A Ghost in the Water

By Bruce Serafin | July 4, 2004

I discovered Terry Glavin late. In the mid-nineties, when I was editing The Vancouver Review, New Star press sent the magazine a review copy of Glavin’s latest book. I read the book. I became excited; acting on impulse I called up New Star’s publisher, Rolf Maurer. Rolf told me that Glavin had worked as a reporter for The Vancouver Sun, covering the Native affairs beat. But management had turned against him – he had shown too much concern for Indians.

“How old was he then?”

“In his thirties.”

“What happened?”

“Well. He accused The Sun of burying stories. So he was buried, or so I was told. The way I heard it, his desk was moved out to the new plant in Surrey when nobody else’s was. He hung on for a while, then he quit.”

So his books were a revenge. And a good one, I thought: three books in four years.

I read the first two books. I could see why he and The Sun had quarreled. Glavin was openly political. He had an understanding of BC history that would have been too complicated for The Sun, which then as now was a paper bordering on the mediocre. And he was an idealist. The degradation of Native society that the media regularly reported on didn’t appear in his work. Instead he revealed an almost visionary attitude toward his subject. Reading his early books I saw Glavin struggle toward a representation of BC in which our old sense of the bush as an economic trough and the Natives as degraded exotics was thrown out once and for all. In these books, the format, the point of view, even the shape of the sentences changed as Glavin battled to express an idea about BC that was completely new.

The first book, A Death Feast in Dimlahamid, had come out in 1990. It was a report on the Gitskan-Wet’suwet’en people in north-central BC. Using dozens of interviews and a small library of background texts, Glavin described the people’s legal and social history, their myths and ceremonies (he attended one of the death feasts), and their current situation. In particular A Death Feast told the story of the blockade the Natives set up near Kispiox in 1989.

Here the book came alive. A freezing night, three a.m.; Robert Jackson in his pickup truck has just pulled a huge cedar log across the road,

where, on a normal day, a fully loaded logging truck would pass every ten minutes in an annual convoy that took 500,000 cubic meters of wood….out of the Kispiox valley highlands. About twenty of the young men were there already, and they stood around the blazing fire, stamped their feet on the frozen ground and tucked their cold hands deep into their pockets….Wii Muugalsxw, who is the soft-spoken, forty-year-old Kispiox artist and carver Art Wilson, smiled nervously as the first logging truck showed up.

I could see that smile. As well as the men’s need to take action, Glavin had shown me their diffidence.

Or consider this scene. At a meeting in the Kispiox community hall, under the “updrawn basketball hoops and the `Welcome to Kispiox’ banner,” a reticent Native lawyer named Gordon Sebastian has finally started to express what was on his mind:

Everybody listened. Gordon didn’t speak much at these things.

“You know, I see our people on reserve. A good ninety per cent of the people, a good ninety per cent. They’re poor….They’re very poor. And you know, I live off the backs of the poor people. I’m on the band council. I have a job because of the poor people on the reserve.

“Sunday morning when I went to the Suskwa roadblock? There was nobody there. So I went over to the road and put up the block. I put up the blockade. No problem. One little Indian. One little Hagwilget Indian, for a couple of hours. Don’t you see how strong you are? I didn’t have 200 Indians there. There was just one. And you know who’s been manning the roadblock? You know who’s manning the roadblock now? Poor people. It’s the poor people. They’re living off grouse and moose meat, and whatever food we bring out. Poor people.”

In so few words, an entire world.

So there was good writing in the book. But I also found problems. Glavin mixed events and stories in A Death Feast in a way that made it hard to sort out what was going on. I read the book carefully; but even at the end I had no clear sense of how the blockade had progressed and what its emotional dynamics had been. Glavin didn’t shape his material sufficiently, didn’t reach for a dramatic form. In particular he left more or less untouched the Native legends he had transcribed and which ran all through the book. They interrupted the narrative; and, with every verbal stumble included, they had no force: their strangeness and power got dissipated in the tentative way they were told.

And I found problems with Glavin’s representation of character. The Natives he reported on were too often presented in an idealized manner that didn’t work the way Glavin wanted it to. For one thing, in order to suggest the complexity of their background – and, perhaps, in order to ennoble them – they were given both their contemporary and their tribal names. But these tribal names belonged to ancestors going back for millenia. So it wasn’t always clear whether it was the ancestor or the contemporary person who was being referred to. This confusion was deliberate; but instead of elevating the individuals so named, it depersonalized them.

Most important, Glavin didn’t take the risk of providing his own insights into people. He didn’t present the telling gesture, the detail of face or clothing or behaviour that would reveal character. Instead he cultivated a solemn “country” voice that at times in the sombre roll of its sentences sounded like the voice of a tribal chief on television. It was a voice and a style of presentation that kept so respectful a distance from the people Glavin wrote about that they seemed blurred, Indians moving behind an ideological scrim.

Glavin’s next book, Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, had come out in 1992. In some ways it was similar to A Death Feast. It concerned the social and legal history of a group of Native people (in this case the Nemiah Valley Indian band up in the Chilcotin, descendants of those Natives who had fought in the uprising now known as the Chilcotin War); it transcribed their stories; and it related their current fight to keep whites from eating up their land.

But I found Nemiah to be a different and better book than the first one. To start with, it contained expressive photographs throughout. These gave the reader a clear sense of the place and people Glavin was talking about. Equally important, it separated out the Natives’ stories into boxed-off sections. Alone on the page like this, surrounded by white space, a kind of quiet emanated from them, with the result that I again and again heard a thrillingly soft, unguarded tone of voice that was unlike any voice I had ever heard before in a book. And Glavin’s own style, which in A Death Feast had seemed newspaperman-flat, now showed a little more of the vision that moved him. In particular, he had found a way to suggest how the country voice, the Native voice, could be eloquent and telling. A subtle thing; but flatness now sometimes turned into quietness and at moments I sensed the man full of emotion behind the cautious text.

I still found problems. Glavin had again bitten off more than he could chew. History, ethnography, personal memoir and current-affairs reportage all milled about in the text, getting in each other’s way. It was hard to find a strong story, and after a while I stopped trying. Also, while you could now hear what Glavin was up to with his “country” voice, chunks of the book seemed laboured.

But I saw all this only after I received Glavin’s third book in the mail and read it in one sitting.

That book, A Ghost in the Water, was about a fishing trip Glavin had taken with his friends Marvin Rosenau and Nick Basok to catch a Fraser River white sturgeon. And while here, too, the writing mixed various kinds of text – history, bio-ethnography – everything came together. The book moved fast; the prose was nervous and intense. And the mood it sustained astonished me. Glavin’s writing now evoked a physical darkness, the darkness of the grey and darker-grey skies that for weeks on end drop rain onto the Fraser. By the end of the book I had felt the black strangeness of the river’s forests, the hissing life of its surface. Making vivid use of poetry and historiography, Glavin’s text ended up presenting a vision of BC that wasn’t like anything I had read before.

Three things helped him do this. First, he now owned his prose, writing sentences that were unafraid of complexity and had no trace of a false vernacular. Second, he had learned how to artfully mix various kinds of texts. Eloquent black-and-white photos, Native legends, history and biology were all seamlessly woven into the book. Partly because A Ghost in the Water was so short, less than a hundred pages, the fishing trip that provided its story stayed clear. I knew when Glavin was picking up one textual thread and dropping another, and I felt confident he would get where he wanted to go. Finally, the assemblage of facts and stories that Glavin had put together now had the interest of personal myth. Like his fishing companions, Glavin had grown up “within shouting distance” of the Fraser; and in A Ghost in the Water, quoting Diana Hartog’s “poetic bestiary” ("Twenty feet long and gunmetal grey, the sturgeon swim among schools of sunken locomotives – old steam engines which have flung themselves off the end of the line, to lie tilted on their sides, breathing deeply through their gills") – here, quoting Hartog, he had created something like his own legend of the river:

I had never found a sturgeon of any size on the end of any line I ever cast, but I was dimly aware of the rumours. Giant, twenty-foot water monsters dwelt in the depths of the river. They fell within a childhood taxonomy that included the Sasquatch, the ghosts that haunted the house on Russell Avenue, terrifying swamp animals from the Burnaby flats, and the creatures that lurked in long-forgotten tunnels under the streets of New Westminster.

Street names, place names, fragments of old newspaper stories from papers like the New Westminster Columbian, moody black and white photos, Native legends – which now had the power of stories like “Hansel and Gretel” – it all evoked a vision of BC that ran strongly against the sunny, history-denying vision most British Columbians grow up with. There were no Okanagan apples the size of trucks here, no images of shining conifers in postcard Kodachrome that were supposed to make you feel like the lord of the universe. It was as if the black shadow that Glavin saw on BC had become for him a source of visions – had fined him down and given his prose life.

The next year Glavin returned to journalism with Dead Reckoning, a look at BC’s fishing industry. Journalism; yet the book also contained extraordinary scholarship – the list of "sources" at the back made up six pages of tiny print: hundreds of books and articles. That same year, and more remarkably to me, he published This Ragged Place, a collection of nine essays that dealt in particular with the lies, preconceptions and racist paranioa that all through the nineties had characterized the BC media’s presentation of Native concerns.

In these essays Glavin outlined a story that went to the heart of BC’s colonial structure. If you wanted to know who had power in British Columbia and how little scruples mattered to them in defending that power, you only had to read “From the Old Rice Mill to Annieville Drift,” in which Glavin documented the hysteria that grabbed the province because of Ottawa’s Aboriginal Fishing Strategy agreement with the Fraser River Natives.

Glavin starts with a date: August 21, 1992. The BC Supreme Court is visited by industry lobby group, the Fisheries Council of BC. Its request: scrap the aboriginal fishing strategies deal.

“Between them,” Glavin writes, FCBC members “accounted for almost the entire production and distribution of BC salmon products. They came to court arm in arm with the Pacific Fisherman’s Alliance…and with the BC Wildlife Federation, the Steelhead Society of British Columbia, and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union.”

These people had authority on their side. They were respectable. The Natives weren’t. And so the media listened attentively as their lawyers outlined a terrifying scenario: “an ecological cataclysm had occurred in the Fraser River…1.2 million Fraser River sockeye had `disappeared’ between Mission Ridge and their spawning grounds. Indian poachers were to blame.”

The Province and The Vancouver Sun, along with BCTV News, swallowed and regurgitated it all. Stories about 1992’s “poaching” and “missing fish” continued on an almost daily basis well into 1993.

Alarm spread. On February 27, 1993, 2,500 protesters turned up at a fisheries survival rally in Victoria. In coastal towns like Campbell River native and non-native kids were reported fighting. And in early summer of ’93 Dennis Brown – secretary-treasurer of the Fishermen’s Union and a key spokesman for the Fisheries Survival Coalition – Dennis Brown told The Vancouver Sun that if there was violence between Indians and whites fishing in the Fraser River, it would not be his fault, it would be the government’s fault, and he would hold the federal government “solely responsible.”

But here’s the thing. None of it was true. The Native fishery hadn’t expanded. The salmon available hadn’t dwindled. There was no “biological disaster” on the Fraser in 1992. In fact, as Glavin notes, it was quite a good year, the catch being the highest in that year in the fish cycle since the forties.

And there was no tribal-share increase in that catch. Indeed, the beneficiaries of this good year weren’t the Natives (who then, as now, got about five percent of the catch), but “the companies that make up the coastal monopoly and the seiners in Juan de Fuca Strait.”

An astonishing story. And Glavin told it eloquently, staying low-key and documenting his points. He let his readers feel indignation for themselves.

As I read the essays collected in This Ragged Place I got a sense of Glavin going about his work: talking to people, meditating on BC’s landscape and how it has shaped our ways of thinking and looking. In the course of the book he travelled from the Yellowhead Pass down to the coast, to Finn Slough, to Liumchen Canyon off the Chilliwack River, to the downtown Vancouver offices of the Council of Forest Industries, to Dog Creek and Alkali Lake, to 100 Mile House, to Alexis Creek off Highway 20 in the Chilcotin, and to Gitwinksihlkw, where the Noxnox sits,

a vast and barren plain of jumbled and broken volcanic rock, the kind of landscape that might belong on some distant planet, except there is a slippery mud road through the middle of it and a line of telephone poles stretches off into the distance and disappears into the horizon. The road went on and on in this way, through sleet and rain, until it became possible, between the swipes of wiper blades across a muddy windshield, to make out an intersection in the distance. At the crossroads, a sign pointed to the north.

Reading the book, I felt I was seeing a BC that had never appeared before in print. The essays had many good qualities. But I most valued their sense of emotion reined in by sobriety. Glavin exposed the pretense that here in BC we have developed an advanced society, progressive and cutting-edge. In the words of the brilliant Vancouver art critic Robert Linsley, he showed that “what we learn from our local history is that the spirit of the province is dark, oppressive and wounded.” His gravity of tone reflected that recognition.

In 1998 Glavin was asked by The Globe and Mail to be its west coast correspondent. Around the same time he was appointed to the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. More important, he was busy soliciting material for, and editing, an extraordinary series of books about British Columbia. Each of the Transmontanus books (of which A Ghost in the Water was the first) ran to about a hundred pages. Each combined words and pictures; and each – in particular Red Laredo Boots, Chiwid and A Voice Great Within Us in which Glavin and the poet Charles Lillard collaborated on a series of beautiful essays dealing with Chinook, the now almost-vanished trade language of the BC Interior – each of the Transmontanus books provided an image of a world that I was separated from only by a kind of psychic membrane. I could pass through it; and when I did I seemed to walk in a larger world than the one I knew, a gigantic world, really, that felt completely different from the Vancouver world I lived in from day to day.

In 2000 Glavin published The Last Great Sea, another work of journalism and scholarship that this time looked at the North Pacific Ocean. Reading this book, I felt it was as if that vast body of water had condensed into a faceted prism that Glavin held up before his readers and slowly turned, showing now one face, now another. By this time he was writing for Western Canada’s leading weekly, The Georgia Straight. At forty-five, he had become an elder statesman of both the environmental and the Native rights movements, a remarkable achievement.

For the past few years Glavin has been working on a large book. I recently sent him an email asking him to describe it. I asked for a brief precis; he promptly emailed me back a sort of poem:

As for the latest book (if I ever get the damn thing done), it’s now tentatively titled The Last Giants in the River of the Black Dragon, and Other Stories from the Age of Extinction.

It’s eight chapters, each set in a different part of the world. I say eight, but really there’s a lengthy prologue, set in the village of Tuamgraney in County Clare, and a long epilogue set at the temple of Kali in Calcutta; in between there are six chapters: "A Fish," "A Lion," "A Whale," "A Flower," "A Mermaid," "A World."

The fish is the amur taimen, set in the crumbling and gentle city of Khabarovsk and points downstream on the Amur. Very, very much like the Bulkley Valley. It’s about the collapse of order and the pillaging of eco-systems in the Russian far east since the rise of capitalism.

"A Lion" is set in Port Alice, or at least one of the animals in the chapter is. It’s about human-caused extinctions of various animals, mainly mammals and birds, and mainly in North America, and how the cougar (puma concolor) survived a wave of extinctions during the early holocene that carried off an astonishing variety of creatures.

"A Whale" is about the mythologies that sustain environmentalism, most of which I have abandoned (both the mythologies and the indea of environmentalism), or have tried to abandon, in favour of more clearly-defined purposes and objectives. It’s set in the Lofoten islands off the Norway coast, among a community of whalers. Here I decided I really like whale meat, especially the lean cuts, raw, with a little bit of soy sauce and wasabe.

"A Flower" is set partly in Kauai and partly at Kew Gardens in London and partly here on Mayne Island. It’s about everything from biophilia to genetically modified foods.

"A Mermaid" is set mainly in Singapore, and it’s about the growing legions of the living dead, which is to say those species that will not exist except in aquaria and zoos and parks, as well as a bunch of other species we’re inventing in test tubes and species like the tasmanian wolf we’re thinking about reviving in test tubes, post-extinction, from genetic traces.

"A World" is about human cultural diversity, set in the Patkai range of the eastern Himalayas on the Indo-Burma border, with the Naga peoples. Really strange animals, really strange food, cool culture, recently headhunters, now Baptists.

It’s mainly stories. I don’t know that I end up with any huge ideas, except that all that travelling and all this research and thinking confirm for me that there are no big ecological problems just lots and lots of little ones, and the local is, as I’ve always suspected, what’s important. Strange the way that happened. Transmontanus is apparently a good idea after all.

I also think I’ve figured out the answer to the question, "What do we do?" The answer is, "Everything we can." Apart from that, I’ve ended up convincing myself that science really doesn’t have all that much more to contribute to the conversations known as "environmentalism." We need to hear more from polemicists, bus drivers, clergy, computer geeks, farmers and all those other people generally dealt out of the discussion.

Glavin’s example convinces me that Western Canadian writing – and especially the writing coming from BC – is reaching for a new kind of cosmopolitanism. We need this. We need to see our province not as a microcosm, complete in itself, but as a place in the world. And to do that we need to build a new history of the province. We need to tear down that old image of the “pioneer past” and recognize behind it more complicated, more real images. Above all we need a new kind of writer. The greater Vancouver area contains dozens of writers of personal fiction; some are good; most still write as colonials, using styles and visions achieved elsewhere, remaining ignorant of what has led us to be what we are. That will change. Glavin’s work suggests the flowering to come.

July 4, 2004


  • Bruce Serafin

    Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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