Monday, July 31, 2006

White Man

Hang around my family and I long enough and you may just hear a few strange expressions such as: "Where's the ji-jish?" "You big googoosh!" or even "You little alamus!" Hang around my siblings and I and you might hear a few more, like: "Remember the time we went way up and...?" or "I need to go get my shooliyan."

Remnants of phrases or expressions from a language I never learned, growing up. I was 2 and a half when my family moved to Moose Factory Ontario, and I was 18 and a half when I left to get more education. From grade one to grade eight, I was often the only white child (or one of two white children) in my class. The rest were all Cree or a mix of Cree. We had Cree classes, in which we learned some words and phrases, some of which I still remember today, but quite frankly, when you're the only WHITE MAN in your class (worst insult one could come up with back then) and there is a discipline problem in the Cree classes (as in no discipline at all) and they (the nasty bullies of the class) take advantage of that to beat you (the only white person) up, even if you WANTED to learn THEIR language, it would have been a little hard to concentrate... Yeah, predjudice goes both ways. So most of the expressions I used were ones that were (are) still in common usage. Some of them I actually originally thought were English.

Luckily, not all Cree people are mean bullies. Actually, as in any culture, the nice ones vastly outnumber the nasty ones. As in any small, close-knit community, it takes awhile for an outsider to be accepted. Especially when they are different. And I must say, my family probably wouldn't fit in much anywhere, let alone in Moose Factory.

For starters, my Dad was the Catholic Deacon, in charge of the Catholic Mission in Moose Factory. (We only had a priest on Sundays.) Practically everyone else was Anglican, with a few Pentecostals and Baptists. We were the ones who wore the hand me downs from the rummage sales. We weren't allowed to watch a lot of the shows and movies others watched. We didn't even have cable. Heck, we didn't have a TV until I was about 11 or 12. We didn't have a good boat. My Dad bought this rubber raft with a minuscule motor, and the other men laughed at his "poor man's boat", which didn't seem to bother my Dad in the least.

We recycled, even back then, before it was in style. Reduce, re-use, recycle was already our "mode de vie". We had three different garbages, the paper garbage (or anything else that burns), the cans (and other metals) garbage and the compost. We couldn't send anything to recycling, but my mother kept umpteen margarine/ice-cream containors and glass jars of all sizes, we never had tupperware. The cans unfortuantely had nowhere to go but the dump, and my father burned the stuff that would burn. But we composted, and my mother was still using cloth diapers when everyone else had started to use disposables.

We weren't allowed to stay out late at night and we had to eat healthy food. We didn't get to go buy chips and pop and candy at the corner store. And while we thought that unfair at the time, I certainly appreciate it now!

We might have been different, but for what it's worth, I picked up some of the Cree culture as well. Like when you do something for someone else, it comes free of charge, it is mutually understood that next time it'll be your turn. There is no offer of money in return, not like here, in Quebec, where I learned the hard way that unless you offer money, people feel that you don't appreciate what they've done.

I learned that when someone is in trouble, you get together and you help them, when tragedy happens, you get together and cry with those who are left behind, when someone dies, you get together and celebrate their life. Senor citizens are not old fogeys, they are our Elders, people who have lived life and learned much wisdom. They are respected and taken care of. They are given the best seats at feasts and gatherings and have a place of honour in the community.

In Moose Factory, children are still a source of wealth, and friends and extended family are there to help you with them, be it your first or your sixth child.

Last year, when I was still trying to get used to the fact that I was pregnant again, the two people I talked to from Moose Factory couldn't believe I might not be happy about it, and one of them told me that it was an honour to my own mother to be having as many children as she had. And this guy isn't even close to being an Elder yet. Now if only we could get that kind of wisdom out into the "white" world.

There are days when I'd like to move back (dare I call it?) home. Days like when I've had a visit (for the second time) from the police, because some neighbour has complained about the dog barking (it was daytime, for crying out loud, and couldn't have been that bad) or my children playing in OUR pond (ours not theirs.) If someone in Moose Factory thought some children might be in danger, they'd have talked to the parents, not called the police. And noone would ever call the police for a dog barking. That would be unheard of.

Ah, but of course, even life in Moose Factory is not perfect, and while I learned a lot of good values, there are of course abuses as well. And besides, even though certain people make me feel at home there, and others try to, I don't think I will ever feel that I belong there, for the simple fact that it was drilled into me so long ago that I am a WHITE MAN. Actually, I think I do not belong anywhere. In Quebec, they think I am an anglophone, in British Columbia, they thought I was French-Canadian. Although I have since learned the "white" way to do things, I cannot say that even the Cree were right in calling me WHITE and yet I am not un-WHITE either.

So who am I? My siblings and I have come to the conclusion that we must simply be truely Canadian. In a very privileged way.

So, where is the ji-jish? He is currently in my lap having a good drink of mommy's milk. In fact he's stuffing himself like a big googoosh. And my other children are hopefully being good outside, playing nicely and not being a bunch of alamuses. My shooliyan is sitting in my wallet, patiently waiting for my next big (or small) purchase and when next I visit Moose Factory, I will be sure to go "way up", to the end of the island that is most up-river, and where the elementary school I went to and the hospital are. I will then go visit a few of my friends "way down".