Wednesday, September 18, 2019

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PRAIRE GHETTOES: Healing Urban Aboriginal Communities

In the course of its civic election in fall of 2002, Vancouver went through a wrenching confrontation with its own living nightmare-the drug-ridden Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. As painful as talk of drugs, poverty, corruption, prostitution, mass murder and the failure of government programs was for all of us, my city is much better for this round of self-criticism, and there is now a lot of goodwill and some surprising co-operation as the city starts the even more difficult task of finding solutions.

It is time prairie cities did the same thing, but their most urgent issue is race rather than drugs, and consequently it is even harder to talk about. Here is some talk, the best I can manage in the prairie blunt-speak of my forefathers.

I am a prairie boy through and through: born and raised in Edmonton, bred from one wheat-belt Saskatchewan parent and one parkland Saskatchewan parent; educated in architecture in Calgary; a former professor of the same subject in Winnipeg; I am currently curating an exhibition on Regina designer Clifford Wiens for Saskatoon’s Mendel Gallery. I cite this list not to brag, but to demonstrate that I know and love prairie cities deeply, and feel compelled to speak out, as my role as civic columnist for The Vancouver Sun has prompted me to do here, along with so many others.

I came to live in Winnipeg to teach architecture and urban design in the winter of 1987. I had been an annual visitor before that, but it was only that winter that I first started worrying about the decline of its inner city neighbourhoods. In my first January days there, I remember walking down Main Street, bundled up in scarves, parka and toque like the Michelin Man. I saw pre-teens off Northern Manitoba First Nations reserves darting in and out of smoke shops and pinball parlours like schools of hardy fish. Those kids puffed and laughed and lingered, chattering away enthusiastically in Cree outside at 30 below, clad only in T-shirts and ratty sweaters.

On the near-empty back streets and alleys of the nearby Exchange District, I would encounter silent, almost un-moving clusters of kids. Similarly under-clad, these were more sombre ensembles of Native adolescents. They drew their lips one-by-one around paper bag orifices, breathing model airplane glue into their spinning systems. I congratulated myself that I’d been making model airplanes at their age, and walked on.

Coming from Vancouver, Winnipeg’s inner city street scene seemed kind of old-fashioned in 1987-inhalants were the drug of choice, instead of the heroin and the then newly-arrived crack cocaine that were pushing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside ever downward. There was more of a First Nations presence in Point Douglas than I had remembered, but North Main still saw young Philippinas waiting for buses in the ice fog, babuschka-wrapped babas waddling with equally-weighted shopping bags, and old railroaders on their slow trek to the beer parlour, headed there to enjoy what remained of their CPR pensions.

On annual lecture and consulting visits through the 1990s, it broke my heart to see the palpable decline of inner city Winnipeg. The core got more aboriginal with every visit, and in reaction, middle class shops and shoppers had spilled out onto Pembina Highway, Portage West and east past Transcona and St. Vital. Winnipeg is, by far, the Canadian city with the largest total aboriginal population (the Statistics Canada definition of ‘aboriginal’ is used throughout this essay, one which includes full status First Nations, Metis, Inuit and those citizens ‘self-identified as aboriginal’), followed by Edmonton, Toronto then Vancouver. The numbers from Winnipeg’s 1996 census are devastating, with 50 percent of its Metis and 67 percent of its Indians found to be poor, with the same percentage-not un-relatedly-lacking a high school diploma, the worst level of aboriginal educational achievement amongst Canadian cities. Winnipeg’s overall poverty rate is 14 percent, all Statscan figures.

It was not just the increase of Native populations, but the departure of North Main’s former residents. The babas were retiring to lodges or the suburban basements of their children, the fedora-ed railway pensioners were dying off, and the diligent Philippinas moved up to safer and more prestigious neighbourhoods. I started seeing the prescribed hip hop dress and graffiti tags of aboriginal street gangs, read about crack culture thriving on and off the reserve, and watched the progressively more palpable emptiness created by the abandonment of downtown by merchants, then office workers. Only the artists and First Nations people hung on down there.

No matter what their income or race or education, there is one word I started applying to their town in the late 1990s that bugged the hell of Winnipegers. It is an ugly word, but then it represents an ugly condition, and applies equally well to parts of Regina, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. That word is ghetto.

A word about that word. Although the meaning of “ghetto” has been corrupted by recent American usage-where it is interchangeable with ‘slum,’ for the simple fact that in the United States, slums are more often than not black-it actually means a neighbourhood with a concentration of a single ethnic, racial or religious group, one who is in a minority relationship to the larger city. The first ghetto was in medieval Venice, were Jews were concentrated by princely fiat, and the practice spread all over Central and Eastern Europe. The Venetian Jewish ghetto was never its poorest neighbourhood.

For the first time in Canadian history, racial ghettoes are forming in our cities, and in of all places, in the prairies and parkland. True, Halifax had Africville until it was urban renewal-ed out of existence, Montreal has the haitiens et senegalais of Petit Bourgoyne, and North Toronto is home to a shameful concentration of Caribbean, Somali and South Asian immigrants in its worst social housing complexes. But none of these compare with the rapid turn of inner city neighbourhoods on the prairies into aboriginal communities in the past two decades. In 1951, only 7 percent of aboriginals lived in cities. The 1996 figure is 50 percent, and rising fast. The reasons for this are clear: In Manitoba, as in every province, urban aboriginals have higher incomes than those who remain on the reserve.

There is another ugly phrase, one which I have always smugly thought only applied to American cities, never to be spoken here in the Last Best West: white flight. Residents of European and Asian ancestry are currently fleeing a handful of inner city neighbourhoods in Western Canada, selling their homes and businesses in desperation and often at a loss, all to escape the crime, drugs, prostitution and poor schools they associate with urban aboriginals.

“This is an epic event; comparable to the drift of rural southern blacks to northern industrial American cities during WWII,” says Simon Fraser University professor John Richards. “But no-one wants to talk about it here, the subject being so loaded on every side.” Richards should know. He is the author of a meticulously researched and argued 2001 C.D. Howe Institute study entitled “Neighbours Matter: Poor Neighbourhoods and Urban Aboriginal Policy” (this 38 page report can be downloaded without charge by going to www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_156.pdf) Since publication it has been greeted with conspicuous silence from First Nations leaders, liberal social scientists, federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs staffers and reactionary politicians alike-perhaps the first time consensus has been achieved on a First Nations issue.

First Nations leaders have a different view of things, however. Gail Mackay is an assistant professor of Native Studies at the University of Saskatoon, and in an interview in her office there she described with considerable passion and conviction that the current problems of Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert are almost an inevitability-after the terrors of European settlement, dislocation of First Nations peoples into marginal reserve lands and most of all, the cultural imperialism of the residential school system, with its proscriptions on use of their own languages and systemic physical and sexual abuse.

Mackay’s solutions were devolution of more power to First Nations peoples-both reserve and urban-and greatly increased funding of social and educational services. Neither she nor any other aboriginal person I interviewed for this article made any mention of the possible devastation the contemporary welfare state itself might be wreaking on their communities. Every one of them mentioned the residential schools, which effectively closed 30 years ago.

The Artist: SANDI

It is perhaps too easy to accommodate to inner-city decline in a city as large and diverse as Winnipeg, even Saskatoon. You know: “Poor people have to live somewhere, and anyway, we don’t have to go down there anymore.” A more cruel shock to me has been the downward spiral of Prince Albert’s core, because it is harder for the residents of this beautiful but small Saskatchewan city to ignore the pattern.

I first met Sandi Ledingham when she was resident in the Banff Centre’s ceramic program. Originally from Regina, her inventive sculptural clay constructions and teaching skills won her a scarce faculty appointment at the small crafts and fine arts program at the Prince Albert campus of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. I first came to visit Sandi in the mid-1990s, at a time when she was considering buying a house on the North Saskatchewan River Flats, close to downtown. Long home to a large Metis population, this area was becoming a magnet for band members leaving the many reserves in the Prince Albert area.

“People here tell me I am crazy to be buying a house so close to downtown,” she said wistfully, while we strolled with her young daughter Zoe past an onion dome church en route to the clumps of chrome-yellow poplar trees that line the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. A single mother on a year-to-year contract has real reasons to worry about committing to a mortgage in a neighbourhood in flux. “Do it,” I advised her, thinking of how artists are always the first to pioneer neighbourhoods that are turning around, “Diefenbakersville is not going to let its downtown’s eastside get like ours in Vancouver.” How wrong I was.

But Sandi’s boyfriend installed bright contemporary millwork in her small bungalow, and she seemed to have settled in well. Typical of Canadians of the creative and professional classes in neighbourhoods undergoing ethnic change, Sandi put her daughter in the French immersion school across town, as much for the increased teaching resources as for the acquisition of another language.

Given this energetic investment, it came as even more a shock when I visited her in 2000 and found Sandi despairing. Her neighbourhood’s decline was quicker than anyone could have imagined. She was finding used syringes and condoms on her lawn. “I don’t feel safe even walking the four blocks to the store at night,” she admitted in a cold, focused rage, “and I have never been afraid before, not here, not in Vancouver, not in Mexico.” House prices were in decline, and to make matters worse, the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) annually threatened to close down the province’s only fine arts program north of Saskatoon.

“This is so foolish,” she said, “The arts are giving people from the reserve self-respect and an opportunity to express their culture, yet the money pours in for these make-work projects that go nowhere.” Indeed, the shopfronts that had once sported small businesses were now filled with improvised employment agencies, family support projects and earnest training agencies with prominently displayed mission statements, missionaries of a worried welfare state.

More aboriginals live in Prince Albert, population 35,000, than in Montreal, population, 3,000,000, and if current population trends continue, it will soon be majority aboriginal, as its mainstream school system already is. Symbolic of much happening in the town, the Tyndall stone façade of architect Clifford Wiens’ Postmodern-style Prince Albert City Hall was recently covered with a hokey Sunday painter’s image of ducks winging it over a bush -country lake. Clearly, there was a need to mark the town’s new social realities, but did it have to disfigure the city’s most ambitious and artfully composed new building? Contested symbols like these are always markers of broader struggles.

Perhaps worst of all, European-origin and aboriginal Prince Albertans were blaming each other for their problems. When Native teens in a low-riding car with music blasting throbbed by, the clerk at the Petro-Canada station where I was paying for gas let loose with a common (if seldom voiced) sentiment: “Christ, no wonder P.A. is goin’ to Hell-we’ve got reserves on every side! It was better for everyone when they kept to themselves.”

On my most recent visit to Prince Albert in 2002, I did notice a few encouraging signs. A flash new arts centre is rising near the river, a bulge of big box retail has gone up near SIAST, and the streets seemed slightly less rangy. SIAST had closed down the art school for good, but Sandi had chosen to stick it out in Prince Albert. Demonstrating that remarkable streak of resilience that sets prairie people apart, she had built a studio onto her house and was committed to supporting herself and Zoe through her ceramic art alone. I saw the same spirit in my cousins who farm near Elrose, south of Rosetown. They did not harvest a single bushel in their nine sections of land in wheat and lentils in 2002, thanks to drought and grasshoppers, but they carry on regardless. I hope the application of this same spirit can cure Saskatchewan’s urban pathologies.

The Writer, the Social Worker: Myrna and Mildred

While in Saskatoon I was invited to dinner with Don and Mildred Kerr at their Nutana home, near the University of Saskatchewan campus. Don is a professor, writer and heritage buff, while Mildred has dedicated her working life to front-line social services agencies, empowered by her deep Roman Catholic faith. The Canadian welfare state was born in Saskatchewan of the Social Gospel and the dedication of people like her. But the problems of the Saskatoon urban aboriginal communities where she works were starting to seem insurmountable to her, and for the first time, lodged between her kind words and optimistic smile, I sensed a wavering of conviction that things were working.

After dinner, we were joined around the kitchen table by Myrna Kostash, Edmonton author and 2003 recipient of the Saskatoon Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence award. A regular visitor to Saskatoon, Myrna had noticed a marked deterioration of the downtown: “Boy, has it changed here-there are all these young Native kids just hanging around now, and too many stores sitting empty.”

The manuscript Myrna is currently labouring over is about St. Demetrios, patron saint of the Slavic peoples. Research, and a new-found personal curiosity has her visiting Saskatoon’s many Ukrainian churches-both Orthodox and Catholic. “If things stay this way, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the Ukrainian churches clear out of the 20th Street area,” she said of a neighbourhood that had was once shared by Jewish, Chinese and Slavic immigrants but is rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of Metis and Indians. “People there are really scared and really fed up.”

Stretching west from downtown, 20th Street is lined with all the industries of poverty: bars, cheque-cashing operations, pawn shops, second hand stores and social services agencies, and you find much the same thing on the wrong side of Regina’s tracks. In the inevitable code words that urban residents develop, “the west side” in Saskatoon shorthand means “poor and Native.” But 20th Street is also-with the possible exception of newly gentrified Broadway Avenue-Saskatoon’s liveliest street, and the locus of significant public investment in beautification and public services.

In a self-conscious show of solidarity with his Saskatoon constituents, Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert has bought a house in the area. Then there are the streamlined stucco forms of what once was the Little Chief Texaco, ironically now restored as the aboriginal relations office for the Saskatoon Police Department, an institution under intense scrutiny ever since officers abandoned two intoxicated Indians on a frozen roadside outside of town. Every Saskatoon institution I encountered either had an aboriginal relations officer in place or was looking for one, and the same is happening in Regina. This rapid swing to American-style racial relations techniques has been greeted with scepticism by some, including a few First Nations leaders.

Myrna mentioned an accumulation of small incidents that had soured aging parishioners who lived in the area’s modest wood frame houses and worshipped under the multiple silvered domes for generations: a break-in here, a mugging there, and most hurtful of all, the interruption of an Orthodox church service by the insults of a young aboriginal gang. “You know this bunch is getting pretty old, and their kids all live in the suburbs, where the Ukrainian churches are doing fine.” Towards the end of the evening, I asked Mildred and Myrna the question that bore ever more heavily on me as I toured and talked with First Nations residents and experts both: “What is to be done?” There were no answers that bitterly cold night, but I soon found some elsewhere.

The Social Scientist: John

For a professor of his age and accomplishment, there is a strange air of impatience about John Richards. Currently a professor of business at Simon Fraser University, Richards was once a member of Allan Blakeney’s NDP government in Saskatchewan, and the ex-premier has remained a close friend, as has former colleague Roy Romanow. Once a member of the NDP’s radical Waffle faction, Richards’ prescriptions for a variety of issues has him regarded a right winger by some. Nothing better represents the New, New Left nuances of his revisionist thought than his solutions for the urban aboriginal crisis of Western Canada.

If there is one point on which Richards and his critics agree, it is that public policy has failed Canada’s aboriginal peoples. At the centre of this failure is what Richards calls “the cult of cultural anthropology,” the notion that cultural expression and self-determination are the sole key to healing aboriginal communities. Richards does not ignore cultural concerns, but feels they need to be tempered with other qualities such as self-criticism, real economic development, political accountability by band leadership, a reserve educational system with skills and standards, and co-operation with mainstream Canadian society. The reason for the rapid growth of urban aboriginal communities on the prairies that are home to more than half of Canada’s First Nations population is simple, Richards says: “There is no future on the reserves: economically, nearly all Indians are better off in the cities, even on welfare, because there is at least the chance of a quality education or job there.”

Saskatchewan and Manitoba have the highest general ratios of aboriginal population in the country, and sadly are also home to the highest rates of welfare dependency: 40 percent for urban populations, and well over half on reserves. Even more troubling are Richards’ graphs demonstrating that being aboriginal is the biggest predictor of being poor in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina; urban aboriginals in Vancouver and Eastern Canada are much less likely to be poor than those on the prairies, and he blames racism, pure and simple. Richards worries that “a culture of poverty” is being established in our Native ghettoes, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and invokes Julius Wilson’s “tipping point” theories that here suggest urban aboriginal poverty may self-enforce for generations, unless radically new approaches are adopted soon.

Both Richards’ critique and his solutions centre on education “because the reserve educational system has been a complete disaster-First Nations Canadians are not being adequately prepared to take part in society.” Borrowing from success in similar programs for African-Americans and from an idea first put forward in Canada by Allan Blakeney, Richards feels we should set up a separate, publicly funded aboriginal education system, even, especially in the cities. “But,” he stresses, “the new schools must do more than promote cultural identities.”

Richards’ words and statistics build a powerful argument that implicates the “nanny” state itself as one of the greatest destroyers of aboriginal pride and self-reliance. He advocates radical welfare reforms such as those introduced in 1993 by Mike Cardinal, Ralph Klein’s Metis minister of families and social services in Alberta. Civic services to aboriginal ghettoes must be improved, he says, because “poor neighbourhoods have more need of high-quality public services than do others.”

The Student: Viviane

Viviane Lemire’s experience gives credence to John Richards’ arguments about the need to establish a separate aboriginal school system for western cities. I overheard her and a friend converse excitedly in alternate sentences of fluent French and English one night at pub on Saskatoon’s Broadway Avenue. Curious, I asked them where they were from, and was surprised to find out both had spent their entire lives in Saskatoon.

Viviane has the graceful confidence that comes only to a 21 year-old who accepts her own intelligence and beauty, and she was happy to talk about her family background and education. Her father is francophone Metis, her mother full status Indian. Growing up in the middle-class Eastview area of Saskatoon, she had spent almost all of her education in French immersion programs. “I was the only Native kid there the whole time,” she said. Her former classmate nods in agreement.

Other Saskatoon parents had told me, strictly not for attribution, that they had placed their children in the city’s thriving French immersion programs expressly to avoid “those ‘fetal alcohol kids,’ and all the other problems they ship off the reserves,” and only incidentally to learn Canada’s other official language. This is the nasty little secret of immersion programs across Canada; that the presence of immigrant, poor and especially black or aboriginal children in mainstream public schools motivates many parents to seek an alternative. French immersion classes boomed in P.A. and Regina, along with the 1990s influx off the reserves. Diversity and tolerance is the victim of such moves.

Carrying on with her biography as the waitresses came and went, Lemire described a period of searching that had led her to drop out of school for several years after grade 11. When she decided to complete her high school, she narrowed her choice to Nutana Collegiate and Joe Duquette High School, both of which are geared to aboriginal students.

Of the two, the more radical and culturally based was Duquette, where Elders are an important part of the educational system, where spiritual healing is on the curriculum along with core subjects, and an in-school day care makes it easier for students to get their diplomas. Viviane spoke glowingly of the role model Joe Duquette High School Elder Marie Lee provided her for a self-assured First Nations identity. “Duquette was really important to me,” she said. “I think others would benefit from schools like it.”

When I recounted this story to Richards, he was a little more circumspect. Richards is a 1961 graduate of Nutana High, when the school had no aboriginal students. “The problem with healing-oriented schools like Joe Duquette is that if they lower academic standards to accomplish their cultural agenda, they are doing their students no service. From what I have heard, Nutana is sensitive to the aboriginal student’s needs without jettisoning the curriculum.”

The elder: Walter

Notwithstanding Richards’ view, most natives continue to see the problem as one that stems from historical wrongs and entails spiritual dimensions. Walter Linklater is an example of a new innovation in Saskatchewan educational institutions: a resident fulltime paid elder. The gregarious 64 year-old is at ease in his warm and inviting office at the Saskatoon campus of the Federated Indian College, Canada’s first Native-run post secondary institution. He also maintains a sweat lodge in suburban Sutherland, open to all.

Linklater grew up on a reserve near Fort Frances, Ontario. An early memory is of finding his grandparents praying to the Grandfathers, but telling young Walter not to let anyone in their nominally Christian band know about it: “That kind of suppression did a lot of damage.” He is part of the generation shaped by Indian residential schools, and was shipped to attend an all-native high school in Saskatchewan run by the Oblate order. He studied to be a teacher, then spent most of his working career teaching at reserve schools. He says the greatest failure of religious-residential and then federal-reserve schools is that “they never promoted connection with spiritual identities…and our people are still stuck in that negativity.”

Linklater has worked with Saskatchewan’s urban aboriginal citizens for decades, and feels that any renewal must start with spirituality: “Our people in the cities, they must recognize they have spirit.” He advocates traditional consensus building as a means to make community decisions, and feels that Elders are crucial to setting new purpose with a First Nations identity in tact. He cited the White Buffalo Lodge, on Saskatoon’s 20th street, as an example of an institution that has managed to integrate native spirituality with the delivery of contemporary social programs to urban youth.

Personal Conclusions

What do I think at the end of all this talk and research? In my view, the solution to these issues lies in a combination of the sensible pragmatism of Richards and the sweat-lodge wisdom of Linklater, uneasy as it is likely to be. The idea of the involvement of Elders in civic affairs is a brilliant one, and should be adopted by all Canadian communities. I write a weekly newspaper urban affairs column in the city pages of The Vancouver Sun, and 80 percent of the readers who contact me are over 65, full of knowledge and good ideas about the city in which they have passed their lives. They’re Vancouver’s elders.

Similarly, I think First Nations have much to teach us about the public consultation process, which costs governments at all levels fortunes every year in pricey consultants and lavishly-advertised public forums. Let’s use Indian traditions of consultation and consensus building, and let’s give band members and Elders jobs in leading them, and not solely for issues in their ghettoes. In turn, aboriginal communities must come to terms with some of the arguments presented by Richards and others, and work with them on solutions. Healing their aboriginal slums may be the greatest challenge western Canadian cities have ever faced.

The intractability of these problems was evident when I tried out the ideas of these two Elders from very different tribes-academic Richards and medicine man Linklater-on each other. Richards thought that solely spiritual approaches to aboriginal problems is “too culturalist, even romantic.” Meanwhile, there was an irksome tone of aloofness in Linklater’s response, something along the lines of “if properly funded and left alone, we solely can deal with the problems of our people living in confusion and pain.” Richards’ tough-love approach deserves a thorough airing in First Nations communities. Rebut it if they must, but so passionate and scholarly a study as this deserves equally energetic scrutiny. The many problems facing urban aboriginal communities cannot be solved only in the sweat lodge and in internal conversations with departed Grandfathers.

To be clear, an end to the period of mourning for the damage that colonial history and the residential school system created must be declared if life is ever to be built anew. An intense, even brutal examination is needed of the failing solutions and internal corruption that bedevil some First Nations institutions. The hurtful remarks of Saskatchewan First Nations leader David Ahenakew reminds all of us-both red and white-that First Nations ancestry does not guarantee virtue.

Finally, there is one notion that needs to be dispelled. That is, that there is something wrong or inauthentic about urban aboriginal communities. Never mind the fact of who was here first, the forts that became the towns that became the cities of western Canada were dependent on Metis and First Nations, inside and outside of the log palisades. Fort Edmonton and Fort Garry had majority aboriginal populations from their founding to the initiation of an enforced reserve system and the commencement of massive immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.

With our recently exploding urban aboriginal communities, we are returning to an approximation of a pre-existing state of affairs. An over-reliance on the reserve and welfare systems of the 20th century-which was a kind of Apartheid-may soon come to be understood as the strange exception. The towns and cities of western Canada belong to First Nations as much as any other citizens, and always have.

My position is shaped by my own experience growing up with aboriginals, within my own family and as part of the community. As a boy I spent summers at Pigeon Lake, southwest of Edmonton, which was also home to a satellite community from the huge Four Bands Reserve at Hobbema. In the shallow waters off the pier of Ma-Me-O Beach, standing on the rippled sand and surrounded by millions of glinting minnows, Indian kids taught me how to swim when I was six. A dozen years later, my brothers and I would sneak out of rock dances at the hall for an illicit smoke with the same guys, and we would invite them to come back to party at our cabin.

Thanks to the oil fields they control, the Four Bands are one of Canada’s wealthiest First Nations, and there is lots of money for fine schools, houses and band-operated business initiatives of all kinds. At the age of 19, band members receive tens of thousands of dollars in cash to do with as they choose. Despite-some say because of all of this-Hobbema is also one of Canada’s most blighted communities, with staggering rates of drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown and all the other indicators of communities in crisis. The application of mere money, whether through an elaborate welfare state or cash settlements to individual Indians, has not solved the problems that really matter.

Last year, at the Canadian embassy in Havana, Cuba, of all places, I bumped into one of the Indian guys who taught me how to swim in 1959. As we waited for formwork from a bureaucrat, we caught up with our lives. He had a long struggle with booze and dope: “There were definitely some years I can’t remember much about,” he said, shaking his head, “it was just too much money in the hands of us wild kids, and I bottomed out shooting-up on the skid row of your town.” With a deep smile, he told me he is now working as a janitor in the Toronto school system. I asked him why he had not returned to the Samson First Nation after cleaning up his life. “You know, I missed my Mom and cousins and all that, but there are just too many problems there, and I have ended up feeling more at home in the big city.” Welcome home, friend, we’re glad you’re here.

5147 words November 2, 2003

This story ran in edited form as “From Main Street to Mean Streets” In the April, 2003 edition of Western Living Magazine.

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Trevor Boddy

Trevor Boddy has worked as an urban designer, art curator and architecture professor throughout the west, and is winner of the Alberta Book of the Year Prize for the critical biography The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal.

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