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Scarred For Life, Chapter One
The 1920s were a time of great luxury for Canada and the entire world. The First World War against Germany and its allies had concluded with the signing of The Treaty of Versailles. I was born on August 9th, 1920 which was a blessed year for some and an accursed one for others. Many of the men were returning home from the trenches and battlefields of Europe telling tales of bloody, unending violence to the disbelief of family and friends. Some were missing limbs, even on the reserve where I called home, for our men had gone out in great numbers to fight. I wonder if the Canadian government remembered how many of our men gave their lives on the front lines when they passed the legislations that destroyed a people forever.
My family and I were the only Mi’kmaq (Micmac) family living in British Columbia at that time, my father wishing to create friendships with other tribes rather than remain in Nova Scotia with our own. The Mi’kmaq came from my mother’s side of the family as our system is what many today would call “matriarchal”, meaning that everything was passed on from mother to daughter.
My father was of Cree ancestry and had met my mother in the state of Maine, where they’d married before migrating to Canada. They lived in Nova Scotia for a time amongst other Mi’kmaq before deciding suddenly to leave. It surprised many in the Mi’kmaq community, but my father explained that my mother was only tired of the constant rain and wanted to live in British Columbia, which was going through a bit of a dry spell.
They took the train from Halifax [which was still recovering from a terrible explosion in 1917] across New Brunswick, Québec, Ontario [which they later told me was as big as half the dominion], and the Prairies [Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta] before finally arriving in British Columbia in October of 1919.
On the train ride there, my parents met a young, Inuit boy who was travelling alone to British Columbia as well. He knew some English and was able to explain that his parents had died recently from Spanish influenza, and he was going to live with his aunt and uncle on a small reserve in the northern part of the province. His name was Tyee (tie-ee) and he had just turned nine years old in September. My mother, who longed for a child, took him under her wing from the start and cared for him as if he’d come from her own loins.
One of the elders of the reserve came and met my parents at the train station. He was Inuit, but it didn’t matter for my parents spoke English well enough and so did he. Then, he took the little Inuit boy aside and whispered something quietly in their language to him. The boy’s face fell and tears began to pool in his eyes.
“What has happened, young one?” my father asked him.
“My aunt and uncle dead!” the boy cried, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. “They die months ago, but no one know I coming! Otherwise, they tell me!”
“Don’t fret,” my mother whispered soothingly. “You can come and live with us.” The elder translated my mother’s words into their language. The boy looked straight up into my mother’s face.
“True?” he asked, looking hopeful. My father grinned and nodded at the young boy. Slowly, a smile appeared on the previously distressed and sorrowful face of the young boy as he knew that he would have a home after all.
The reserve was about an hour away from the train station in Kamloops by truck. The elder sat at the front with my mother, while the young boy and my father sat in the back with their luggage. Towering trees of immense strength lined the sides of the road while mountain flowers dotted the dusty ditches and the surrounding landscape in their various hues of red, violet, and indigo. The Rocky Mountains loomed in the east, standing tall and proud against the clear, blue sky. Their summits were hidden from view by thick clouds, but it looked as though snow covered them despite the sun’s presence.
The reserve was a collection of log houses and some stores where trade was conducted and goods were sold as well. Among the gigantic, pine trees, these houses looked as though they could prove invaluable during the cold, harsh winters, but also pose a threat during the lightning storms of the hot, humid summers. A large lake sparkled between the trees on the side further from the Rockies, trout, salmon and all sorts of fish leaping in the air. Fields of wheat, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and other vegetables stood on the side contrary to the side which offered a spectacular view of the mountains my parents had passed on their way in. Men and women worked side-by-side, the men with scythes to harvest the wheat and the women with baskets to gather up the vegetables after pulling them up.
My parents and Tyee got out of the truck and, without another word, rushed over to the field. My father picked up one of the extra scythes and my mother picked up a basket, and then followed the path of upturned soil and broken stalks to where the other men and women of the village toiled. No one said a word of protest; in fact, they looked almost grateful for the extra help. Tyee helped some of the men without scythes gather the wheat and shape it into bundles that would be tied with rope until it could be grounded into corn for bread. The work took hours, but at last, the harvest was halfway done.
“Welcome,” one of the older men said. His face was darker than those of the others, but his smile was just as kind. “Thank you for your help with our harvest. You shall share the fruits of our labor with us. I am John. I hope that you will live in peace with us and our families.”
“I am Luke,” my father answered. “This is my wife, Winona (win-oh-nah), and our adopted son, Tyee. We may not be of the same tribe, but we are all First Nations’ people formed by the Great Spirit and placed on Earth to be of help to one another. We shall live in harmony with you, your wives, and your children.”
It was then that my parents noticed something that now troubled them. If there were families here, where were the children?
The log house appointed to my parents and young Tyee was quite spacious and well furnished. The table and chairs were made from the finest wood, which John told them was oak from near the coastline of British Columbia. Some White men had brought it here and taught the men of the reserve carpentry in exchange for fresh fish and some of their weapons. There was a kitchen with a black, iron stove, a fireplace with a solid hearth, a room off to the side with a bed complete with a goose-feather mattress and thick quilts, and a ladder which led to the spacious loft upstairs where two pairs of bunk beds stood side by side. Made of shackled logs with a ladder at the side to help the child on the upper bunk get to bed, it immediately caught the interest of young Tyee who scampered up the ladder and burrowed underneath the quilts as if he wanted to sleep. Both Father and Mother found this amusing and laughed. John smiled faintly, especially when he saw the brightness in the boy’s eyes when he turned to face them.
“You will be comfortable here,” John assured them. “But you must join me and my wife for dinner tonight. I do not wish for you to be so burdened on only your first day here in our community.”
“Thank you for your invitation as well as your concern,” my father replied graciously. “But life is filled with burdens that we must take upon our shoulders. Some are light; others are not. Organizing this place that we shall call home is one of the lightest burdens we will bear. We wish to begin unpacking, but my wife, our son, and I will come to your home and dine with you and your wife tonight.” John nodded and climbed down the ladder back to the main floor. Above him, he could hear the couple laughing at the sound of running feet against the floorboards. He imagined Tyee had done something very amusing again.
“Life may be filled with light burdens, but it is the heavy ones that may break the shoulders you must carry them upon,” he muttered to himself before leaving the cabin. “And I can see many heavy burdens in the future for you and your family, Luke. Trust me.”
John’s cabin was probably the largest on the reserve. It was about three cabins down from my family’s new home. The front door was open and light from the young, burning fire illuminated the entire house, giving John an almost divine appearance when he stood in the doorway and waved at them, saying, “Welcome!” When I was about five years old, my mother told me that they had been very nervous as John seemed to be one of the leaders on the reserve. But John’s aura gave off nothing but pleasantness, hospitality, and warmth, and my family soon put their worries aside.
The dining room was to the left of the entrance and was furnished with dishes of roasted salmon, smoked trout, fresh vegetables, bread made from the harvested wheat, and even rice. Tyee looked on the food with amazement, but then a young woman entered the room bearing five wooden plates and caused quite a stir.
She was taller than my mother with long, brown hair that almost reached her knees, startling brown eyes surrounded by curly, dark eyelashes, and brown skin the color of honey. Her face was a perfect oval with a long nose in the center and lips that looked as though they had swollen up and never receded. When she smiled, they parted to reveal a full row of crooked teeth. But her smile was warm; no one would even notice the unfortunate accident she’d suffered while basking in her hospitality.
“This is my wife, Bernice,” John said, gesturing to the young woman proudly. “Bernice,” he informed her, “this is Luke and his wife, Winona, and their son, Tyee. They are new to the reserve.”
“Welcome,” she greeted kindly in perfect English. “I hope you will enjoy living here with us and our friends. I have prepared a meal for us all, and I hope it will satisfy you.”
“Thank you for all of this, Bernice,” my mother replied gratefully. “I hope that we will be able to repay such kindness one day soon.”
“Think nothing of it!” John answered for his wife. “Now, let’s not waste another minute standing here and letting good food grow cold! Everyone sit where you wish and eat!”
Dinner that night was lively and filled with welcome. Father and John talked about the state of the harvest and how the White men seemed to want more ammunition than they needed. Mother and Bernice sat and exchanged tales of their homelands. Bernice, as it turned out, was born in Pennsylvania, but her parents had moved to Michigan after their house burned down. She’d lived there until she met and married John while visiting a reserve in Ontario. Two years later, she and John took the train out west to British Columbia in order to start a new life for themselves and their new daughter, Lomasi.
“Where is she?” Mother asked Bernice. “I would love to meet her, and I know Tyee would be so pleased to finally have a playmate!” Bernice replied in a strangely cold voice that Lomasi was at school right now in Westminster, but might come home for Christmas break.
“Speaking of school,” John suddenly jumped in, “I think that young Tyee here should begin attending an Indian school as well.”
Bernice excused herself from the table and stormed out of sight. Father and Mother looked at each other, puzzled by the sudden change in her mood.
“Please excuse her,” John apologized, looking at the doorway that his wife had just vanished through. “We’re expecting our second child, and she’s beginning to get a bit more emotional than usual. And she is not very pleased about sending our daughter to school. She’s quite stubborn about traditional roles for the sexes; you know: boys go to school and girls stay home. But I decided that if women could work in factories, then they can be educated, too!”
“She didn’t look like she was expecting a child,” Mother said, surprised, “but congratulations! Will it be a boy or a girl?!”
“It’s very early,” John informed us. “I think it will be another girl, but Bernice assures me that it will be a boy this time. Every time she says that, I remind her, “That’s what you said the last time and we had a girl!” But she feels confident that this time it will be a boy. But back to what we were discussing … Tyee, I think that you should begin attending an Indian school. You look like a bright boy, and I’m sure your birth parents would have wanted you to become a knowledgeable, young man in society, don’t you think so?”
“They like learning,” Tyee responded after swallowing his last bite of salmon and vegetables. “They say I must have much knowledge to be happy. I would like to go school. Mother Winona, Father Luke, may I?”
“How can we say no to something that will help you,” my mother answered. Tyee’s face took on a puzzled look.
“That means “yes”,” my father told him happily. Tyee’s face lit up like a candle and his smile blazed brighter than any flame.
“Well then, it’s settled,” John stated happily, clapping his hands together. “Let me make a few calls and make the arrangements. If all goes well, he should be going to school by next month.”
It seemed as though time soared by as quietly and as gracefully as an eagle in the clouds. By the time the entire harvest was fully collected and stored away, November had descended upon them. Every morning, Tyee would rush to his window in the loft and find the glass cold and the ground covered with frost. And every day, he knew he was one day closer to going to school.
Father and the other men went out hunting more frequently so that they could have game and fish for the cold winter months. Led by John, they came back with bounties of deer, trout, salmon, rabbits, and other small animals that they’d managed to catch.
It was the middle of November when a message came for John that two men in uniforms were waiting at the town hall for him. A short time later, John knocked at the front door of my parents’ home, the two men close behind him.
“John!” my father greeted happily when he answered it. “What brings you to our home?”
“These men have come for Tyee,” John explained. “He’ll be going to an Indian school in Victoria but he’ll come and visit on holidays and such. They’ll take good care of him, Luke. You have my word on that.”
“Winona!” my father called. “Pack some clothes and food for Tyee! He’s going to school!”
“That won’t be necessary,” one of the men in uniform said. He had a golden star pinned on the right side of his chest and looked very strong. “We’ll get him food to eat on the train, and the school will provide clothes.”
Tyee rushed down the ladder, his face all smiles when he heard that the day had come for him to go to school. Mother and Father followed John and the two back to the town hall where a black car was parked. Mother’s eyes filled with tears as she knelt down and hugged her son.
“Take care of yourself and write to us,” she instructed him. “We’ll see if we can come and visit you sometimes. Be good and show kindness to everyone, no matter what skin color or language. And remember that we love you, son.”
“Don’t worry, Mother Winona,” he reassured her proudly, holding her wet cheeks in his hands. “I will come and visit you and Father Luke at Christmas and share all the wonderful things I have learned at school with you. I shall become a knowledgeable man and help our people attain new heights in this world.”
Mother smiled despite her tears and drew the young boy close to her, hugging him tightly. He squeezed her back and, for what seemed like hours, she held him, not knowing if he’d grow too busy to remember them or if the school would encounter some disease or something of that sort. But when the young boy pulled back and looked at her again, his eyes told her that he would never forget her as she would never forget him and that they would see each other again. Tyee hugged Father next, who wiped away the tears he was trying in vain to hide.
“Hurry up!” snapped the other man impatiently, who looked scrawnier than a picked chicken and had a bushy, brown beard. “We’ve got a long train ride ahead of us! You’ll see him again! You have my word as a police officer! Now, come on!”
The officer with the gold star on his chest opened the back door of the car and Tyee hurriedly scrambled in. The bearded officer slid in beside him, moving away from the small boy as if Tyee were carrying some sort of contagious disease inside him. The other man got in, and the car engine roared to life. Slowly, the sleek, black car pulled away with the two police officers and the young Inuit boy. Tyee was kneeling on the back seat, his little face joyful and one hand pressed against the glass at the back. The other was waving farewell to Mother, Father, and John. Then, he mouthed three, unmistakable words to them while still waving: I love you.
My parents waved heartily at their little son and mouthed the words back to him. But they didn’t notice the grim look on John’s face or even take in the fact that he wasn’t waving goodbye to Tyee at all. The car drove further and further down the long, dirt road, becoming smaller and smaller, until at last, it disappeared around the familiar bend in the road and was gone.
My parents never saw their innocent, little boy again.