A couple of weeks ago I came across a video of Harry Belafonte addressing a Town Hall on Poverty in New York. Holding a walking-stick in one hand, he had to be helped onto the stage, hanging on to a helper with the other hand, but once he was seated, he needed no help of any kind. Handsome as he has always been as if totally untouched by the years, eloquent as ever in that gravelly, husky voice, he gave an astonishing off-the-cuff address in which he demolished the state of politics in the United States, bringing the crowd to its feet as he denounced the hypocrisy of politicians who promised everything and delivered nothing, the imbalance between the spending on prisons and schools, the waste of generations of young people, especially of black people, and he repeated sorrowfully Martin Luther King’s last pronouncement to him that in fighting for integration into the American house, the black population of the United States seemed to have overlooked the fact that the house was already burning. He seemed not at all inhibited by the fact that sitting alongside him was Hillary Clinton, who kept nodding her head in that way she has, as if she agreed with everything he said.
Just seeing and hearing him brought back a flood of memories of the time in my life when I first heard of him, during my third decade, those years from 20 to 30 which were transformational for me. They were the years in which I married, left New Zealand to see the world; experienced tropical heat for the first time in northern Queensland, where I first observed the ingrained Aussie racism; travelled around the length and breadth of the vast Australian continent (in Melbourne working for the first time in a factory making the famous Australian fruit jams, whose workforce were mostly Yugoslavs whom the Aussies persisted in called, incorrectly, Balts) on my way to Perth to catch a ship for India, where I hoped to be of some use, a pathetically idealistic aspiration, but instead realized for the first time the abysmal conditions in which most people on his Earth lived, previously unimaginable to an innocent lad from New Zealand; then headed for Britain, where I stayed for three years, experiencing my first and only prolonged unemployment, a seminal experience in my life; and finally made my way to Canada, having, as I have often said, emigrated to four countries at a period when such things were so easy that I could have stayed in any one of these countries for the rest of my life.
It was in Kenora, a small town in western Ontario, where I was writing the great novel (that never got finished), that I first heard of Belafonte. I bought his first record, and he seemed a worthy successor to Josh White, hitherto the fave of my wife and me. At the same time I also bought records by a folk-singing woman with an immense booming voice, called Odetta Felious, who in later years became accepted under just her first name as one of the greatest folk-singers of our time; and two or three records by Edith Piaf, to keep live our infatuation with France whose length and breadth we had cycled around on a tandem, a couple of yeas before. In the following years we played these records over and over until familiar with every voice inflexion, every swoop and soar, every unforgettable phrase --- Bel fonte’s “Come mister tally man tally me banana, day light come and me wanna go home”; Piaf’s “non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien”; Odetta’s “Oh, freedom, oh freedom, and before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free”; until they became irrevocably entrenched in our brains as an essential part of our being.
These records were among our most prized possessions until six or seven years later, when our first born son, not long after learning to walk, also learned how to scratch the needle back and forth across the disc, (in between his hobby of ripping our books to pieces), and taught us the lesson that however much we loved our books and irreplaceable records, our son and his exploratory growing up was much more important.
It was in 1956 that I bought those records. Kenora was an active little town of 11,000 people making pulp and paper, that in the summer turned into a lazy tourist resort. I was aware there were Indians living in the vicinity, from seeing them occasionally hanging around the streets, usually in the process of getting drunk, but it was nine years before 400 of them joined together in a march on the town to demand better treatment. At that time it was reported that of 69 people arrested in Kenora in a year 56 of them were Indians.
My wife was working as a teacher in the Rabbit Lake school, a few miles out of town (for the magnificent sum of $1,500 a year), and on her way there in a bus every morning she passed the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian residential school, which operated from 1902 to 1974. The chairman of the board of my wife’s little country school just along the way, was also the principal of the Indian school, and according to my wife, a real sonofabitch.
The Indian school was a forbidding-looking place. Just how forbidding did not fully emerge until 2013, by which time Presbyterian church, which took over running the school from the United Church in 1929, humbly apologized for the physical, sexual and emotional abuses that went on inside that building.
At about the same time reports emerged that aural and nutritional experiments had been conducted during the 1940s and 50s --- so they could have been going on while we were there. Apparently, as reported within the department in 1954, and revealed only at the time of the inquiry into the residential schools, headed by Murray Sinclair, in experiments that took place across the country in several schools, including Cecilia Jeffrey, some students were kept on starvation level diets, and were given or denied vitamins, minerals and certain foods to test the results. Dental services were also withheld because researchers thought healthier teeth and gums might skew results of the nutritional experiments. Jeffrey school also allowed a local doctor and nurse to experiment with 14 different drugs to treat so-called “ear troubles” that appear to have been caused by the habit of having children irrigate their own ears or the ears of younger children, with hot waster. As a result some children went deaf. In addition, the most conspicuous evidence of ear trouble, according to a report of that time by a nurse, was “the offensive odour of the children’s breath, discharging ears, lack of sustained attention, poor enunciation when speaking, and loud talking.
Years later, when I was taking an interest in the indigenous people in my work as a reporter, I visited one of these Indian schools in the Northwest territory, a beautiful-looking school, but although later reports were of abuses taking place in that school, as a quick visitor, in and out within an hour or so, I had no way of knowing what was going on there. Similarly, on one occasion when I was writing a series about the Indians of Canada for the Reader’s Digest, I spent a morning at a reserve on the shore of one of the big Manitoba lakes, talking to a man I had known for years when he had been secretary of the National Indian Brotherhood (later renamed the Assembly of First Nations). We talked almost exclusively of how successful they had been in wresting control of their reserve school out of the hands of the Indian Affairs Department: and the school did seem like a happy place, open and inviting to students. Only six months later did I read that some 230 cases of sexual abuse had been identified as having occurred on that reserve.
As a resident of Kenora where I arrived on New Year’s Day, 1956, I was mesmerized by many evidences of the winter. For example, I rented a small house on the edge of the huge Lake of the Woods, which is reputed to have 14000 islands within it, and I watched in amazement as huge trucks ran across from the mainland over the ice to the nearest island, something that had never occurred to me as being even remotely possible.
I had rented the house from a lovely little man I met on a bus stop. He was of Swedish descent, and he kept a trading post up the lake, from which he emerged every three months or so to engage in a monumental drunk. Then, having been rescued by his long-suffering wife, he would take a bottle of scotch up the lake with him, and never touch it until he next time he visited town. His daughter said, “He would give the shirt on his back to any Indian, that’s him.”
My neighbour was a man whose winter work was to cut huge pieces of ice from the lake --- the ice being usually up to four feet or more deep. He hauled the pieces ashore, stored them under sawdust in a cold shed for use in the coming summer.
Of course, I knew nothing at that time about the history of the people who lived around the lake. Later I discovered the indigenous, mostly Ojibwa, people had built a successful, diversified economy around their seasonal catch of the plentiful sturgeon in the lake, using certain materials, for example, as an ingredient for a paint that was a popular local product. Eventually, however, some wiseacre politicians had opened our side of the lake, which straddles the international border, to American fishermen: unlike the careful Ojibwa, the Americans fished the surgeon out in the first few years. Result, loss of local Ojibwa economy, and consequent poverty.
Such a nice, careful, country is Canada, always respectful of the needs of its people. Oh, yeah!