Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day Forty: On Riel's Trail

It's still dark. I'm driving out of the Qu'Appelle Valley on Highway Ten, toward Regina. At Balgonie I see a line of red as the sun begins to rise. I take the north route, bypassing Regina, straight for the Louis Riel Trail, the double laned Highway Eleven between Regina and Saskatoon.

The sunlight is sideways and strong as I turn off the Louis Riel Trail and onto Highway Two, north toward Imperial, Watrous, and Young. I'm snapping pictures of our shadow against the golden field and navy clouds. My heart is light. I love this land, I think, and I realize that the more I think about treaty the less guilty I feel personally about Canadian history. I've always felt that we, the newcomers, stole the land. According to treaty (although I know there was sometimes collusion in the signing  -- things like people were starving and being ravaged by disease) I have a right to be here; nobody is asking me to give back our family farm or sell my house.

I see Liberty and have to pull the Envoy onto the shoulder to take a picture. I'm on my way to Imperial and have left Liberty behind, what classic colonial names, I think. I turn into Imperial. I see a row of world flags, but no Treaty 4 flag. The business is called Rite Way and I snap a picture, thinking of the elder expression, "In a good way" and I consider that all cultures believe there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.

I share my writing life with the grades 1 to 6 students in Liberty. At the end of the presentation, I say, "And, my current writing project is that I am walking to and from school for a year so that I can think about our Canadian Treaties." The teachers are smiling. "Did you know we are all treaty people?" I say.

The kids nod and bounce up and down.

"Wow. Do you know what treaty territory we are in? I didn't do my homework and check before I came."

Hands shoot up. "Treaty 4."

I'm running late, but I have to stop to capture pictures of Queen and Prairie Street, King and Saskatchewan Street. I pass a Royal Street and a Railway Street. I pass the flags. Write a letter, I think, as I tear off toward Young's McClellan School.

This is the smallest group I've ever presented to with only two teachers who each have three grades in one classroom. Just like a one-room school house, I say. Sometimes they have had five sets of siblings in a classroom, they tell me. Reminds me of Black Lake when I had five pairs of brother-sisters in my grade eight-nine split.

I begin with my Treaty Walks story because they have the computer all set up and ready to go. A little guy in the back row shoots his hand up when I ask if they know about treaties. He says that he is First Nations. I look closer, and notice his shirt. "That's a Louis Riel shirt," I say.

"That's his name, that's his name," a few kids blurt.

"Your name is Riel?" I ask.

He nods, light shining in his eyes.

I show them the first page, "Afraid I'm Going to Flake Out," and tell them about my Artist Way, and now I'm on day forty, and how I'm not worried about it any more; then I pause, self-reflective. "But more tests are coming, right?" I say.

"Like snow, hail, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards," the kids say.

"Show them some of the pictures," the librarian says. While we were setting up, she'd said, "I've had a look at your blog, and what's with the mugs in the trees?"

The librarian walks me to my vehicle. I ask her if she knows who or what the town is named for. "Some white, male, likely," I say.

"I'm not sure," she says, "But we're on A-Z line. Watrous... Young... and Zelma down the road," she points north.

At Watrous I'm happy to meet up with Matt and Heidi Tann, who we taught with in Black Lake. Now Matt teaches in Watrous and Heidi is on maternity leave with her second daughter. The elementary school has been divided into two groups, both five or six times as big as the morning sessions. I do my usual speel. Sing a couple songs. Tell the kids about my treaty walks.

I'm dizzy tired, but I do want some pictures from Watrous, so I fill up my tank and drive just half a block from the Coop when I see two cement railway guys. I jump out of the Envoy, sleeveless, but the sun is shining and my Hong Kong scarf keeps me from shivering in the wind. I take pictures, read the marker, and notice that the building across the way is called Manitou Hotel and Bar, but I'm too lazy to take a picture.

The sun is dropping; the side lighting is gorgeous, but I'm so sleepy I need to pull into a field approach and close my eyes.  I leave the vehicle running and I keep dozing, then startle awake, thinking I've fallen asleep at the wheel. I do feel more rested as I back up into a field, turn right, and back onto Highway 2.

The sun is setting as I drive south along the Louis Riel Highway. From sunrise to sunset I have been an artist, a writer today. I think back to that amazing quote from Louis Riel about the artists' place in the empowerment of his people. Later at home I check on-line to see if it's Zelda or Zelma; who Young was named after; is it the Canadian National Railway or the Canadian Trunk Pacific Railway; and what was that Louis Riel quote.

"My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back."  Louis Riel July 4th, 1885 (Manitoba Metis Federation, )

And I'm struggling with how to wrap this day. I love my land and my country. I'm from Macoun, Saskatchewan, named for the botonist who negated Palisser's prediction that the prairie could not support agriculture. I could be from Watrous, Imperial, or Young. I get small town, colonial Saskatchewan.

But it's been a hundred years, and I wonder if we're ready to realize that not all things have happened in a right way. Take Riel, for example, he founded Manitoba, stood up for the Metis, and was eventually hung for treason. I often lump the Metis with First Nations people, but the Metis were not even included in the treaty making process and did not receive any of the benefits of treaty, but all of the oppression.

And then I hear the legend of Manitou Lake, and three Cree men dying of Small Pox found healing in the waters, and how the waters have been used by Medicine Men for generations. And it's wonderful to know there is healing, but it is tragic to know the Small Pox came because of the newcomers.

Today, as I wake along the highway, in my own small way, I offer my writing, and pray to Gitche Manitou, Great Spirit, that art may bring healing, the return of manitou, of spirit.

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