The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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The River’s Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It

It’s moving. It will be moving all day, all night, and for a billion tomorrows. The Otonabee River is a block from my home and on quiet nights we hear it relentlessly cascading over the dam. We smile at a loon’s mournful echo, nature’s saddest and most magnificent cry. The blue heron has his favourite spot near the Lakefield bridge and sometimes the osprey leaves his giant nest by the power station to perch in the tree above him. Both stare with infinite patience, waiting for the right moment to pounce into the gurgling water.

I walk home from work along the river and run the trail that hugs its banks. In the summer, when the city folks invade, canoes glide by and rented houseboats boom their music as they tack haphazardly along amid the mammoth floating mansions, always, it seems, with flapping American flags. The river splits our little Village in two and yet its bounty makes us whole and, in fact, possible.

The River's Spirit for Those Who Can Hear It..

Deeply respected Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence lived in Lakefield. Her most stunning book, The Diviners, begins by observing that the river runs both ways. It does you know, it really does – all rivers do. They run as natural facts but also as spirits and metaphors through our history, literature, music, and souls.

Science meets religion at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates. Between the two powerful rivers is the fertile valley where archaeologists insist human civilization first developed. Those ascribing to a literal translation of the Christian Bible agree, in a sideways sort of fashion, by claiming the junction housed the Garden of Eden.

Homer gave us one of our first stories. He told of the filthy waters of the Xanthus. Polluted by bodies killed in the Trojan War, the river rose up and nearly swallowed the hero Achilles. The river became a metaphor for war, a scourge so horrible that even the unworldly strength and courage of the greatest among us can neither defeat nor tame it.

War has too often soiled rivers with its evil. Battles have been won by fording armies, a bridge’s destruction, or an enemy trapped against a riverbank. During the American Civil War, the South named its armies after states but the North after rivers, hence the Army of Virginia fought the Army of the Potomac. Early battles had two names because the South considered the nearest town and the North the nearest river, so we have Sharpsburg or Antietam and Manassas or Bull Run.

Many civilizations developed along rivers from the Yangtze in China, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Nile in Africa. A predominant historian dubbed Canada the “Empire of the St. Lawrence,” arguing that without the natural highway to the interior, the country could not have developed when or how it did. Consider also the cities built upon rivers: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, New York, Washington, St. Louis, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and…well…you can think of many more. Rivers are the veins through which so many cities’ lifeblood flows.

The Tennessee is the Singing River. To hear it you have to believe it. For thousands of years the Whana-le people heard the creator sing through the river’s sparkling waves. In the 1830s, the Whana-le were uprooted and banished to the barren Oklahoma Indian Territory. They starved beside tiny and silent rivers. One winter, an old woman named Te-lah-nay had enough. To save her family and people, she sought the wisdom of the river’s song and so walked from Oklahoma to her ancestral home, now called Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee. Today, in northwest Alabama stands a long, winding, outrageously magnificent stonewall that her great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix created to commemorate the walk, his people, and the river that still sings for those with the spiritual faith to hear.

On the banks of the Tennessee is a town called Muscle Shoals. In the late 1950s, Rick Hall built the FAME recording studio and it soon produced hit records that reintroduced gospel, R & B, and soul to the pop charts. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett recorded there. When Hall’s studio band, the Swampers, formed their own studio, the Muscle Shoals sound was heard in records by the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, John Prine, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alicia Keys, and on and on.

The Muscle Shoals feel was black but the studio musicians were white so the music was as colour blind as it was glorious. The singing Tennessee must have approved and maybe, just maybe, played a role in inspiring the magical sounds. Maybe it was the same enchantment that flowed from the mighty, muddy Mississippi that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis when, within blocks of the roiling river, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all did their best work in the same little Union Avenue Sun studio. Maybe the same spirit sang from Liverpool’s Mersey River that created what the world came to know as the Mersey Beat of the Beatles and British invasion.

In his terrific novel that was turned into a fine movie, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean wrote: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

In Siddharta, Hermann Hess observed, “Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The River's Spirit For Those Who Can Hear It.

I am both haunted and comforted by those thoughts as I prepare for my run along the banks of my river, the Otonabee River. The heron may be at the bridge and perhaps the osprey, and down near the Sawyer Creek lock the turtles will be sunning themselves. The bald eagle may be about, soaring without a care above it all and swooping with breathtaking majesty to steal his lunch from the river that he, like me, knows will always be here: powerful, relentless, with soul but without judgement. And through it all I am happy that in my Village, and my life, a river runs through it.

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Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.

The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.

A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.

Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.

But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.

The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.

Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.

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The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.

There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.

Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.

When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.

Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.

Sincerely,

A Friend.