham)
During this pandemic I’ve enjoyed re-reading Terry Fallis’s two comic novels, The Best Laid Plans, and The High Road. Both tell the story of the unlikely success of an unintentional candidate and crotchety member of parliament named Angus McClintock. While it seems a thousand years ago, my Bachelor’s Degree was in Political Science. I especially loved Canadian politics – remembering the drama of the elderly Trudeau struggling to keep himself and his tired, scandal-ridden party in office was riveting. Almost Shakespearean.
Flash forward to 2020. Angus’s patience with corruption is about as short as his unruly beard is long. Time after time either his honesty, or his assistant Daniel’s bumbling, land them both in trouble. It’s hard not to compare the determinedly forthright, responsible – and fictional – Angus with a very real president south of the border who seems incapable of anything but lying, blaming, and bullying. Angus is the opposite. He’s a politician who never planned to be one, who takes responsibility seriously, who never encourages hate or prejudice (the second book is called “The High Road” a phrase one certainly could not apply to American politics), and who doesn’t care if he loses his job for doing the right thing.
The Best Laid Plans, and The High Road are together a fun, quick read. My one major critique is that the character of Lindsay should have been fleshed out and given more of a role. But behind the laughs Fallis has a serious message: that a government and its opposition are only as good as the people we elect. I recommend both books.
Reading They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, is a bit like looking in on a group of observant and smart people, who share thoughtful, even profound, observations on love, disappointment, and American and Finnish culture, but who just happen to be on a sinking ship. You – and they – can never forget that things are only going to get much worse. Set against Helsinki’s endlessly brooding winter skies, and the droning of cicadas in Baltimore’s summer heat, a feeling of inescapable doom hangs over this dystopic novel as its flawed characters meet, mate, and make mistakes. The book feels somewhat long at 470 pages, but perhaps that’s just because, while there are lots of surprising plot twists, tragedy never feels far away.
They Know Not What They Do is an apt title. Joe, the ambitious American protagonist, Samuel, his estranged Finnish son, Alina, Samuel’s mother, and others in the novel seem to lack self-awareness in a normal, bumbling, struggle-through-the-day kind of way. However, they’re not lucky in life. None is able to escape the extraordinarily tragic consequences of failings that seem, in the end, fairly ordinary. This is part of the novel’s power. We’ve all made these mistakes, and if we haven’t met such tragedies, perhaps we’ve just been fortunate. The inside back cover states that Valtonen is not just a fine author and an exceptional wordsmith, but also a psychologist. He clearly knows day-to-day human weakness. Although he’s sympathetic, he’s a realist. The often very funny black humour will keep the reader going, even while a sensitive reader sometimes wants to put the book down rather than go through yet another looming misunderstanding, disappointment, or mistake.
If anything marks the book as Finnish, perhaps it’s this close attention to failure. As a Canadian reader, I’m familiar with literature where simple survival is victory. Finnishness and Americanism are presented as opposites, and are played up in the novel. But the stereotypes are presented only to be subverted: the American protagonist ends up paralyzed by indecision and fate, while the Finn achieves a sort of resolution.
The language throughout is clear, crisp, and its observations razor-sharp: the reader would never know the book was originally published in Finnish (translator Kristian London). Valtonen won the Finlandia Prize for this book, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s exceptionally observant, and extremely well-written. Academics will recognize their foibles in its sharp-eyed observations of university politics, but so will fatigued young parents, adolescents just entering college, and the middle-aged trying to decide if they’ve accomplished anything with their lives. They Know Not What They Do was written by someone who very definitely knew what they were doing: if you can handle the coming tragedy, it’s well worth getting to know these people as well.
Tears in his eyes, an old man tells me he wishes I wouldn’t choose
“Now Thank We All our God”
quite so often.
It’s a nice hymn, he says. I’m sorry Pastor.
Don’t mean to be a bother.
The organist likes it too. I can tell,
because the way she plays it. She really plays it. Poom, poom! – he laughs.
I sang that when I was nineteen, Pastor.
A young man.
He looks closely then. Checking to see if I can picture him
Not like now, he says.
In my navy uniform, or what was left of it after going over the Italian wire.
I was lucky to get to that bunker. Lots didn’t.
I know other people like it.
He’s wipes a rheumy eye. Liver spots on his hand. It’s a good tune, he says.
Where was I? Oh. Yes. The problem is,
when I hear that hymn
I hear everything else:
The shells, the pain.
The ones who drowned. And we who remained,
standing tall, trying to be brave.
Five hundred men in that bunker, pastor. Singing Nun Danket like our lives depended on it.
The dust in the air. The wounded. The maimed.
And after the Amen –
No one knew what came next.
Until into that silence the senior officer said three words.
“Now we surrender.”
That’s what he said. He smiles.
I’m an old man.
It’s a good hymn. It just makes me cry.
My war ended thanking God.
You see? He takes my hand.
You do what you want. I can’t be thankful enough.
That’s my problem. But. He leans close:
Soldiers stand, he says.
Do you mind, terribly,
if I sit?
(I just heard the news that my former parishioner, about whom I wrote this piece, passed away a couple days ago. The years I was his pastor he quietly refused to sing another hymn from our hymnbook, that I found out later had been used, with different words, by the Nazi regime during WW II).
To mark the month that for Christians begins with All Saints and All Souls’ days, Dr Christine Jamieson and I wrote an article about the NBC/Netflix ethics comedy “The Good Place.” It was picked up by Salon! Here’s the article:
Last week, I went to Saskatchewan to see my family. While there, I took some time to drive to the edge of my old home-town to pay my respects at my parents’ graves. That’s a strange expression: “to pay one’s respects.” These days we only use it about death. Once people said it for all kinds of visits. Now, paying one’s respects is pretty much about cemeteries, or visiting families at a funeral. There I was, in a empty graveyard beside the trees. I could see my breath in the air and hear the big trucks whistling by on the highway. In my case, “paying respects” meant rooting through little skiffs of snow and pushing aside dead leaves in a half-dozen places, until finally I found the brass plaques in the ground that have my parents’ names on them.
It felt good to make that visit. But really, who was it for? Someone could easily point out that now my parents are gone they don’t need my respect. Dead is dead, they could tell me. Your parents are gone. It’s nice you did that, but that visit had far more to do with you feeling good about being a dutiful son, than about them.
Some Sadducees, those who claim that there is no resurrection, came to Jesus one day and asked him a question. Teacher, they said, we have a problem for you. Then they went into a long story about a woman who married seven brothers in a row, all of whom died. So, they asked him. You can just imagine them smirking. Shrugging their shoulders at Jesus. You tell us, whose wife will this poor woman be in the resurrection?
The point isn’t the story, which is kind of weird. The point for the Saduccees was, “dead is dead.” Jesus was one of those Jews who taught that there was a resurrection. What, is this woman going to have seven husbands, they asked? They were trying to trap Jesus into admitting the whole idea is ridiculous.
We don’t realize what a “hot-button” issue resurrection was back then. As much as climate crisis is today, the resurrection was what a number of first-century Jews argued about. The group that came to see Jesus didn’t like resurrection. They thought it was silly. But Jesus and the Pharisees took the other side: at the end of time, God wouldn’t have any trouble scuffing through piles of snow or pushing aside leaves. God can find the faithful no matter how much snow is on the ground. That’s what Jesus taught, and the other Pharisees too. The faithful dead would be raised.
On this issue, we who claim to follow Jesus, who call ourselves Christians, are probably more like Jesus’ opponents. “What do Christians believe happens to you when you die?” I’ll ask that to my classes sometimes at Concordia. Sometimes the Jewish and Muslim students know the answer better than the ones who actually go to a Christian church. The Christian kids will say things like: “Christians believe our spirit goes to heaven to be with God.” Or: “our soul spends eternal life in heaven.” Floating on clouds or something like that. When they say that, I show them what Jesus said, and what Paul writes in the New Testament. There’s nothing about souls. When we say the Apostles’ Creed later on in the service, notice the words: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of …the soul? No. Some kind of disembodied spirit that floats around? No. Immediately going to heaven through some kind of shining tunnel? Not at all. We believe, we say every church service, in the resurrection of the body.” At the last day. When the reign of God changes everything, and everyone.
I’m not saying I personally have any idea what happens to us! But I do know what the Bible says. And it doesn’t say much about individual post-life spiritual existence. The scriptures tell us there will be a whole new, physical, world. There, truth and justice and love will reign, and all of the awful things that can happen to people here just don’t. There will come a time, it says, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and wars will cease, and hatreds will stop. It will be a time where there will never be another Krystallnacht, the sad anniversary of which we marked yesterday. It will be a place where every child will grow up without fear, healthy and happy. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And that place, the Bible insists, will be very real. And physical.
Again, who knows? The Bible was struggling to put hope to words. Paul says we’re baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Jesus rose, someday we will too. That starts, he insisted, right now.
I really like the resurrection of the dead way of looking at life after life for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s organic. Jesus and the Pharisees taught that ALL creation would be renewed. Not just human beings. ALL creation: plants, animals, trees, air, water. I think that’s a message we need to hear. We don’t need a faith that tells us we can ignore what’s happening to our planet because, after all, humanity’s real nature is spiritual and all this physicial stuff is just distraction. Physical resurrection doesn’t privilege human beings. Jesus said that what he called “the children of the resurrection” will ALWAYS be physical, in some way at least. If we really believed that this place, this earth, is where we will always be, maybe we would take better care of it. Maybe we’d honour those trees and plants and animals and water right now, because they are co-heirs with us of what is coming.
Secondly, I think the resurrection of the dead gets another idea right, and that is relationality. By that I mean that the usual Christian idea of dying and going to heaven is pretty individualistic. It’s more than a little selfish. But the Biblical idea of post-life life is radically corporate, and mutual. Just like we are in constant relationship right now with other human beings, and with the natural world, so we will be forever. We were created into relationships. And that’s how we hope to be RE-created. There will be a city, says the book of Revelation, and a river will run through it. Its gates will be open. And it will have trees.
Lately I’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Good Place”. It’s fascinating that in a world that insists it’s not very religious, there’s a hit TV series about what happens to us when we die. But the take-away message of “The Good Place” is really about life NOW. Not life after death. The characters, whose names are Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, struggle to change and to be better. When they do that, they’re doing what we all need to do. They’re learning what it means to be better people. Better human beings, less selfish, and more loving.
Whenever I go to that cemetery in Saskatchewan to visit my parents’ graves, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even though I’ve been there a dozen times its always hard to get oriented. It always takes me a while to find them. This time I took Christmas holly. I banged the ice out from the frozen flower containers and put in the holly. Then I stood around for a while, and thought about my parents. To the Sadducees who came to test him, Jesus said: the children of the resurrection cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God. I started getting cold, and my step-mother was waiting. So I said a sort of prayer, and climbed back in the car.
In “The Good Place,” the real message is that what will endure beyond the tomb is mostly who we’ve become because of how we treat each other. Jesus said the same thing. What happens after death might be a mystery. But whatever your beliefs, practicing the discipline of how to act with love, and faithfulness, and justice is a start. And caring for each other and the planet like our future depends on it, seems exactly the best place to begin.