Matthew R. Anderson

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

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Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.

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All Our Systems

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the V2V: system meets relations, but who did the paint-job? photo: M. Anderson

The sound of a chain saw greeted me as I walked toward the intersection, where Government street meets Victoria’s harbour, right by the Empress Hotel. The street was closed to traffic. On the meridian, in the middle of the lanes, with downtown buildings all around, a half-dozen workers were finishing the job of bringing down what must have been a fairly large tree. Some were cutting the trunk into pieces, others were shredding branches, still others were piling four-foot slices of hard-wood trunk onto a front-end loader. The crew was working hard. But there was just as much action outside the cordon. Three different TV crews had cameras trained on the workers, who self-consciously were trying not to pay attention to them. Several camera photographers were snapping photos.

I ran my errands. Fifteen minutes later, on my way back, the cameras were gone. A flag-woman guarded the yellow tape.

“What’s all the media interest about?” I asked her. “What happened?”

“Oh,” she replied, “we cut down a tree.”

“Was it an important tree?” I asked.

She shrugged. “There aren’t that many around– take a look.” Her arm swept the horizon. “I guess so.”

“There were protesters?”

“Believe it or not, only one.” She laughed. “All those media folks came down on her like a gang. They all had to interview the same person!”

“Why’d they cut it down?”

“That’s the best part,” she leaned in, as if sharing a secret. “It’s for a bike path,” she whispered. Then she hoisted her neon vest and headed back to the other workers. “We live in a bizarre world!” she called over her shoulder.

Today I’m flying out of Victoria, headed east. And you cannot fly without experiencing – and, let’s be honest, benefitting from – systems. There’s a system that directs travelers through airports onto planes, and systems to guide the planes safely across runways and through the air. A system will, I hope, make sure my luggage arrives when I do. A system for bike paths spelled the end of that tree. But despite their undoubted value, we make a mistake when we treat other people, or creation, as if it’s only that – a series of systems to be managed, and not relations to be nurtured and respected.

We use systems, and we think of them as external to us. On the other hand, we are part of a web of relations. Tanya Talaga points this out in her book “All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward” (Anansi Press, 2018). Other Indigenous writers such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Indigenous activists such as Kenneth Deer warn us that to ignore our relations with creation puts us at peril. Indigenous courage and sacrifice in defense of the planet, whether against fracking, or pipelines, or sacred sites, has led the way. I don’t know if that one tree, in downtown Victoria, should have been saved. A bike path is certainly a good thing. But I wonder if it was a case of “all our systems,” rather than “all our relations.”

Truth in a time of Disinformation

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Truth. You will know it. That’s what Jesus says. You’ll be able to sniff it out. Somewhere between the meandering, hateful, mysogynistic, racist late-night tweets and the tap-tap-tapping of thousands of trolls putting out fake social media posts from St. Petersburg and Tehran, and robocalls whispering to us here in Quebec that elections have been cancelled under mysterious circumstances, and Saudi Arabia murdering a journalist and then saying he died in a fistfight and a Trump supporter sending pipe bombs by courier but many Republicans listening to talk-shows that tell them the Democrats set up the whole thing, because, after all, no one got killed, and, well: God knows what else.  If you continue in my word, says Jesus – THE word, not all these dissimulations – then you are truly my disciples, and you will know, NOT the lies. Not the innuendo. Not the most reasonable inferences, based on the latest poll results. The TRUTH.  And that will set you free. So often we focus on that one noun, “truth.” Too often we overlook the very important verb before that, the verb “to know”. It might be a truth that a grizzly bear and her cubs are on the path ahead of me. But if I don’t KNOW it, it won’t help. Indigenous writers tell us that knowing always depends on one thing: relationship. What twitter has taught us is that what people call truth is relative. But the relationships under real truth – love and forgiveness, and grace that reaches through our brokenness and heals us – those things never change. When we face the disinformation and the hurtful lies, the way through is asking: of all the so-called options, what keeps us in right relationship with our Creator and each other? THAT is the truth we must cling to. Then, even in times of trouble, even should the world fall apart and the mountains crumble into the centre of the sea, that truth is our safety and stronghold. Our mighty fortress. Truly.

The Tea of the Day

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One morning I was early for my lecture, and hadn’t eaten, so I walked over to the student co-op café. There was a young woman there whom I’d seen before, setting up. Otherwise the place was completely empty. “Hi, how are you doing?” she smiled. I smiled back. I asked for the tea of the day. We don’t have anything on the go right now, she responded. What would you like the tea of the day to be?

How about this Earl Grey? I pointed to a bag

What’s the difference between that Earl Grey and this Earl Grey? She pointed to another, fancier tea beside her.

I don’t know.

It’s all the same price, she went on. Today. If it’s the tea of the day, it’s going to cost $1.50. And we just decided it is – the tea of the day. She smiled again.

There was something confident and serene about her, as if already at whatever age she was – twenty, maybe? – she’d figured out already the thing that takes most of us years. How to be happy with herself.

I ordered a piece of quiche and as she warmed it, she talked.

I don’t like sweet things for breakfast either, or at least most of the time.

I like jam, still. But sometimes just a piece of toast and cheese.

Or an egg.

Or an egg.

My dad always used to make me these smoothies, she said. Then her face got this far-away look, as if she could still see them. We were five kids. He’d get up early and make five smoothies, every morning. With protein powder. I loved the smoothies but hated the protein powder. You gotta have it, she pitched her voice lower and talked out of the side of her mouth. It’s good for you. She laughed. I guess it was.

I laughed too. I make my daughter smoothies sometimes. Although occasionally she makes them for me. Does your dad still do that?

She glanced up with a look I couldn’t quite fathom. I don’t live at home anymore.

No. I just meant: even with you gone, do you think your dad makes those smoothies for himself? Maybe it’s a ritual. For remembering.

Maybe. I don’t know. She looked thoughtful. Then brightened. I’ll have to ask him. Here you go. She handed me the food.

I paid and went to sit down, looking out over the campus, my back to the young woman and to the counter. The music was some kind of alternative stuff, lots of synth and guitar and corrected voice. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her walk over to another part of the room, and then the music went dead. A minute later, something else came over the speakers. An old James Taylor song. She’d put it on, for me. Or maybe, for her dad.IMG_5397

Between Candle and Bell

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All Saints’ is about a community bigger and better, more surprising, more joyful and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine. It’s about lighting a candle for someone who has died, and honouring the fact that there are lines that connect us with them that go on despite death, lines we can hardly guess at, but that our Creator knows intimately. Why? Because they were woven with gracious intent into our very fabric of being.

Freedom from Fear

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If we were really free, then fear and desire would not be so powerful. Jesus said: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. And when we really take a moment to look closely, the ideas that imprison us are lies.That the clothes make the woman or man. That we can solve an unhappiness inside with some form of success, that winning the lottery can make anyone happy, that the busier we are, the more important we are. That we need to be afraid of those different from us. That we can survive without love, or others. Lies, one and all. 500 years ago, Martin Luther’s great insight was that all that we need, we’ve ALREADY been given.We do not need to buy what is already ours, free. We human beings are not perfect. True. But we don’t need to be. And the people who say we should be, are playing games.  Follow them and we’re buying into a cycle that will keep us forever trapped. Luther said that, thanks to our Creator, love is free. Not only that, but it’s also freeING. There’s a side-effect: the more we realize  we don’t have to prove anything, the more we’re free to work for love and justice, for others. We’re not just free from. We’re free for. We’re free to make the world a better place by standing up against injustice and intolerance. Intolerance always plays on that same fear. If Jesus taught us not to be afraid, we don’t need to be fearful. We can break the control that others – especially politicians, these days, in the United States but also here in Quebec – try to have over us, using our fears.

Triumphalism

Via Dolorosa Ivory

Triumphalism is gloating. It’s me going by you on the highway, seeing you have a flat tire and saying to someone: “they deserve that.” We Canadians are more than a touch smug right now. Justin Trudeau may not be perfect. But he’s not Donald Trump. The world loves us, not so much for who we are, but for who we’re NOT. And we lap up the credit. Or triumphalism is those of us who are Euro-Canadian saying that we tend to live a richer and healthier life than many First Nations people because we somehow are smarter, or work harder, or something. When in fact, the truth is that people like me get an education and a good diet and many of these breaks because we are living off the ill-gotten gains of land that was  stolen from the First Nations to give to our ancestors. And we have the gall to give ourselves credit. The same is true of this Gospel, written after the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, Jesus says to the Chief Priests and Elders, because of how you’ve treated the Son, I tell you this: the Kingdom of heaven will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruit. It’s been two thousand years since this supercessionist – and awful – text was written. In that time, has the official, institutional Church done any better than ancient Judea? No! The opposite: have we crucified those who were only seeking freedom? Yes. Have we stood idly by while the innocent suffered? You bet. Have we rejected love? Constantly. Reading this text shouldn’t make us smug. Christians are NOT God’s replacement for the Jews. What we are, is extremely fortunate we’re included in the family. And that, right there, seems the best way to eliminate self-righteousness. This is a perfect reading for a Thanksgiving weekend. The moment you and I take the time to think about how unbelievably fortunate we are, is the same moment smugness disappears. Happy Thanksgiving.

The Young Finnish Women Pioneers of Montreal

Finnish maids in Quebec ca 1930

The earliest waves of Finnish immigrants to Montreal consisted overwhelmingly of young Finnish women. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where Finnish immigrants engaged in forestry or other labour, in Montreal the gender balance was definitely female! These determined and resourceful young Finns often worked as domestic help in the ‘grandes maisons”, or the large and rich homes of the Montreal wealthy. They were the primary movers behind starting the congregation, and the initial financial offerings they raised came from their own, often meagre, earnings. Through the years, unlike in many other churches, women and men together have always been on church council, and active in the direction of the congregation, its music and its social life. Newly arrived maids on the steps of the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal ca 1929 Victor Kangas Collection

It’s not surprising that so many of the Suomi activities planned for fall 2017 in Montreal – a Finnish bus trip to the Eastern Townships on Oct 14, the sold-out Suomi 100 Ball in December – are likewise spearheaded by women. The historical video can be watched here: https://vimeo.com/235420822