Ottawa

I had a feeling that taking a week-long detour from the Train of Thought to come to Ottawa would be worthwhile. I had no idea what a profound experience it would be for me.

I lucked out with my billeting. Through one of those friend-of-a-friend arrangements, I wound up staying in the home of Marcia Krawll who, with her husband Rongo Wetere, operate ArrowMight an international in-home adult literacy program. Rongo, who also founded New Zealand’s first Maori University (Te Wananga o Aotearoa), is currently in New Zealand. Though Marcia has never heard of me before, she treats me like I am an old family friend. As I get to know her over the next several days, I see what a gracious, fun, and savvy person she is. Marcia is loved by her friends and her friends are legion—across a spectrum of major players in the worlds of education, politics, and social activism. Thirty years ago Marcia was formally adopted by a family in Bella Coola BC and her uncle Wally, who is hereditary and elected chief there, has come to Ottawa to take part in the Truth and Reconciliation final event. Other members of her family are here, too, like her dear old friend and colleague Agnes Mills.  Agnes is an elder from Yukon who has been a force to be reckoned with in national Aboriginal politics for decades. She is also a guest in Marcia’s home this week and during my time here I get to spend time with her as well. 

It is 7am Sunday morning when I step off the bus in Ottawa. I don’t want to show up at too ridiculous an hour so after finding a café to have some breakfast, I wheel my suitcase packed with books to Marcia’s house. It’s not too much later that we make our way to the plaza in Gatineau that is starting point for the Walk for Reconciliation. Within minutes I’m meeting people I know in the crowd. Janet Gray, who was in the cast of From the Heart, works with KAIROS and they are here to walk. Brenda Vellino, who teaches at Carlton University here in Ottawa, has been a supporter of From the Heart from the early days—she is here with her daughter and a former graduate student. As we begin the walk on this sunny morning, conversations start spontaneously. People walking alongside me ask what I do. I tell them about the project and the book, and they light up, eager to learn more. I have a pocketful of FtH business cards with links to the online book and to purchasing info, and I pass these cards out like candy on Halloween.

The first day of the TRC has events scheduled at the main site in town—the Delta Ottawa Hotel—but today there is a satellite event out by the airport. Two thousand kids from elementary schools to high schools are coming in by bus to learn about reconciliation. They will be listening to speakers and performers and doing hands-on-activities. The event organizer, Charlene Bearhead, extends an offer to me: if I can get myself out there, she’ll have the crew set up a table for me in the entryway. I’m there by 9am for a 10am start time and sure enough, all day long I meet a steady stream of teachers, school administrators, curriculum advisers and university profs who stop by and chat with me to learn more about the project. Several people talk about the idea of using the performance labyrinth form as a way for Native kids to speak their truths in a school setting. Enthusiasm is high.

The next day I make my way to the Delta Hotel. Justice Murray Sinclair reads key points from the summary report of the commission’s  six years of work—research of documents and hearing testimony from 7000 survivors of the residential schools. Of course you will know about this since it was all over the news. I have to tell you, to be there among the hundreds who stood listening to his statement in person was truly astounding. Tears and applause marked the minutes as they went by.

Afterward, when the mood quiets down, I go looking for an empty table somewhere that I can set out some books and maybe have a few conversations. I hoped people would see Kit Maloney’s beautiful cover image and stop by to see what it was all about. I was unprepared for the virtual river of people who surround the table, eager to learn about it and just as eager to buy copies. I can hardly get the books out of the suitcase fast enough to meet demand. It is an overwhelming experience for an author to see such enthusiasm for his work.

At the end of the day I walk home, stopping by a small restaurant where the owner, a Bangladeshi man, cooks Mexican food. It is a delicious meal. I have a casual conversation with a friendly couple at the next table and bring up the reason I am in town. I am reminded that not everyone in Canada is on board with the idea of settler responsibility for sharing in the work of reconciliation. Still, it is a good exchange and I give them one of my cards in the hope that they might take a look at the project online and consider the ideas we are putting forward.

The final day of the TRC event begins at the Delta Hotel. Although there is less of a torrent of people at my table, I have loads of good conversations. I am so glad to be able to tell them that the entire book is available for free online at our website. Many many people take cards and I believe that they will be following up by reading the digital version. A little later we watch the closing ceremony at the Governor General’s house on the big screen monitor, and then drift over to Marion Dewar Plaza at City Hall for closing speeches and a concert by the inimitable Buffy Sainte-Marie.

That evening Marcia invites me to join her and her Bella Coola family and friends for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Our group of eleven are the only ones seated in the upstairs room. Along with Marcia’s uncle Wally, there are several chiefs and former chiefs at the table. The feast begins with a drum and song. Over dinner, people tell jokes and funny stories, share updates on a class action lawsuit now underway, and then start to share stories about life in the schools—stories of heartbreaking pain and also stories of those rare moments when the children triumphed over the ones in authority. We finish our meal with a drum and journey song. I am overflowing with gratitude for the privilege of being included in this good company of people.

I stick around for an extra day after the events wind up. After a morning of talking with Agnes Mills and listening to her remarkable stories, I hop a bus to Carlton University and knock on the door of the assistant book buyer for the university library. Five minutes later, he is eager to pass word on to his colleagues around campus about this useful new text and he promises to start the ball rolling on having the library purchase a copy. Next stop, the Ottawa Public Library where I get the same kind of reception from their book buyer. After a meal of fish and chips at a pub, I make my way to the National Arts Centre for the opening night of Canada’s celebrated theatre festival, Magnetic North. The show this evening is Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium and I splash out to buy a ticket for a good seat. It is a thrilling show. I am a little wary of Lepage’s giddy embrace of technical effects, but sure enough the actors—especially Marc Labrèche—offer performances that are generous and human and full of love. Plus, the technical effects in this show are jaw-droppingly amazing. He has created something the likes of which I have never seen on stage. For those of you familiar with my doctoral work on how to create astonishing moments in theatre, Lepage uses number 17; number 23; and number 12 very effectively. For those who don’t know my research, the book about it will be out in January.

On the bus to Toronto now, (hooray for Greyhound onboard wifi!) to meet up with my Train of Thought compatriots and to hear all about their adventures with Debajehmujig Theatre on Manitoulin Island, Thinking Rock in Blind River Mississauga First Nation, and Myths and Mirrors in Sudbury.

Toronto, here we come. We’ll be in town for the better part of a week

Onward!

Follow From the Heart

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Twitter