Saskatoon

On our last morning in Edmonton we walk from the student residence to the Greyhound Depot. The bus line is usually fairly strict about weight limits on the baggage and number of bags per person. When our circus of chaos descended on the place all bets were off and they were just glad to hustle us on board and get the heck outta Dodge. The bus with its assigned, slightly cramped seats and lack of aisle space is not nearly as conducive to the kinds of roaming conversations that were happening on the train, but we look for little moments when we can. It is a long trip interspersed with long looks at the beauty of the prairies out the window, conversations here and there, and the occasional stop at a lonesome bus stop for air and frolicking in the fields. We arrive late in Saskatoon and we are greeted by the local team. Bruce Sinclair, who lent a hand in Edmonton, got a head start on us with Ruth Howard, the Artistic Director of Jumblies theatre and the architect of the Train of Thought, and they are both here to greet us. Ruth has chocolates and a little activity involving Train of Thought trivia that grounds everyone after our time on the bus. I meet my host for the next couple of days, a former English and Accounting teacher called Rod. Whenever possible I am taking advantage of the offer of a billet in someone’s home. I really enjoy talking with people and staying in homes. Over the next two days Rod and I discover we have a lot in common and have a fine time talking shop about literature and theatre.

Not so much about accounting.

Saskatoon is the home of my good friend Joel Bernbaum. He runs SUM theatre here, producing a variety of performance projects including a big original show each summer that tours for free to city parks. I’ll be meeting Joel and his partner Heather later tonight but in the meanwhile he’s introduced me via e-mail to Leisha the CBC morning show host here in town and the arts reporter for the Saskatoon Phoenix Star. I want to see about getting a spot on the radio and maybe a print story too and I am trying to get their attention about Train of Thought and From the Heart.. Leisha and I exchange a few e-mails about the possibility. She is enthused but ultimately she says this is really a story for a CBC weekend show where they can spend time on an interview, not a morning drive show. I let it go and bring my attention back to the upcoming events of the day.

Saskatoon is Cree Territory and I am all eager to learn about this significant Nation on Turtle Island, sometimes called North America. We begin with a 30 minute drive out to Wanuskewin, a cultural interpretive centre about five kilometres north of Saskatoon. The artwork in the gallery and other exhibits in the building, and the video about the place are marvelous. And we could watch a group of schoolkids actually binding the poles of a tipi with guidance from a docent. But the main attraction was without a doubt time spent walking the hills and valleys of this ancient place. Feeling I am stepping on the same paths of people who have walked here for over 6,000 years.

Our next stop is the grassy field of a park in town near the statue of Gabriel Dumont, the General who served with Louis Riel. More on Riel when I write about visiting his grave in Winnipeg. Dumont and Riel are new to me as an immigrant to Canada—I have heard their names but I couldn’t have relayed more than a sentence about either of them until now, when I have occasion to be in the company of the Métis people to whom these two people (and others) are heroes. They dedicated their lives not only to the Métis, but to all oppressed people of this region and of this land. This is part of my learning on Train of Thought. As a new Canadian, it is my responsibility to learn these histories beyond what I was called to learn to pass my citizenship test. And this is a challenge for all Canadians. A woman in the original cast of From the Heart talked about how she leaned history in High School but she is relearning now that she is recognizing how many holes there were in what she was taught. Just today one of the train travelers came upon a book called Canada by Train. Like so much historic writing about Canada, the colonial worldview is embedded in the writing. “Months before the transcontinental railway was completed, the Northwest Rebellion erupted. Canadian military forces were required to put an end to the Native and Métis revolt.” They were “required” were they? According to the way this author frames the history, it was a necessity—bringing order to chaos brought about by this “eruption.” I wonder what a different account of this event might look like in a different writer’s hands.

So back to the grass in that Saskatoon Park. We sit in a circle on the ground, guests at a class in Cree language taught by Randy Morin. He is teaching us some basic starter kit vocabulary. Last night in Edmonton we learned from Jerry Saddleback that the Cree suffix “-win” links a word with the big concept. So the word for the Cree people, Nehiyaw turns into the big concept version of the people with the suffix. Nehiyawewin is the Cree word for the Cree language. Seeing this linguistic construction, it dawns on me that for the Cree, as for so many Indigenous people, the language is not just a medium of verbal exchange. The language is big concept because the language itself holds their Cree-ness. The language is the container for what it is to be Cree. Or it is one very important container among others. A least that is what I understand right now. These words I am writing are not coming from any place of expertise, they are the scribblings of a fellow who is trying to learn more.

After a while we are joined by Tyrone Tootoosis and the topic turns to more of a broad lesson on Cree relationships with the territory here in Saskatchewan. When he winds up and the conversation comes to a close, I’m able to practice some of my new vocabulary. I tell him thank you in Cree.

Some of us wander to the river that runs right through town with pretty bridges traversing the water and walkable banks on both sides. Saskatoon is really a lovely city—it seems handmade with care. The rest of the day brings me to the Mendel gallery with its bold and stirring exhibition The Fifth World curated by Wanda Nanibush, a walk with Joel and dinner with him and Heather, and a evening of mostly indigenous performers from the area, emceed by our language teacher from earlier in the afternoon, Randy Morin. We are treated to the world premiere of Cathy Stubington’s song, birdsong—she sings as best she can what they sing—accompanied by Keith on mandolin. As the sun sets, everyone gathers in the park for singing and round dancing. The next morning we board the train to Winnipeg.

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