I looked up from The Calgary Herald and found that the rain had stopped. I went outside. Faint shadows appeared on the sidewalk; they disappeared; then they returned, took on definition; and just like that the full brilliant sun blazed down. And while I walked down the street, Pincher Creek, as in a transformation scene in Shakespeare, revealed itself. An hour earlier only knots of Native men had stood on the sidewalk; now, in the dazzling sun, I saw teenagers, seniors, working men and women and, and in front of me, two small Native kids, a boy and a girl, walking with their mom up the street window-shopping.
“Look at those neat boots!” the boy said.
“Yes, they’re nice” – worried, attentive, pleased to be happy with her kids. And later, shopping at the IGA, I saw Native couples and families mixing easily with the whites. The rubbies I had first seen were only part of the story. In so short a time my sense of the town had changed; my eyes had changed.
I left Pincher Creek. Around 12:30 I had lunch in a little park in the village of Greenwood. The park consisted of a grassy field with a bathroom shed at the far end. I set up my chair between two little trees. The wind was blowing hard and I felt the need to be sheltered. The town – empty at noon – felt haunted, mysterious: a small town on the prairie, the sky overhead opening into space like a note rising to a crescendo.
I’d bought clip-on sunglasses to help my glared-out eyes – now I put them on and stood and looked up. The sky, a dark blue that was almost purple, filled my vision to the point of vertigo.
While I was eating a boy named Derek rode up on his bike: I had seen him standing in a roadside ditch when I turned into Glenwood. Derek had a big healthy ruddy face; he would be a large man. Yet there was a simplicity to him that suggested he would never bully people with his size. He was open, confiding, someone who had lived his whole life around people he knew well. He was big, though, for someone going into grade eight, and he looked at my chicken as if he was hoping I would give him a piece. Maybe I should have.
I asked him, “Do you like this town, Derek?”
“Yeah, it’s a great place.”
“What do you like about it?”
“Well….There’s no crime here, no muggers. It’s pretty nice, all right.”
“Were you born here?”
“No, we came down from High Prairie about eight years ago.”
“It’s different, I bet.”
“My dad farmed up there. He works the road grader here. My grandfather Zevon runs the general store.”
“Just up the street there -” pointing – “then turn left.”
I asked about the various “colony” signs I had seen driving toward the village. “Is that Mennonites?”
“No those are Hutterites. Hooterites. Ha ha ha.”
“Is there many kids in the town?”- seeing he was alone and lonely on his bike.
“There’s lots of little kids. There’s two hundred and fifty people in town. Just the right size.”
“What about kids your age?”
Reluctantly: “Not too many.”
“Are you going to live here when you become an adult?”
“I don’t know. It depends on what my wife wants.”
“Do you go hunting and fishing?”
“I’ve fished a little. Maybe next year I’ll go hunting. I’ve taken a hunting course.”
“Where would you hunt?”
“Down on the river bottoms. Next year I’ll be old enough.”
“Ever in BC?”
“My dad and a friend went to Creston. My sister’s boyfriend is from New Westminster. He’s big in lacrosse. His name is McCoffin. Have you heard of Mr. McCoffin?”
“Bye,” he said, “Guess I’ll go.” He rode down the flat prairie sidewalk under the enormous sky, the only sound the wind and a far-away feed mill.
Outside Standoff I picked up two Native men. The older, carrying a water bottle, sat in front with me; the younger, his face huge, dark, anxious, sat in the back holding tightly onto a bright yellow zip-up bag.
He said nothing; but then he had no need to. Once the older man started talking, he didn’t stop. He said, “All those Indians around here -" he meant the Blood Reserve – "they’re on welfare. They can’t get jobs. No. No jobs here. Not on reserve.”
“No. They’re all on welfare.” He said this with satisfaction.
Later he said, “I’m fifty. Still kicking." He grinned. He had some front teeth missing. I grinned back at him, enjoying his bright, sly, merry eyes in his smashed-in face. He looked at me sideways. “Someone calls me grandpa. I wanna slap em down.”
"Then tells you your age all right."
Then he said something that confused me, about how they were going to lose their treaty rights. “They’re gonna get rid of it all. Treaty Seven.”
“Are you sure?”
But he had gotten his facts wrong: the treaty was being renewed. Outside Cardston, still on the highway and with the sky again threatening rain, he asked me to stop and the two men got out. The older man stepped up to me and shook my hand. Thinking about his merry, sly face as I drove into town, I remembered what Joyce Bonertz had said about the Natives being hard on themselves. He had given me an example of that, telling me with satisfaction how all the Natives were on welfare. But also, I thought (because there was a kind of euphemism about these things which could be oppressive), there was a relief in saying the truth.
Cardston was a deceptive town. On this grey Thursday afternoon Main Street felt gloomy. Walking down the street I again and again saw panhandling Natives, shambling beggars stepping out between buildings and standing on street corners. I felt the constricting presence of men with nothing to do and no self-esteem. Earlier that morning in Pincher Creek I had had a visionary moment in the IGA, seeing Native families, happy Native kids, having my earlier perceptions overturned. But here in Cardston the idle men were so many; and the downtown was old, its stores underused. The stumbling men, the signs in the windows of the stores telling passersby to "Say NO to panhandlers" – these induced a powerful feeling of gloom, even though at five in the afternoon the street was as busy as it would be.
But deceptive. The houses up on the hill above the municipal campsite – a beautiful campsite with excellent showers and big cottonwoods growing out of well-trimmed grass – the houses were grand, some of them immense: the homes of wealthy individuals.
So there was money here, something I should have realized when I saw Cardston’s handsome white Mormon temple standing against the sky (a marvellous sight, completely unexpected). Real money. People just shopped elsewhere. Only Natives, it seemed, mostly shopped on Main Street, which explained the signs and maybe explained the locked washrooms I had found.
The big – the huge – houses of Cardston gave a sense of their owners’ egos. And this big sense of themselves, combined with the sexual unctuousness I saw in the Mormon women in their tight long dresses and the different unctuousness I found in the smiling Mormon men in their suits – all this helped explain why Main Street was so shabby and underused. The Mormons, I thought, found the Natives an embarrassment, a provocation.
The life in the municipal campsite didn’t change my mind. A police car patrolled regularly; and a number of times that first night I saw Native couples, or men in twos, drift through the grounds keeping their eyes turned away, their dark baggy clothes again inducing a mood of gloomy constriction. But when the patrol car stopped three pre-teen girls, all with long blonde hair, who were walking boldly through the site, the three called out in loud, confident voices: “We’re going there! Don’t drive over us! Turn left!”
How wonderful it must be, I thought, to grow up Mormon and blonde in Cardston! A similar idea came to me the next day when I went to eat my lunch in Cardston’s municipal park. Four Mormon families (each of the young women in long skirts, tight around their hips and rear ends) were sitting at the park’s tables; a Native family sat far from them at at the edge of the park. People go where they’re comfortable; and in Cardston, Mormons and Natives didn’t mix.
Wandering around later in the Cardston Book Store, a handsome Mormon store on Main Street, I thought of that. How different the store was from the harsh street outside! It was expensively lit, nicely carpeted, with high posters hanging above long rows of light-coloured hardwood shelves. These shelves contained four categories of books – fiction (I saw copies of Freckles, a book I had loved when I was a boy, published in a nice paper edition by the University of Indiana press), doctrine, children’s books and – most interestingly – self-help. I saw pictures of Jesus, little blocks of wood with words burnt into them: "Return with Honor," the American spelling. I saw a necklace or dog tag engraved with the words, "My stripling warrior." And I saw customers: a Hutterite woman with her hair covered, her skirt full and reaching to her ankles – beyond dowdy into a kind of demonstrative ugliness; and a young Mormon couple, both blonde, buying rings for each other.
I examined the self-help books. They covered many topics, some surprising: marriage, of course, but also "Single Moms surviving on one income in a two-income world." And consider this one, I thought: Rich Dad, Poor Dad, with its subtitle: "What rich fathers tell their children that poor and middle class dads don’t." Emphazing the family, emphasizing the material world and the warrior’s virtues, the Mormons had pulled aead of Cardston’s other social groups.
What I found in that bookstore explained Cardston’s immaculate campsite; and it explained the fact that the showers could only be gotten into if you knew the code for the buttons on the door, a code that the campsite attendant gave you on a slip of paper. A powerful ideal was evident here. And it fit the larger Alberta ideal. In the campsite that night as I was eating supper the mellow voice on the radio said: "He dreams of a four-car garage; she dreams of a growing family," and ended with, "Buy a one-half-acre lot in an exclusive neighbourhood just outside of Calgary." And so they come here, I thought, looking at the semi-permanent tents and trailors in the campsite, just as Barry had come to Pincher Creek – single men, families, searching for the life the Cardston Book Store offered.
The migration into Alberta – the scope of it – had been underreported. A month and a half later, returning to the province, I would see poorer tents and trailers in a Kiwanis campground in Brooks, a rundown site with old ten-by-tens defining spaces that were no longer in use, the tents and trailors lined up against scrubby brush. Light snow was falling that day; a bitter wind was blowing the snow. Nonetheless, for people who were looking for work or had just found a job, it was a place to stay. On the ground beside one small tent I saw a pair of oily coveralls. A bit of snow had sifted over them. And as I looked at the oily, dark-blue garment lying there on the ground it filled with meaning, became for me a symbol of this great shifting around of people pulled by the promise of happiness. Wind; snow; grey sky; bare ground; dirty, dusty grass; and these coveralls, stiff from the cold. I imagined their owner, who had changed his life to be here, studying them years from now; and I thought how even the smell of the coveralls would evoke things for him, would remind him of one of the large themes of his life.
“I don’t think in terms of Alberta," Lois Johnston said. "I’m a southern Albertan. It’s the place my grandparents came to and settled. It’s the place I belong."
“Yes. I wanted all my life to come home. In ninety-six we did it.”
As Lois Johnston told me her story I sometimes thought of Joyce Bonertz. There were similarities, especially in their domestic lives. But Lois had a different personality. She was firm and clear where Joyce was wayward. And while Joyce groped toward her perceptions, Lois spoke tersely, each of her insights well-thought-out.
She lived in the small town of Springhill with her dog Popcorn and her husband Gus, in a small old house built in 1935 and bought in 1996. She told me how she had gotten here. “I taught school in southern BC, taught school in Canada, Australia, then Indonesia for thirteen years, then Calgary, then Edmonton. Got my PhD. In ninety-six I came here." She paused. "Even when I lived overseas I wanted to came back here.”
“You’re a country girl. You fit in here.”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I think I fit in here, belong here.
“When I left here I wanted to go. I didn’t want to be stuck here. I didn’t want to marry a farmer. But living in Indonesia….I did my research in small rural villages. And I thought: This is how I used to live. This is the kind of people I really value.”
"You did research…"
“Did research in Indonesia. I had a degree in Ed. I got stuck in Grade One. Didn’t really get on with kids. In Indonesia I taught the more advanced courses. That was fine. But then I wanted to know why people did what they did.”
She paused. “My former husband was with the oil industry in Sumatra. They, the oil people, were scattered throughout the city with other people. We had to live the last three years in a compound. Beautiful houses etc but it was all tiered."
“The internal culture of the oil industry and the Indonesian culture. Both. At the very bottom of the heap were all the servants. There was a woman there who was into sociology. She said, `Why don’t you write a thesis on expatriates.?’"
Lois glanced at me. “Well, I really disliked the life. For many reasons. I was close to my son, who went to high school in Singapore, not close to my husband" – and it was here I thought her story was similar to Joyce Bonertz’s. "My son lived with me all the time. My husband was there every day now – and in control. Then I heard about these lepers – and I had a fascination with them. They needed help. So I thought: Okay, I’ll do that. So I started going to the leper colony which was about ten miles from the compound. After a while I was going almost every day. They were ordinary people.”
"Tell me about the compound."
“The compound. I played tennis there – I got to be a pretty good player, actually.” She smiled briefly. “The women’s time was spent accumulating. They flew to Singapore. They brought back these trinkets. They – the oil people – they were there to get what they could get. There were gestures of appeasement that were just that – gestures. They didn’t care about the people. It was the same with the servants. The servants would be on the floor with the kids watching TV. The houses were expected to be immaculate all the time. Corporate life!”
She spoke about her childhood; and as with Joyce the coming of the Americans had made a difference. “They decided to build the big BA” – British American – “sulphur plant just across the tracks from our farm. All these Americans, these construction people, came in. Then the Shell sulphur plant. We lived right across the fence from this plant. The white paint on a house would be oozing from this yellowish stuff. We all saw Alberta boom, and we attributed it to the oil and gas industry. They revolutionized Alberta. Our electrical system, our roads – they’re all due to oil and gas.” As she said this, I thought of the marvellous freeways I had been driving on. “So the infrastructure of the South was due to it. You could keep on with your passion as a rancher. Anyone in this town who makes a good income owes it in some way to oil and gas."
I mentioned my perceptions concerning Klein’s government.
“That’s fair – the oil and gas industry and the government are pretty much the same thing. There’s an acceptance of the need to destroy in order to improve." She paused. "I would like to have a government that was over and above it. There’s no long-term vision.”
She talked about the competition between the Peigan and Blood reserves, and I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, at her knowledge. And her bluntness. “The Bloods got the better land, they figured out what to do with their land. The Peigans resented the Bloods. There may be a little more solidarity among them now."
I asked Lois what it had been like with the Natives when she was a kid; she described separate worlds, a child’s sense of two worlds existing side by side and not touching. "I can remember going to the church. There were Indians there. I thought: `Indians can’t be Catholic.’ We didn’t intermarry. There was no sense of resentment. But." She paused, thinking, battling with this complicated theme. "Here we’re in the Mormon part of the world. There’s been real trouble in Cardston. Yet there has been intermarriage." She mentioned a man she knew whose son had married a Native woman – "he accepts the grandchildren."
Lois paused. “I do hear things…It’s hard to live with another culture who does things so differently.”
She spoke of the competition between the Hutterites and the Mormons, and I began for the first time to get a sense of the density of the social and historical milieu on this windswept prairie, a sense that later, when I talked to Everett Soop’s relatives and other people who knew him, would develop into a vision. “The Mormons are close-knit family groups. The town of Leavitt – you passed through it coming here – was named after one man. He had so many wives and all these children. In Hillspring people are related through marriage. The church has a strong hold on every aspect of their lives. Sunday you don’t fish. Monday is family night. They’re hard-working, good-living people. They’re strongly opposed to smoking and drinking. And they’re kind of well-dressed,” she said, making a reference to the prosperity I had already noticed.
I asked Lois if she was religious.
“I don’t know if I am or not. I go to church. For me a church is a community. I don’t go to Lethbridge. I don’t know the people. There is a little United Church here I go to four or five times a year. It’s Christianity. There’s a reminder of who you are." She smiled. "I’m a Catholic in my heart. Your actions or lack of actions are a direct result of the belief system you carry inside you.”
"How do other people feel?"
“Definitely in Southern Alberta” – again this distinction – “and on the reserves churches do play a role.”
Talking to Joyce Bonertz I hadn’t wanted to mention the empty old buildings of Fort Macleod, the visible decay. Joyce had been sentimental about the place – and I had liked that; it showed her sensitivity. Lois was less sentimental. “I suppose that Hillspring is a dying town,” she said. Yet I felt that a maybe deeper sentimentality had moved her to talk about coming back to her ancestral home. That had seemed odd to me – forced. But later I changed my mind: Lois had spoken sincerely. Realizing that, I realized how much my many moves as a child had altered me. I couldn’t imagine an ancestral home: for me there was no such thing.
Similarly, when Lois had started talking about compound life, corporate life, I at first didn’t see it, didn’t comprehend it, because of the servants. But then I did. As a teenager, I too had known the corporate or compound life, moving with my family to Houston Texas, living, in that violent, racially mixed city, in a suburb full of whites. And I too had reacted against it. So that what had seemed exotic to me in Lois’s story later seemed intimate; and as I looked around the campsite that night, making my notes, observing people who had migrated from places as far south as Louisiana, I thought of my own migrations and all at once had a sense of the great changes in the world we were all caught up in, changes that had affected me and perhaps had sent me on this trip.
This is the third in a series of articles on the prairie provinces.
3497 words, October 21, 2004