My life follows the well-worn trail “poor boy makes good,” a cliché so saturated in ideology that to try and disentangle it from the comfort it may offer to those who naively believe ours is a meritorious society remains to this day as much a challenge for me as actually indulging in the narcissism of telling the story.
A Small Mining Town in Northeastern Manitoba
I was born in the small town of Bissett in northeastern Manitoba into a mining family, the fourth of five boys. Of my grandparents, I know only vague family legends. When I was five years old, my mostly Ukranian mother courageously–this was the early sixties–left my mostly Polish father for a Métis man, earning the everlasting scorn of her family, and moved with us all to Red Lake, Ontario. The second-oldest of my brothers drowned in the first year of separation; my mother gave birth to the first of two younger sisters; and we returned to the custody of my father in Bissett.
I have three vivid memories of this period: the pain of nearly cutting my left thumb off in a broken window (according to the hospital bracelet I still have) at the age of three-and-a-half; the flashing lights of a police car and my mother weeping as we received the news my brother’s body had been found; our dog Tuffy running over from the neighbours’ and jumping with excitement to lick our faces upon our return to the family home with my father in Bissett.
My mother perhaps expected that my father would tire and send us back. My father perhaps hoped that, by having us, he would force her to return. He never tired; she never returned. I have only one vague memory of ever seeing the two of them together before their break. My mother’s new relationship has lasted until this day, so she found something of the happiness she needed to stay alive. The result: I grew up in our broken family in Bissett.
Within a few years, the mine closed. Most of my life my father worked seasonally or was wholly unemployed. He drank, almost professionally. The household consisted of myself, my three brothers, my father–even our dog was male. Although by the end of my parent’s marriage we had acquired one of the better houses in Bissett, within a couple of years we managed to destroy it.
In those days, the mine was still open, so my dad would be off to work early. Without a woman in the house, it was my oldest brother’s job to get us up and off to school. But there was no one to check on him, so he took to staying home. We soon discovered that he wasn’t following us to school, so he lost his moral authority to compel us to go. No mother, no one to notice–no one noticed. I was in grade three at the time. After three months, we began exploring the furthest reaches of the house, finding ourselves with candles in the attic, looking for old pictures of the family in happier times, the candle wax dripping onto the wood shavings created some kind of smudge fire. In putting the fire out, the Bissett volunteer fire department chopped a hole in the roof, ran a hose through the picture window and effectively destroyed the place we were living in.
A Long Bout of the Flu
We were separated and lived with various families for a few months (I told my friends at school that I had had the flu, although I don’t think they believed me). Finally, we moved to the house in which I remember growing up. It had been a bachelor-party house, one of several places known as the “Ponderosa.” It was a shack, heated by an oil-barrel wood stove in the mud basement, with an outhouse and a nearby well for drinking water.
For about six years, my brothers and I lived in as harsh a material deprivation as probably could be found in Canada. Family-allowance cheques were a lifeline for us, but for the most part we were beyond the reach of the social-safety network. When the electricity got cut off, as it sometimes did, we lived in the nineteenth century. Had any social worker seen us in any of these years, we would have been swept up in the blink of an eye (our greatest fear). We were never seen. Although I do remember waiting at the gates of the mine for my father to walk out at the end of his day, or asking to have his name called in the bar in order to get a bit of change for chocolate bars, for the most part we went from one precarious meal of macaroni soup to the next–when we were lucky, this would be a few days later.
Three things gave me comfort. My brothers were close as could be: we laughed and cried, feuded and played, dreamed and despaired together. We tormented one another, and fought for each other fiercely. My oldest brother, Greg, and I loved to play the war game “Risk”–only our strategy was to just build up our armies until all the pieces were used up. My younger brother,Wayne, would cry though the nights over the pain in his teeth. I was Tim’s personal servant in that older-brother-younger-brother way, but to me he communicated a sense of pride in our family that he had been old enough to gain from our mother and which I had never had the chance to absorb.
Books, Books, Books
My books, or rather the books I read, gave me a window into other worlds and fed my dreams with substance. By the time I came to leave home, I had read every book in Bissett–and I mean every book. I would visit and meet people in order to scan their personal libraries, then shyly ask if I could borrow something. They always said yes. I had already read every book in the two-room school (which, as a former grade-one-to-twelve school, had a larger library than might be expected), everything from the classics–Don Quixote was a favourite–to pulp fiction, westerns, science fiction, mysteries–anything except pulp romances. I remember especially S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which I read about five or six times. I loved it because it was about dirt-poor kids who nevertheless were good–heroes, even.
The bush that surrounded us and formed the backdrop for our games and our walks was a third comfort. We escaped the bleakness of our home by going out into a world of rock and swamp, following the dog in mad chases after rabbits, picking berries while swatting away mosquitoes, or getting lost and found again in endless, exhausting, purposeless treks. The best of our meals came from the bush: moose meat or pickerel, partridges or pin cherries or morels helped us through. In general, though, I have to admit we were a scrawny lot, perpetually underfed. It was not a life of endless misery: we had a glorious playground and we had each other. But we had our share of bad times.
Never Kill Yourself
I do have the ashes of many a sad sight burned into my book of memories. I remember as a boy of ten, watching a man come to turn off the power because my dad couldn’t pay the 30-odd-dollar electric bill. He was a working man in his hydro coveralls, and it was clear to us he felt reluctant about what he had to do. But my dad had no money. The man made a few quick adjustments and left as fast as he could. My dad’s hands stayed limply at his sides. We were without power. Some part of me said to myself, “Remember this. Now you must find your own way. Remember this.” Later, sitting in the broken-down car I used as a reading place, I thought: “Never kill yourself. You’re living through the worst, now. Never let yourself get so miserable that you forget this.”
I was ten, having to think these thoughts. Years later, through all the tortures of loves not returned, loneliness, failures, defeats, the endless late-night hours in shabby rooms with no respite, whenever the thought of suicide came to me, I remembered the promise I made to myself in those years.
The worst year of my life was when I was eleven. My brothers had gone on to residential school, so it was me and my youngest brother, alone with my father. He spent more and more time with a drinking buddy, eventually even moving in with him. That year we ran out of wood early in the winter. We were often without food. We loved the school for its warmth. My brother and I would get up early, turn on the stove when we had electricity and sit over the elements until it was time to run down to school. I remember late nights, digging through ice and snow with my bare hands, stealing a small piece of wood from the neighbours to get enough of a fire going so we could sleep. I remember still worse things.
It must be said that the community helped. Neighbours gave us Christmas meals. Though there were strong animosities, even hatreds, there was also a strong sense that still persists of being from Bissett and being proud of that. The glory days of Bissett were long over, a story that would repeat itself through my life as I went through a residential school on its last legs, a university system and then a public sector dealing with waves of cutbacks. But the small community that remained developed its own dynamic, its own idiosyncratic behaviours, and was always a relatively easy, even nurturing, social terrain for me to negotiate my way through. One of my teachers in what was by then a one-room school, John Jack from St. Vincent, even managed to reinvigorate some of the community spirit that had been trampled when the mine closed. He gave me an object lesson that remains with me to this day of the value of a “community school” to small northern towns.
I remember leaving home at the tender age of twelve to go to residential high school in far away Cranberry Portage, with my father shaking my hand, a stiff and foreign formality, outside our house one cool September morning. I remember asking my roommate how to make a bed with two sheets. When told I would sleep between them, I thought this was unparalleled luxury: kings must have lived like this! For the first time in years, I got three meals a day, and suddenly I had access to a whole new library. The first book I signed out had a title I well remembered: The Outsider. I decided to start my new reading career with an old friend. When I got it back to my room I realized it wasn’t by Hinton at all, but by some other writer named Camus. I read it anyway.
Frontier Collegiate Institute was by then the last vestige of the residential school system. It was government-, not church-run, though most of the kids were Aboriginal: Cree and Métis and Ojibwe, with a few whites like me thrown into the mix. The most common thing I hear from friends who tell me about their lives was that they were “misfits” or “outsiders” in their high schools. Well, mine was a school of misfits. But for me, at least the environment was not bad. I got some regular meals. I was indoctrinated into a more structured lifestyle. In a way, it was like being in school all the time, moving between classrooms and the residence. It was the boredom that was most soul-destroying, harder on those who didn’t find a joy in reading. For the most part, I was a model student; I didn’t drink and was too much of a nerd to be able to get any of the young women “in trouble.” I was elected student-council president and even became a pretty good floor-hockey player (since I never had skates that fit me, I never did well on the ice).
A few teachers at FCI, the vice-principal, Peter Falk, a physics and jack-of-all-trades teacher, Sig Erikson, and an English teacher, Gerard Jennissen, took my brother and me under their wing. Gerard is now an MLA in Manitoba. Lisa Jennissen fed me some of the best meals I had ever had in my life and asked Gerard why he seemed to hate Pierre Trudeau so much. This was really the start of my political education.
The one piece of critical consciousness I had from very early on was my atheism. From the time my brother drowned when I was six, I absorbed the fact of death deep into my psyche. I could never believe in an afterlife and felt that, if there was a God, I might as well be his enemy, since he had destroyed what I loved. For that reason, the dry affectlessness of Camus appealed to me.
An Instinctive Conservative
However, up to the time when I asked Gerard about Trudeau, I was an instinctive conservative. I had absorbed a deep fear of the state: social workers or the police would destroy our family. One summer, my brothers and I, while Tim, our moral compass, was away, had broken into the Bissett school and were eventually caught and brought before a magistrate. Though he let us off with a warning, I remember how afraid I was. I wanted to please authority and thrived on being recognized by teachers for being such a good student. Most of the books I read were deeply conservative in orientation, creating among other things a regard for the Romans–Cicero, in particular–from which I still can’t free myself. Despising the prime minister seemed to me a non-starter.
But Gerard and Sig eventually had us running around in NDP campaigns, learning about socialism and communism and capitalism. Suddenly, even in classrooms, books like The Grapes of Wrath started to make sense. I found myself debating with a geography teacher over politics, cheered on by the other students not because they agreed with me but because they were glad to see anyone talking back. But it certainly wasn’t a fully-formed social conscience. In grade eleven, I debated against the women’s team, arguing in favour of male domination. Both sides felt they had won. Most importantly, however, the talks with Gerard made me realize that there was a reason why we were poor, that it wasn’t entirely our fault, that we didn’t have to be ashamed of who we were. Marxism–even in the indirect forms I learned when I was 14 or 15–helped me to lose a deeply felt sense of shame.
It was during one of those summers back home that I earned some money to travel to B.C. to visit my mother for the first time in six years. I remember walking beside her, thinking, “So this is my mother. This is what it’s like to have a mother.” We’ve stayed close ever since. And I also remember the sad look on my father’s face when I came back from residence for the first Christmas, and he realizing I felt too grown up to co-sleep anymore. For many years, we had all shared a bed; it’s only years later that it came to me how he slowly lost us all, though I always loved him, visited him and stayed as close as I could.
It was in my early years of university that some sense of my mission in life came to me. I was the only one of my graduating class (about 200 in grade nine, about 30 graduating from grade twelve) to go directly into university. I knew this had to do with the privilege of my skin colour. Walking into stores in Winnipeg with friends from high school, I remember how the clerks would always come to me first. I could see the street-level racism that surrounded me. When a store in Cranberry banned the kids from residence for all being “shoplifters,” it was me being banned. After a disastrous first year in science, I switched to the study of politics (my only respectable first-year mark) and started to read Marx seriously. I wrote essays on Aboriginal issues, but found no courses and no guidance.
The University of Winnipeg
The University of Winnipeg was, and remains, a lively place for an undergraduate education and one that certainly served me well. I took political sociology with Stevenson, Geography with Lo Lim, History with Wagner, English with Swayze and politics with Kroker. Quite a lot of politics with Kroker. From him I gained a love of “theory” and an introduction to the Frankfurt School, Sartre, French structuralism and post-structuralism. But on my own I started to read Marx, and Marx’s writings have been my intellectual touchstone ever since.
I went to university as a 16-year-old, starting in 1976, expecting to see hippies and social ferment, sit-ins and peace signs. By then, however, it was all over. I remember leaving class one day that fall, walking back toward the ratty apartment I shared with my brother and stumbling across this huge demonstration. Something about wage controls and Trudeau, and they were asking people from the sidewalks to join in. I did. I was thrilled to be handed a sign. I walked down Memorial Boulevard in Winnipeg, chanting along with the crowd, telling some young guy my age who was selling communist newspapers that I was a communist, too–and where do we go to meet other communists anyways?–crashing into the legislature with a small, breakout demonstration chanting, “We want Schreyer! We want Schreyer!” and then realizing there weren’t too many of us left and that I had better skedaddle.
Later that year, when I heard the PQ had been elected in Quebec, having just read Bergeron’s A History of the People of Québec, I was convinced that revolution was around the corner. In fact, the historical tide had turned, and those of us with leftist leanings were in a distinct minority as students, the word “revolution” was slowly being banned from academic lexicon.
Punk as a Soundtrack for Life
But something else was happening. I remember watching T.V. in residence in high school, seeing a news clip about the latest “weird” fashion in England, some kind of Alice-Cooper-gone-crazy scene where kids were using safety pins as earrings and playing this impossible-to-listen-to music. Within a few years of university, my friend Janet introduced me to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and helped me find a cultural context for my own discontent. The anthems and anger of punk spoke directly to the dead-end hopelessness with which I had grown up.
I helped to start a “Chilean Resistance Support Group” at the University of Winnipeg, inspired by my friend and former highschool teacher Frank Tough, who was then doing an M.A. in geography at the U of W. We did some educational work and eventually some lobbying around university investments in Chile and South African companies. This was the earliest sustained activism I engaged in. One demonstration we helped organize ended up with more police than protestors, police above and below us on the narrow stairwell of Chancellor’s Hall; it seemed appropriate to the times. The Board of Governors was so embarrassed they ended up having to invite us into their meeting. But the fact that I seemed to be on the losing side of whatever battles I was engaged in never discouraged me; at least I was alive to fight the fight.
Although I cut my political teeth working with Chilean exiles on the anti-Pinochet front, I had always ultimately been oriented toward working on Aboriginal issues. There were no groups or actions going that I could find during my undergraduate years, no courses to give me a background. Nevertheless, I went on to graduate school and studied political theory as a major, with a special minor in Aboriginal politics. I gained some tutoring from my thesis advisor at York University, Ed Dosman, but for the most part, starting in the early eighties, I became self-taught in Aboriginal politics.
Frances Abele gave me a huge boost by hiring me as a research assistant on a study of Aboriginal training programs. This got me into the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and what would later become Nunavut. My background made it easy for me to make connections with Dene (years later, one of my Dene friends, Bella T’Seleie, looking at a photo of me with my brothers and father, exclaimed, “No wonder you’re so much like us: you’re a hillbilly!”). Although I read what I could read and followed events as best I could, it was not really until I began to teach that I learned about Aboriginal history in Canada. Since then, I have tried to give my students the course I never had. It was also then, as a professor, that I began to engage in civil disobedience and lost my fear of police.
The Difference between Despair and Hope
I realized I had gained some privilege. It was time to spend it. I was poor as a student, both at the undergraduate level and for most of my graduate years, but the poverty of student life was a world apart from the poverty of my youth. While I wouldn’t want to glamorize student poverty, and don’t think anyone should have to suffer the indignities and degradations it entails, I was still living in a world far removed from my life in Bissett. The difference is simple to articulate: it’s the difference between despair and hope.
From my graduate days at Toronto’s York University, I had a strong sense of my own politics. I had a well-developed theoretical perspective and was a determined activist. I engaged in union politics for the Canadian Union of Educational Workers, representing part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants. I was national treasurer for two years, and chief steward of grievances and chief negotiator at York. This gave me an invaluable set of skills and a strong sense of the union movement.
Wherever I’ve been, wherever I’ve gone, I’ve been a trouble maker. I’ve engaged in civil disobedience and been arrested for it. I’ve played a role in institutional politics at various universities, fighting for a more respectful and inclusive university environment, fighting against college closings. But the best of the work I’ve been able to do has been out of sight of the mainstream Left in Canada, working with small northern communities, isolated bush peoples, poor folk with the kinds of wealth we have yet to find a way to calculate. I’ve been nourished in my ideals by community meetings in small Aboriginal communities that taught me about democracy. And I have met elders from the bush who share the same basic values that I feel committed to. If there is any difference I can make, I want it to be there. I hope I will find more on the Left joining me in the years to come.
But the age of 21, I had completed my master’s degree and was well on the way to completing my doctorate, inspired in some measure by the Woods at York and the strong academic “theory” culture that circulated there. At 25, I was a doctoral student in Toronto, a Marxist punk working on Aboriginal politics by way of contemporary political theory, involved in university-based union activism. I was reading deconstruction, having gotten through Sartre and Marx, and was ready in some measure for the feminism I would come to within a few years.
Although as an undergraduate I became sympathetic to feminism, I never studied it or seriously reflected upon my own practice in relation to it. Growing up in an entirely male-saturated household had given me an idealized notion of “woman”; all that was right and clean about the world seemed to be associated with what was missing in our lives. This was actually exacerbated by the misogyny of my father, who railed against my absent mother and women in general whenever he was drunk. As a dirt-poor, bookish type, I never had girlfriends; because I was so non-threatening, I was the male friend that the young women liked to have around. As an undergraduate, my loves were all unrequited. My first sexual relationship didn’t come until graduate school. I did acquire the equivalent of fifth-level Zen-master status in the refined art of self-pleasure. I had an “official” notion that feminism was a part of the struggle for emancipation, but no real content behind that. My second marriage partner, Julia Emberley, had the patience and anger to lead me to a more substantial feminist consciousness, a feminism informed by some reading, sustained thought and engagement.
Homophobia was certainly an element of everyday life for much of my early years. In my last year as an undergraduate among the street crowd that I mixed with were gay male prostitutes: their desperation and intense love of the moment made a huge impression on me. By then I was reading Dostoievski, so intense despair seemed a theme. Somehow my life’s course took me through circles of gay/lesbian/bi and transsexual friends who were patient with my ignorance. Since I never felt in a position to feel better than anyone else, I suppose they appreciated the fact that I had an instinctive or in-bred acceptance of outsiders. Perhaps they just felt sorry for me.
Being True to Your Ideals
In a sense, I don’t believe I’ve “accomplished” very much in my life, since I mostly get involved in losing causes. I did once lead negotiations for quite a good collective agreement at York University. I helped promote getting a Native Studies building constructed at Trent University, though lost the battle and left the place, since the building that got built was not substantively the one that inspired us. As a department chair or head, I guess I’ve helped consolidate the discipline of Native Studies. Most of my accomplishments are academic, writing words that few will ever read. I have, here and there, managed to carve some sentences I consider rather good out of the ether of language. The summer school I started and now help run on Baffin Island with a friend and colleague, Chris Trott, has become something I take pride in: we take about 20 undergraduates from across Canada up to Pangnirtung in Nunavut and watch what happens as they encounter elders, hunters and communities. It has now run for eight years, gathering the momentum to become quite a successful little program. My greatest personal accomplishment has been to help create a new little human being. Through my daughter, Malay, I’ve come to have a new reason for living.
If there’s any one lesson my unfolding life conveys, it has something to do with being true–against the many obstacles that exist–to your ideals. When I started graduate school I was warned that studying political theory and Aboriginal politics would not get me a job. And those who warned me were right. When I graduated with my doctorate, no political science department in the country would look at me. But I stuck with my chosen fields because they were more important to me than where I would find work. I always thought I would end up working for the government of the N.W.T., or for an Aboriginal organization (and did interview with the Chiefs of Ontario, at one point). But somehow I have carved a place for myself in Native Studies. I see a lot of jaded folks around who get personally defeated by political defeats and lose their ideals, but somehow, in spite of many defeats, I’m more idealistic than ever. And that’s one of the few things I like about myself.
Nowadays, I listen to Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams (with a dose of the Magnetic Fields to counter the sincerity). I love to read classical history, am eagerly awaiting publication of the last part of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Hollinger’s translation. I don’t go to as many films as I once did: Tarkovski is my favourite director, but I’ll watch just about anything. I’ve cut down on drugs and television, I’ve got far too much work to do and I’m still fighting about a million battles in and for quite a variety of northern communities. I’ve always been involved in non-aligned activist groups, currently the Friends of Grassy Narrows, so I get out to evening meetings and get to hang once in a while with youngish, post-punk, activist, anarchist types, and what could be more fun for a mansion Marxist than that? After twelve years at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, I’ve moved back to Manitoba and am slowly connecting with some of the Cree, Dene and Anishinabe communities here. Though Trent was a great place for me to be, Manitoba long ago planted deep roots in my affection and it feels right that I’m back here. I love to travel, both out of Canada and in bush country, I visit art galleries around the world, still read quite a lot, am making progress at learning Inuktitut, and feel like I’m ready to accomplish something. But what?
Peter Kulchyski is head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. He has written and edited a number of books and articles on Aboriginal rights, cultural politics and history, like The Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut, which will be published in the coming year by the University of Manitoba Press.
This article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .