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A Piece of Luck

I didn’t know how to enter this world. But desperation, or near-panic, can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. On Fort Macleod’s main street I saw a store that seemed out of place, a women’s store, almost like an upscale hippie store. Acting on impulse I went inside.

And that was my first piece of luck. The store, owned and run by Joyce Bonertz, sold lotions, pottery, glass Inuktuks, decorated cans, scarves, vases, jewellery, glass jars of spices, sweet-smelling candles and racks of elegant, practical, well-made clothes. A good rug lay on the floor; a tray by the cash register held halloween toffees and small crab apples (the theme of fall on the prairies; in that autumn of 2002 I would keep discovering it). One woman after another walked in, and as they tried on clothes, Joyce talked with them, a small, good-looking woman, alive with the impulsive yet constrained gestures of a warm person who daily has to overcome shyness.

“That’s kind a cute, you know.”

“It is.”

“I like the black sleeves.”

The woman, stocky, red-faced, with thick arms and thick legs, nodded, smiling. She was at home with Joyce, happy to be in her store. Laughing, she tried on the dress. “Oh I like this. The red and black. Anything with red and black.”

“Okay.”

“This doesn’t fit though.”

“Nope.”

Excellent music played. The store – here in Fort Macleod – was finer than ninety percent of the stores in Vancouver. Above all it was quiet, a refuge from the blight of country music which I had heard everywhere since I had left Greater Vancouver. A delicate, pretty girl, Joyce’s assistant, carefully packed an item in paper. Sitting against a wall listening to Joyce talk on the phone, I thought of how the pleasure of shopping for clothes was enhanced here. And I felt that the store, with its lotions, balms, things against the cold and heat and wind, revealed Joyce and showed her sensitivity to the world around her.

We had lunch in a cafe across the street. I asked her about the women who came into the store. Joyce smiled and spoke with a quick, almost wayward intimacy which – because it was constrained by her shyness – made her beautiful. “Oh they’re looking for something special. But they’re shy too. I remember a women came in a while ago dressed all in black and white with streaks of colour in her hair. She stood out. I thought that was great. People here want to fit in. She stuck out. Three local boys were leaning against the store. They were drunk; when they saw her they stood up straight and stared.” Joyce laughed: “A woman.”

“People don’t dress in the new styles?”

“People wait here when it comes to clothes. Then they say, `Well, I’ve seen someone else wearing it.’ It’s very conservative, extremely conservative. People get their ideas on how to dress from each other. So there’s no change. Or maybe better: change happens very slowly.”

We would come back to that, this resistance to change. But first, because of the cold wind and what I had heard from Jackie Flanagan, I asked her to tell me about the weather.

“Oh, it’s hard. It can be hard. In Southern Alberta there used to be a lot of suicides. People blamed it on the harsh wind. Lately it hasn’t been so bad. We just haven’t had the winters. I just remember the bitterness of the winters. I couldn’t stand it. Riding horses to school. It would hurt your face, your hands. Your knees! Right through your clothes. But in spring, oh.” She smiled. “Walking or riding on a spring day, there’s that fresh wind that hits your face. I love that. I used to ride, and oh my, the wind would be so wonderful.”

“You rode horses to school?”

“Yes. It was common.”

“Were you born here?”

“We moved up from Nebraska.” She had been raised on a farm; she spoke about it with that waywardness that made her attractive. “We had to lift hay bales. My sister and I were the oldest in a family of four. If you didn’t do it right the hay went moldy. You stacked the hay like a church and you had to do it just so. You shipped fresh cream. I remember one year my mom raised ducks. We had the eggs under the hens. The hens would walk along the water clucking because the ducklings were in the water.” She laughed and I laughed with her. “Oh and I remember our pigs getting drunk. They were eating fermented chop. I love pigs. They are comical and very smart. We had sheep, cows, ducks, steers, cows and calfs.”

“Have you always lived around Fort Macleod?”

“No. I grew up in the Pincher Creek area and by Waterton Dam. My ex-husband worked for Nova,” an oil company. “We moved here, to Fort Macleod – then to Crowsnest – then back here. So I’ve been here.” She emphasized the last word. “I watched kids grow up – go from babies to grads.”

“You like it here?”

She smiled. “The first time I saw the place I cried.”

“Why?”

“The first time….At that time, I felt that Fort Macleod had no energy, was closed. Pincher was German, French, a bit of English. I remember when I went to church, the people seemed cold. It took me a long time to love it.”

And now she returned to the idea of resistance to change. “When the oil came in, the town resisted it. They didn’t want any quote bohunks in here.”

“Bohunks?”

“The men that worked on the rigs. I remember Nova went to the mayor to ask permission to store pipe by the tracks. The mayor said no. Everything was set in its place. There was no change. A lot of people don’t remember how closed off Calgary South -“she used that phrase and Calgary North to speak of north and south Alberta – “how closed off it was. Then, in the fifties, the oil and gas started. And the Americans came in. They were tough, practical, and they were in a hurry. They wanted to get things done. That changed everything.”

“What changed.”

“The money. The making money. My dad was that way. He was so strict. He was tiny but he had a booming voice.” She paused. “Maybe it’s the American. Certainly it’s part of Alberta. There’s so much American influence. But back then Calgary, and Fort Macleod especially, resisted that. Well, you know, it’s the oldest town in Alberta.”

She laughed. “Old! Anyway, that story about the pipe, my husband told me it. It might not be true. He was an alcoholic. He was such a bullshitter.” She smiled at me. “Oh this was a long time ago. I’ve been here so many years. I feel old. I have that feeling sometimes, you know?”

“I do. But I don’t see you as old at all.”

She blushed.

There were aspects to the past that still hurt her. “When I was growing up farmers had not a good reputation. But if you were a rancher you were something. And sometimes. I mean my dad had a big farm compared to some of the small ranches. But it didn’t matter. He was a farmer. I wore denim as a kid.” Denim, a humiliation. “I don’t wear that any more.” She added, “Teachers were on the lowest end. If you couldn’t do anything else.

“South of Calgary, you had these absentee landlords. Ranchers. They were like kings. They controlled the area – they had huge tracts of land – and they would employ ranch hands to get rid of squatters and Indians. The RCMP and the landowners were in bed together.”

I thought then that Joyce was one of those women whose hard life had radicalized her instead of making her conservative. And I kept thinking this. I asked her about Premier Ralph Klein. “Isn’t he something of a political genius? I mean his ability to stay in power. All that about King Ralph. It’s like something from an earlier time, Duplessis in Quebec, say.”

She shook her head. “I don’t fall for any of that. Especially with his drinking. I say, ask his family how it feels. I know all about it. Klein. I hate what he’s doing to health care and education. And he has no feeling for the environment. None. He’s in cahoots with oil.”

She spoke easily about Alberta politics; what did she think about politics at the local level? I said, gesturing with my hand at the cafe window, “Tell me about the social order here.”

“The Mormons have a big influence.”

“The Mormons?”

“They have money. And the more money the more influence. But as usual, too, the town has people with common sense who are listened to.”

She said more about religions, trying to explain Fort Macleod to me, and I thought of what Jackie Flanagan had said about the centrality of religion in Alberta. “One third Dutch Reform, one third Mormon, the rest is Catholic and Protestant. The pastors come out of the parish. Scoogle’s Garage was Anglican – now both are owned by Dutch Reform, they won’t have anything to do with frivolity.”

And all at once she started talking about her son. At first I wasn’t clear why. She had been angry he had gone to Claresholm to be near his dad. She didn’t know the teachers there, didn’t know the milieu. Then her mind had changed. “He’s sensitive. He had artistic interests like me. He had feminine elements in him. He wasn’t gay. But he felt things. And he said, `Mom, there’s no Indians, there’s no Mormons in Clareshom.”

“What did he mean?”

“The tensions were missing.”

I looked at her.

“The tensions in the schools. Claresholm, which is closer to Calgary, didn’t have these tensions.”

“Give me an example.”

“Okay. Native kids come to school and they’re not up to snuff. The Native kids get all their stuff for free and we have to pay for ours. Which causes tensions.”

“What about with the Mormons?”

“The Mormons are cliquish. They tend to stick together because they don’t want to marry outside the church.”

Aloof Mormons, resented Natives: Joyce had pinpointed the social tensions which I would later learn had determined Everett Soop’s life. She understood these tensions, and – maybe because she had friends on both the Peigan Reserve and the Blood Reserve further south where Everett had lived – she felt free to speak of the problems as she saw them. “There was a white girl who taught on the reserve for quite a while. She had forty-five kids in her class. There was eight in the Native girl’s class.” Joyce herself had tried to get a job teaching in Red Crow Community College, a Native-run school near Cardston. “I kept phoning and phoning. It finally dawned on me: they didn’t want me there.”

A little later Joyce said, “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump -” it was located near Fort Macleod – “has brought a sense of pride to the Natives. Over time you’re gonna get the cream rising to the top. And there’s something else too. I’ve heard Natives say it: ‘We’ve got to forgive ourselves.’ They felt they were lazy, they were on the dole. They thought that was their nature. Can you see how hard that would be to change, when you yourself feel that about yourself, and everything around you reinforces it? I remember a priest here said: `I have trouble with those dark people.’ I think he felt threatened. It wasn’t only him. I think it was his generation. You know the saying from back then? `If you’ve cleaned your house and you have nothing to do, clean it again.’ My dad, because of his tradition of hard work, he felt the political changes were unreal. The idea that you might give a hand to a group that’s had a hard time – he couldn’t get it. But I like the Natives. They’re friendly, they’re kind, they’re funny. I tell you, I’d rather deal with a drunk Native than the rude angry whites.”

Joyce sipped her coffee. Then she said, “Oh, I fought with my dad about this. We fought.” She sipped her coffee again. Then, almost as if to contradict herself, she said, “Looking back, sometimes I think a sense of community has been lost. Compared to how it was, I mean.”

I thought I knew what she meant. But later – after Joyce had called up Louisa Crowshoe and made arrangements for me to meet her, after she had given me the number of Leo Pard on the Peigan Reserve and had made it possible for me to contact people who had known Everett Soop – later I thought of how various Joyce’s acquaintances were. She knew people in Lethbridge, Pincher Creek, Stand Off, Cardston, Waterton and a dozen other towns. Her “community” had become much larger than it had been when she was a girl. The modern roads, the modern cars – if you were large-minded, as Joyce was, they could radically extend your sense of community. This was a new thing in the Canadian west.

“People wait here when it comes to clothes. They’re very conservative.” Walking up the street later in the cold wind, I remembered Joyce’s point. People did look very much the same. Above all they looked stocky. Only older people and the young seemed to be their proper weight. But consider this man walking toward me, I thought. He was maybe a Mennonite, with a chin beard and a cap whose bill was decorated with Aztec-like jags of colour. Along with his puffy jacket (worn open, and showing coloured stripes, like the jacket I had seen on the Native boy on the highway) and his heavy dark jeans in which he wore a beaded belt, that cap gave the man a harsh stylishness. He looked vividly masculine, almost barbaric, in his clothes with their bright colours against a dark background: the black background of the cap, the dark brown of the jacket. He stared at me for a moment; and it felt like stepping into another world, to engage those pale eyes, hard and considering, whose look remained with me as I started up the van and drove out to the road.

It was now late afternoon. Joyce had told me there was a good campsite in Pincher Creek, and I could get there without too long a drive. I headed out. Black clouds filled the sky, flying towards me. The wind blew hard. When I finally reached Pincher Creek and stepped out of the van (the sky chilly blue in the west, the long streamers of western cloud a polar pink), all the afternoon warmth had been blown away.

After supper I went for a brief walk. No one was out. I had planned to walk around town and explore a little but the cold quickly tired me out. By eight o’clock I wanted to be in the back of the van, under the covers. Re-entering the campsite I saw that someone in an old car had pulled up in the dark and was already in a small one-man tent. The wind was blowing strongly in the campsite’s cottonwoods, a powerful surf noise, as of a long beach in a storm.

In the morning I awoke to rain. The man who had been sleeping in the tent (actually a tarp on two poles) walked past me in an old torn track suit carrying soaking wet jeans and a wet shirt. He must have gotten soaked in the night. I asked him, pointing to a small shed in which pieces of wood were piled: “Is that the firewood?”

“I guess so.” Simple, cheerful, anxious eyes in a sun-reddened face, thin blonde hair, cracked, full lips: seemingly he had reached bottom. Yet his campsite, humble as it was, held promise: Barry told me he had driven up from Idaho to find work; he was one of the dozens of people whom I would see in the next few weeks who had come to Alberta from all parts of Canada and the US, drawn by the promise of a better life.

After breakfast I went out again toward town on a path by the creek. The wind had stopped; the rain produced a million limpid delicate rings of all sizes in the still creek. Maybe because of the rain few whites were out on Pincher Creek’s main street that Thursday morning, and only a few trucks were parked; but on every corner and in the middle of every block, I saw small groups of natives, mostly men: dark-haired, dark-eyed, wearing dark clothes.

One man tried to panhandle me but was too stoned to get the words out. Another – a big younger man – caught my eye as I walked up, then turned away, embarrassed. I smiled at him as I walked by and he smiled at me; but his eyes were drunken. At that moment the split or divide between whites and Natives felt dreadful. Two worlds co-existed on the street, side by side yet not touching.

I had that in mind as I studied a cartoon on the editorial page of The Calgary Herald, Calgary’s main newspaper. The cartoon was crudely drawn, devoid of shading or any sense of a personal style. It showed two ugly, big-nosed, big-breasted women standing in front of a counter. A large sign on the counter read: “MEN NOT INCLUDED INC.” One of the two women was saying, “We’d like something that reflects our values”; the other added, “We hate men.” A silly-looking, prissy-looking woman sitting behind the counter smiled at them. In the upper left corner of the cartoon were the heavily lettered words:

NEWS (hot flash) ITEM…
“Do it yourself” baby centre opens….
for lesbians, singles, etc…

George W. Bush was getting ready to invade Iraq; the Herald applauded this. A cruel picture on the front page, very much the biggest, meant to be seen instantly, showed Jean Chretien from the side that revealed his facial paralysis, so that his mouth sneered, looked thuggish. I thought: This, and the cruelly stupid cartoon about lesbians in the editorial section. It was impossible to imagine The Vancouver Sun, not a particularly liberal paper, running either the picture or the cartoon. “Closed off,” Joyce had said. And reading the paper, I could see what she meant. The Herald’s constantly boosterish editorial stance (Klein could do no wrong, nor could the premiers before him – and that historical dimension showed the depth of the problem) seemed to me parochial, stunningly so in one of Canada’s big newspapers. Maybe The Herald reflected its readers – Joyce’s comments suggested so. Or maybe, I thought, Calgary had grown beyond its paper, as Vancouver had grown beyond The Vancouver Sun.

Real criticism of the Klein government came not from the Alberta press but from a few individual Albertans and, more significantly, from the media outside Alberta. The defensiveness I had noticed in Jackie Flanagan and that she herself had admitted to, even spoken proudly of, a defensiveness that fed on fear and anger about change: gay rights, environmentalism, marijuana use – that defensiveness could be felt everywhere in The Herald.

It led to a diminished vision, a smallness. Consider the Kyoto issue, I thought: in this as in other things the Klein government followed Bush’s lead. They felt they were in agreement with the Americans; and to them this was an advantage. But Bush was only a part of the mighty American system. Other, more advanced, more creative parts – Silicon Valley, the great cities on the east and west coasts, the universities and corporate research labs – these were advocating change. Environmental standards on emissions were going to come. They were already on the books in California, the U S’s most progressive state.

Criticism of the government’s environmental policies came from elsewhere. Not that all Albertans agreed with Klein. Some vehemently didn’t. But they had no large place in their media to engage in debate. And so, reading The Herald, Alberta started to seem like a client state of Texas and Oklahoma, almost a colonial place. How forcefully, after all, Calgary had reminded me of Houston Texas with its one way streets, its shadowed downtown, its endless, exploding suburbs and freeways. Houston had heat; Calgary had cold. Both were raw, difficult cities.

This is the second in a series of articles on the prairie provinces.

3380 words, October 6, 2004

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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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