Friday, December 29, 2017

My Log 569 Dec 29 2017: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 6 I learn a lesson from the cold weather: my body isn’t as flexible as it used to be: bringing on reminiscences about Canada’s cold for a newcomer

I suppose most Canadians have an ambivalent attitude towards the cold of winter, but that might be especially so for those whose early years were spent in a temperate climate, like me. I say this in introduction of a piece about a lesson I just learned this week, on the first day of this unusually cold snap, as we are all shivering under this huge, intense body of Arctic air that has descended upon us.
As a guy who in recent decades has gotten most of his exercise from walking a lot, I have developed a disinclination to surrender to the cold. In Ottawa, a city graced with many pleasant walkways along canals and rivers, I went for a walk every day, priding myself that even on the days of minus 30 degrees C I could wrap up, covering most of my face with a ski mask, and set off along the canal for a half hour or sometimes an hour-long walk. I never felt any negative results from these walks.
This week when the temperatures were pushing minus 20, or down to  minus 25 with the “feels like” factor of wind chill added, I ignored warnings that I should stay inside, and set off for downtown where I hoped to buy myself a new overcoat at a Boxing Day sale. I recalled for those timid souls who warned me, the occasion on which the Stockholm City Council, confronted with the decision as to whether to  allow an underground railway extension in the city centre to be totally buried underground or to emerge into the open air, decided on the latter course, assuming that to be in the open air was always good for people.
I made it all right to the downtown store, where I spent half an hour or more mooching around among racks of coats that didn’t quite fit, and then, having rejected them all, I set out for home. A couple of times, as I walked along beside high downtown buildings, I felt sudden gusts of intensely cold wind, but I finally made it up to the McGill university campus, part of my usual route, where I began to realize this cold was biting into me a bit.  Once through the campus I discovered the laces on one of my boots had come undone. A thing like that makes me nervous. It is one of the imperatives of being old that one mustn’t fall down, which could easily happen with loose bootlaces waving around just asking to be trodden on, and lead to a fall. In fact, a week or so before, walking on a rainy day, I had missed a step as I was going into a downtown building, and had come flat on my face. The only result of that fall was a slight knock on one knee.
On this more recent occasion four days ago, being super-cautious, I was unable to find any surface I could sit on, everything being covered with a thick blanket of snow, so I found a spot close to a sturdy railing, and went down on one knee to retie the lace.  I succeeded okay in that, but when I reached for a pole to pull myself up, my trailing leg felt like a dead weight, absolutely a dead weight, that had simply decided it would not be moved. Although my left arm is temporarily slightly immobilized with one of those coming-and-going aches of old age, I had to reach up to the fence with both arms, and was able with a great deal of effort to pull myself back on to my feet.
The impact of this slight incident on my body was surprising.  I felt somewhat disoriented, in some subtle way not quite in control of my movements, but I did get back home, dragging myself slowly along without any further incident.
When I took off my winter clothing I discovered I had broken into a sweat, and I collapsed in a chair in a completely unexpected state of exhaustion.
When I later described the incident to one of my sons, he laughed and said, “As I always tell you, Dad, you’re not eighty any more.”
The intense cold has persisted through the following three days, and I have to admit I haven’t once ventured out into it, having learned the lesson that my body, which would have been untroubled by the incident described ten or fifteen years ago, is no longer in shape to shuck it all off.
I have been thinking over the adjustments I have had to make to the cold from the first years I was in Canada where I  arrived in September 1954.  On my first winter I was repeatedly astonished: first I went to Kirkland Lake, in northern Ontario, and a friend there took me out to the nearby divide at which everything north runs towards the Arctic, and everything south towards the Great Lakes. He told me to out my hand on the sign indicating this momentous divide, and in doing so I had a totally new experience as my warm flesh seemed to stick to the frozen iron rod.
When, three months later, I moved to Kenora, in north-western Ontario,  I rented a house overlooking the Lake of the Woods, around whose shoreline my wife and I had  to walk when carrying carrying heavy paper bags as we returned home from our weekend shopping. It was a surprise to us to find that before we reached home we had icicles several inches long hanging from our nostrils, and a ring of ice round our mouths.
Within six months we moved to Winnipeg, where my first assignment was to cover the Grain Exchange (even though I knew nothing about grain , or commerce.).  I lived a mile or so along Portage avenue from the junction with Main street (one of the world’s most famously cold intersections), where the Exchange building stood, and I will never forget walking that mile every day from October to December to get to work. To say I was frozen on arrival  would be to describe the effect of the cold on me in the most moderate way. The cold of Winnipeg in winter --- not so bad, they would say, because it is a dry cold --- was something I had never imagined I would have to cope with.
I had been in Canada for almost six years when I finally decided I had had enough of the cold. In the summer of 1959 my assignment was to cover the Royal tour of Canada. Though always anti-monarchist, and working for a pro-monarchist newspaper, I accepted the assignment because it gave me a look at Canada over its immense length and breadth, that I would never have been able to afford myself, from Montreal to Victoria, up to Dawson City in the Yukon, and back to Halifax. I determined I would never descend into the usual Royal guff, and I never did so, sending stories mainly about the wide variety of people who met the Queen, and including as many funny and slightly disrespectful stories as I could find about --- for example --- the hammer-and-tongs competitions among the young daughters of Canadian mayors for the honour of presenting flowers to Her Majesty.  I received one wholehearted tribute that I appreciated, from the sob-sister for one of the London dailies, who said how delighted she was to find me arguing for republicanism  with the ladies-in-waiting at a  cocktail party held on the Royal train, espousing my views vigorously in what she insisted was my strong Kiwi accent. Back in the office, the sub-editors enjoyed my pieces, they told me, and then spiked them, using no more than, I figured, 40 per cent of what I had written. Never mind, they just put my by-line over the suitably reverent agency copy. A shoddy practice, but what the hell?
When the assignment was over, I had six weeks of time off owing me, along with a $600  sort-of-unofficial overtime package, (one of the efforts the company made to stave off unionism, this unofficial overtime system). The time off and the money enabled us to fly to Trinidad, and spend six weeks moving back up through the Caribbean islands, the paradisical holiday of one’s dreams. We arrived back in Montreal in mid-January, straight from the sunshine and warmth of the West Indies, and my reaction was, “Why the hell are we living in this climate?”  Impetuously, we decided we would quit our jobs by May and head back to London, with the vague intention of returning to New Zealand overland through Europe and Asia.  Of course we did not have the money that would enable us to carry out this plan, but we had always travelled in the cheapest way possible, taking our holidays first on a tandem bicycle in France, then on a scooter across Europe, before graduating, in Winnipeg, to our first, third-hand, Austin A30, one of the smallest cars in existence at the time,  in which we made two trips to Mexico, reaching as far as Mexico city the first year, and returning through California.  On the second year we got as far as Monterrey, when discretion got the better part of valour and we headed north hoping we could reach home before the car breathed its last. We conked out again in Houston, where we had to stay five days to get the car fixed, just long enough to be appalled by the city and its uncivilized customs that required us to sit in front of the blacks on the city buses. 
In our customary spirit of using the cheapest conveyance, we booked steerage passages to London, leaving in May, and began by trying to sub-let our apartment on Chomedy street, down near the Forum.
Eventually, we realized we would need at least enough money to give us the time to settle into jobs in London, so we postponed our departure until September, cancelled the steerage passages,  and continued to live in our apartment. Two weeks before the s.s. Homeric, on which we had originally booked, was due to sail, my boss, who had no inkling of my wish to leave,  called me into his office and asked me if I would like to represent the newspaper in London. Yes, sir! So our friend Noel Mostert, who later became the author of the brilliant bestselling books Supership and Frontiers, but who was for the moment working on the shipping beat after having been the paper’s columnist in New York, went down and joyfully rebooked us on the Homeric, only this time in a first class passage. So we left this cold country where we had arrived only six years before on a small immigrant ship, carrying in our pockets only the few dollars we needed to see us through the first few weeks, having travelled cheap all the way until accidentally hitting the first-class passage back across the Atlantic.
The final episode of this Chronicle of Cold Times takes place eight years later, after we returned to Montreal with our family of three small boys, who were born in London and brought up in a cramped apartment in South Kensington from which they could emerge only on an expedition supervised by one or other of us.The comparatively vast expanse of our house and backyard in Outremont were among the chief joys that came from quitting London, and I remember a day I was standing looking out at our backyard in our first winter back, watching the three kids playing in the snow without the slightest concern about the cold.  I realized suddenly that if they could enjoy it, there was no reason why I couldn’t enjoy it  “This hatred of the cold is all in my head,” I told myself. “I’m going to forget it from now on.”
Since that revealing moment, I have simply adjusted to it,  even sleeping for three weeks in a tent in minus 40 degree weather in northern Quebec while shooting a film about  Cree hunters, and doing so without complaint, and even with a certain sense that the experience gave me some particularity.
So, the cold be damned: I knew that eventually it would go away, and I hoped that I would not.
And what do you know? I still am here.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Log 568 Dec 28 2017: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 5; Two things catch my eye today: one is a small town in Ontario, the other the effort being made in China not to destroy the Earth’s resources

Today my attention has been caught by two items that recall something to me from my past. The first of these is that the coldest place in Canada today at minus 36 degrees C is a small north-western Ontario town called Armstrong, that was the first place where I ever met any indigenous people in 1968, a place in which  I learned a valuable lesson about the warped priorities of the Canadian government. 
      The second item of interest was a story about how since 2015 China has been embarked on an experimental programme of building so-called “sponge cities”  in an effort to overcome the deleterious effects caused by their having covered so much of their country with concrete, as they have built vast new cities to accommodate the millions of rural people who have flocked to become urban dwellers working in their thousands of new factories.
(Perhaps I should mention here that as I am approaching my tenth decade, my areas of interest, always rather eclectic, or scattergun, as others might say, as befits a newspaper reporter, have gradually become more and more  trivial, so that today, for example, I was also irresistibly drawn to a silly story about how Meghan Markle’s half-sister has hit back at Prince Harry’s suggestion that his new fiancee has found in his family “the family she never had,” a fate, one might remark in passing, that might casually be said to be worse than death. The sister called the new pseudo-princess “a shallow social climber”, who, since she made it in Hollywood has been just “too busy” for her real, supportive family.)
Well, let’s start with Armstrong, Ontario. The lesson I learned in this small village, which in 1968 was accessible only by rail, was that automatic, built-in racism informed much of the federal government’s attitude to “the Indian” populations of whose interest the Canadian constitution demanded that the federal government act as trustee.
There were two elements of federal responsibility in this small village; at one end of the village was an installation charged with maintaining one of the mid-Canada corridor posts designed to give us adequate warning of any attack that might be launched by the “Soviet menace.”  Naturally, these fellows had the best of facilities: the best food money could buy, and plenty of it, comfortable housing, good schooling for their children, library and gym facilities for their recreation, and so on.
At the other end of town, where  the needs were so much more desperate,  lived an impoverished group of Ojibwa who had lived until 1942 in a small reserve along the north-western shore of Lake Nipigon.
 When high water levels began eroding the shoreline and flooding their buildings and burial grounds they quit their reserve and began to settle along the CNR railway line. The largest  number of them settled in Armstrong. So since 1942, as an off-reserve population, these people had more or less fallen out of the ken of the government’s Indian Affairs Department, and I found them living in the most appalling tumbledown shacks, crowded up to 28 or 30 a shack, their lives dominated by alcohol and poverty. As I have recently recorded in my post 563, I travelled with a local chief, Willie John, from the south shore of Lake Nipigon,  who did his best to help them in their desperate situation.  But the level of neglect was indicated by the story of one woman who told Willie that her food vouchers were  paid by the government not to her personally, but directly to the local grocery store, the act more of a colonial master than of a responsible government fulfilling its trusteeship duty.  When, returning from this trip, I went into the office of the department for the region and asked for information about these people, I was refused point blank, as if their affairs were of no interest to anyone except, minimally, to the department.
The second thing that caught my attention today was this idea that China, which is usually seen in the west as a monolithic nation devoted only to ideology and to making money, also has a highly developed sense of the need for human beings to cut our cloth to what is possible: in other words, to reduce our impact on the Earth at least to the point that we do not threaten to destroy  the very existence of life.
I was not surprised to read of how they are trying to create cities that will not be covered by the concrete that expels all water falling on it and creates disasters. I recall the three months I spent in China as part of a National Film Board crew assigned to make some movies about  China. The strongest impression I came away with was of the meticulous use they made in the commune in which we filmed, of every piece of materiel.  Most impressive to me was that none of this information was forced on to us by our hosts: rather, we discovered it by asking endless questions whenever we saw something that caught our interest as our bus drove around the commune from one  filming location to another. For example, when we saw a house under construction and asked if we might stop and look, we discovered how, in this economically poor village, people wee helping their neighbours to build a house for  a newly married son.  Everything except the glass for the windows was made in the commune. The bricks they were using were made by their own village brick woks, and when we came to examine how these were made we uncovered an amazing system designed to use as little land as possible, but within that parameter to make use of all available materials. For example, the topsoil, to a depth usually of a human person, had been removed to reveal a thick  layer of clay that could be made into bricks.  Once this layer had been removed, the top soil was replaced, and the field replanted to provide essential food crops, such as wheat, rice or, perhaps, herbs  to be used in Chinese medicine.
This was customary in almost every inquiry we made along these lines.  When we were told the apple trees were pruned, we also discovered that the prunings had been used to make the baskets in which the apples were sold to the nearby town.  The used products depot collected every broken bottle, every smashed door frame, even, so help  me God, every clipping from the barber’s shop, all of which were sold on to someone who could make use of them.
Everyone in the commune had a job and many of those employed were in small-sized industries that arose from sheer ingenuity. One enterprise, for example, was based on small pieces of scrap metal that had been thrown away by a factory in a nearby town. Out of these small pieces of scrap, the commune had fashioned a metal stamp that cut out even smaller pieces of metal they could sell to a nearby town for use in the manufacture of a transformer.
Strong winds would occasionally get up and blow off branches from the newly-planted trees that lined every road in the commune.  These fallen branches did not lie on the ground for more than a few minutes before a horde of peasants would emerge to grab them up and take them back to their houses to be put to whatever use they could find for them.
When we discovered that an elderly man was employed to circulate around the commune’s roads on his bicycle to pick up the droppings of the horses, we asked if we could film him at work.  It caused a lot of amusement when the village man making our arrangements, Mr. Yuan, an amiable sort, pleaded that he could scarcely expect to command that the horses would drop their loads just because we had set up our camera. But eventually he suggested we set up our cameras on a certain road a few minutes after lunch, and see what kind of luck we would have.  No sooner had the horses trotted towards us than they obligingly dropped their loads in the road,  whereupon our old man, dressed in his immaculately pressed best shirt, swept around the corner on his bicycle, jumped off, shovelled up the manure into his basket and took off, but the real surprise occurred when we followed him home, where he had erected a pit in his backyard for the manure that eventually emitted a gas he had harnessed to give his home a small electric light, and to boil his kettle. The old man told us he had been given this job by his comrades, and he was quite content to be able to make this contribution to the common good. Talk about using resources carefully:  this Chinese Communist society practised the art without even regarding it as something exceptional.
Of course there were some irritating features of working with these Communist cadres: for example, just as we would be ready to shoot a peasant working in his old hat, a cadre would come along, snatch his hat off his head and replace it with a new one.  But I do not remember these irritations with the same intensity as I remember the good humour of those we worked with, a good humour that became even more memorable five years later when I returned to China to research a film about child services that we were making for UNESCO.  In our travels across the land we were handed on from one organization of women to the next, mostly middle-aged women, who were responsible for these services, and I found them full of humour, very amusing, endlessly lively, and extremely interesting to work with.
I finished with a conviction there was a lot to be said, especially in countries which lack basic resources,  for a rigorous system of work discipline, which they certainly had, although I was always aware that underlying it lay a heavy hand of authority that did not brook any argument.
Nevertheless, my conclusion from having been able to ask them unremitting questions about their operations every day for three months, was that, although they were not accustomed to being asked such questions, they made every effort to answer them all.
To the best of my memory, only one question went unanswered: it was this: You have sunk 103 wells in this small patch of a few hundred acres of land, and similar communes have been doing the same thing all over the North China Plain.  What do you think has been the effect on the groundwater.
The only answer I ever got was: that is a matter for the department concerned.
In other words, they didn’t know. And it is no accident that this has become one of China’s major problems in the modern era, nearly 40 years on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Log 567 Dec 27 2017: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 4 A speech by Belafonte, as handsome and eloquent as ever, takes me back to when I bought his first record, along with those of Piaf and Odetta.

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!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Log 566 Dec 26 2017: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 3: Everywhere indigenous people are found to be “too small to succeed”, just as the banks are found to be too big to fail. Some reflections, stimulated by reading Bruce Chatwin

I was into my fifth decade of life when I first came in contact with a group of people living in northern Quebec who were subsistence hunters and trappers. I was poorly equipped for the events that followed, having only the one qualification, that I had grown up with a kneejerk sympathy for the underdog and the oppressed, as these people certainly were. I have often wondered how I came by this sympathy for the underdog; perhaps it had something to do with being the youngest in a family of macho males, and as a child observing the brutal insensitivity with which my father treated wandering bushworkers who, after a weekend of carousing in the city, would turn up at our family home hoping my dad would stake them to the return trip to the distant sawmill where they worked and of which he was the owner. It might also have begun to develop earlier, when I was in elementary school, and one member of our class, who was generally  called Pisspants Critchfield, a poor, smelly kid from a neglectful home, was always the first picked on by the teachers to be given the strap day after day. However it originated, this tendency to sympathize with the underdog was very much reinforced by my experience as a reporter working for newspapers. Because I discovered that every newspaper I worked for had in common that they used the poor and disadvantaged as the subject of occasional articles, but thereafter never showed the slightest interest in improving their condition.
In the (almost) five decades that have passed since I made that first contact, I have often tried to argue with friends that if we had been a really humane nation, as our leaders liked to suppose we were, we would have cherished these hunters and trappers with their remarkable gifts, knowledge and insights, and so arranged our economy as to keep their lives viable, an economy based on their particular skills that would have carried them painlessly into the modern world.  I have found it a hard argument to make, because the general assumption, even of people who are not hostile to the indigenous people, is that they have been by-passed by the modern world of technology and industry, simply cast into the role of victims. A population unable to compete in the modern world, always foundering before the “balance of advantage” argument, the advantage always being judged in terms of money, of which the indigenous people have none, and in which they normally take little interest. To paraphrase a currently fashionable concept, they have usually been found to be “too small to succeed,” just as the banks have been found too big to fail.
I suppose one would have to say that the bald facts discourage any romantic argument in their favour: a tiny population of 5000-6000 Cree people occupied a territory that in total is almost as large as Western Europe. The justice or injustice of the way they were treated really didn't enter into the calculations of those making the decisions. Whenever anyone arrived among the indigenous peoples with the intention of sinking a mine, for example, or cutting timber, that person or company  was given prior use of the land, and the inhabitants who had lived there for millenia were simply pushed out. In 1968 I visited hundreds of them living in tents, always on the edge of irreversible poverty. This was the normal operation of colonialism, alive and well in modern Canada.
I am not intending to argue this case here; I mention it only because yesterday I came across some interesting reflections on nomads in a book I am reading by the British writer Bruce Chatwin. The hunting people who were established in Canada when Europeans arrived to settle in their lands fitted the definition of nomads, although most of them occupied specific, huge areas of land across which they had always roamed.  Under European influence, most of these peoples were gathered into small villages, where they could be administered the minimal attributes of a modern life, like education, health services and the like.  This very act of sedentarization in itself was enough to destroy the vitality of  these peoples. For example, the Naskapi, as they were then called, had built their lives around the winter chase of the caribou over the treeless tundra of northern Quebec. I first heard of them when I met a young Norwegian anthropologist, Georg Henriksen, who had studied them, and so admired them that he made it his life’s work to write in their defence. Years later a young CBC reporter in Newfoundland, Marie Wadden who had suddenly discovered the existence of these people in her province, and was appalled by how they were being treated, got in touch with me to ask how she should go about writing a book on them. (I gave her Bernard Shaw’s advice: “keep the seat of your pants on the chair”). She did write an admirable work Nitassinan, which to my mind is one of the best accounts of the operations of old-style colonialism deep in the heart of modern Canada.
In the 1960s, these two peoples, the Cree of northern Quebec, and the Naskapi of Labrador, had managed to retain their semi-nomadic traditional hunting culture to a remarkable extent. The Cree with whom I came into contact had managed to do this by an accident of history, namely, that the Scotsmen of the Hudson’s Bay Company who arrived in the 1600s had eve since  serviced their trading posts exclusively through  Hudson Bay, arriving in the spring, and leaving with their furs before the freeze up in the early autumn.  Some of these company factors lived for years in Canada and never went south into  populated Canada. Thus, before coming under the pressure of the industrializing technology of Canada, the Crees were able to adapt their remarkable skills in the bush to add trapping the beaver for fur to their repertoire of activities. Whereas further south many indigenous peoples were already well on the way to losing  their languages, because of the pressures brought on them by an  industrializing Canada, I found the Cree communities were totally functioning in Cree, and in 1968 only a handful of young men were comfortable in English. Eventually I discovered that  their elders, who had never been to school and knew neither English nor French and had never, most of them, been anywhere but up and down their great rivers, were really remarkable people, calm and dispassionate as hunters and trappers, careful in the management of the animal resources on which they depended for life,  profound in their deep understanding of the human  relationship to the Earth, and far-sighted in their concern for coming generations. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that modern Canada was in need of these very qualities. But the melancholy fact was that modern Canada had treated these people with contempt, and was in the process of destroying them just as we needed their insights the most.
But back to Bruce Chatwin. He is one of those English writers, extravagantly admired by many people, to whom I have never been able to warm. The fault for that could lie within me, a rude colonial boy who grew up with resolutely anti-colonial attitudes, that have prevented me from accepting the British way of life, although I lived in Britain for eleven years.
I was not surprised when I read the account of Chatwin’s life to learn that many doubts had been raised as to the veracity of much of his reporting,  The book I have recently been  reading did leave me with doubts about this: his observations and descriptions of encounters he has had with many remote people are so loaded with the most minute detail (for example, one I remember is his detailed description of the history and meaning of some items attached to the back of a woman’s dress that I seriously doubted he could have known about in the suggested time-frame.   
I did, however, come across some interesting comments on nomads, that sent me off on this piece.  (I have since found to my surprise that nomadism, the question of what it is that urges people not to stay still, was the major preoccupation of Chatwin as a writer and sort of anthropologist.) Although the Crees when I first met them could no longer be described as nomads, nevertheless there was something of the nomad in their historical habit of wandering across the land, always moving to catch the fluctuating populations of the animals they needed.
Here are some extracts from Chatwin’s observations:
“The suicidal march of the Scandinavian lemmings to the sea is thought by some to shed light on the tragic refugee problems of our day, and a global situation  of wandering refugees is predicted.” (He wrote this in 1972, and we are surely seeing what he prophesies in our day.)
“Nomads never roam aimlessly from place to place, as one dictionary would have it.  A nomadic migration is a guided tour of  animals around a  predictable sequence of pastures. It has the same inflexible character as the migrations of wild game, since the same ecological factors determine it.” (In reference to that, one is reminded of the problem certain indigenous groups in Canada have had in proving to the satisfaction of various judges that they have always been in possession of the lands they claim as their own, virtually an impossible thing for a semi-migratory species to prove.)
I remember attending a meeting in 1975 about Human Ecology, so-called, when I heard a Tanzanian official describing the great plans for settlement of the peasants in his country. I told him his presentation reminded me of what was said so often about indigenous people in Canada, who had already been herded into settlements as he was proposing to do, with deleterious results. I asked him what provisions his government intended to make for the nomads who wandered back and forth over the national borders.  His respond was blunt: they would have to accept the plans, just like other people.
It happened that when I was thinking of writing something about this I came across an item in a newspaper describing the alarm among the Masaai nomadic people who are once again being hassled by the Tanzanian government because of their irreverence toward the national borders.
So while it may be true that Canada has treated its semi-nomadic populations of hunters with notable lack of sensitivity or understanding, it is equally true that we are not alone in having done this. People whose beliefs and outlook do not fit the national template, as most certainly those of the Cree and Naskapi do not, are being simply bundled aside out of the way almost everywhere.
And as the fate of the Naskapi, now called Innu, shows, the national authority prefers to have them drinking and sniffing glue in villages than to have them occupying lands that increasingly the dominant society has other uses for.