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Butterflies

Merlyn Carter, Northern Bush Pilot. Photo, Dean Carter.

Born and raised in northern Canada, I felt a great deal of excitement last week upon reading that the Hay River (Northwest Territories) Airport has been renamed Merlyn Carter Airport. It was Merlyn (1934-2005), of Carter Air Services, a small float plane company in my hometown. who inspired my love of flying as well as an almost two-decade aviation career in the north.  This is our story.

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I come from a commercial fishing family on Great Slave Lake and grew up watching Merlyn fly his float planes into the Moraine Point fishing station to drop off mail, groceries and people. Then he was off again with another passenger or a load of fish.  I always wondered at the freedom one must feel when they are up there away from everything down here. I was a quiet, shy kid and always longed for something like that.

My first time flying was with Merlyn when I was a young boy in the late sixties. Early one summer, a few members of my family and I flew out to Moraine Point for the summer.  I felt butterflies in my stomach sitting in the co-pilot seat during that flight and inhaling all the freedom, joy and wonder of flight. It was unforgettable seeing my beloved Great Slave Lake from way up high for the first time. But I had no idea how small my world at that time would become later.

It was on one of those flights home from Moraine Point in a Cessna 185 float plane when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that I fell in love with flying.  With Merlyn in control, and the back seat filled with boxes of fish, and me once again with butterflies in my stomach, we had just taken off from Moraine Point and leveled off at a couple thousand feet. When he had trimmed the controls so it required no hands, he took one of his headphones off, looked at me, smiled and shouted, “You wanna fly?”

Fire Tower Construction, 1980, north of Fort Providence, NT

Hooking a lanyard from the cupola to the belly of a helicopter before slinging it to the top of the fire tower.

When I turned 18, I became a helitack firefighter with forestry, based in Hay River. I learned how to fight fire with helicopters and airplanes. I remember getting those butterflies in my stomach again on my first helicopter flight. I was quite young and the older pilots took me under their wing, so to speak, and when no one was looking, they taught me how to fly helicopters. Four years later, I became an Air Attack Officer – the person in charge of directing air attack (water bombers and helicopters) on forest fires. Again, the pilots there taught me how to fly airplanes.  At 22, I was supervising pilots who were sometimes two and three times my age. But they knew I was eager to learn everything about flying so they were easy on me.

As part of the national air attack fleet, we would work from Ontario to Vancouver Island to the Arctic coast and from the US to Mexico. We fought fires high in the Rockies in British Columbia, on the tundra north of Inuvik, near the pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula and even protected a radio tower from burning near downtown Acapulco. We fought to protect communities from fire all over this country. We fought to contain the spread of lightning-caused fires, tractor trailer fires, sawmill fires, house and cabin fires and campfires. We participated in air search and rescue and downed aircraft operations. And in all of my career, through the hundreds of flight operations we performed, I am happy to say that no one under my supervision has ever lost a life. At the end of the day, I can take that home with me.

And although I never became an actual pilot (I was always proud to be a forest firefighter who specialized in air attack), I have always loved flying in all of its various forms, challenges, environments and theaters. It was and is an exciting job for a younger person who wants to push the envelope of their physical, psychological and mental capabilities. It can build character at an amazing rate. But as I got older and the learning curve began  to drop off, I left the job and went into the fledgling computer multimedia design business. I am now involved in writing and filmmaking.

I still have a great deal of respect and admiration for those men and women who continue to fight fire from the air. Everyone should – no matter where you come

Supervising the 450th Squadron, Inuvik, NT, 1987

from. It can be very difficult and quite dangerous at times, probably a lot like bush flying in Merlyn’s day. But flying has also been such a big part of my personal growth. It has done wonders for my character, self-esteem and -confidence and has taught me how to assert myself and how to calculate risk when I am about to do something significant. It has taught me how to overcome loss and fear in their many forms. And it has provided me a sense of freedom, friendship and camaraderie that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. In fact, it is because flight is only accomplished in defiance of anything earthly that these relationships are forged in a special way. After many years, I think I finally know about what it is like to be up there away from everything down here. Few people in life get to be so fortunate and for that, I am thankful.

When I think about it now, I could have shook my head and said, “No, thanks!” to Merlyn back then. As I said, I was a small, shy, introverted kid at the time. But I think he may have sensed something else in me. Maybe he recognized that awe and wonder in those young eyes as his own. Or maybe a long time ago, someone else, someone much older had said to him, “You wanna fly?”

Directing Air Attack Operations from the bird dog airplane.

At any rate, sometime in the early 90s, in the waning years of my forestry career, we were on a long flight back to Hay River from Inuvik in the bird dog airplane. There was a shy, young aircraft dispatcher in the back seat who was along for the ride. No one said anything for the first half of the flight. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I turned her and said, “You wanna fly?”

After a fair bit of apprehension on her part, my pilot and I were finally able to convince her to switch seats with me.  Now, I can’t say we had anything to do with it, but shortly thereafter, I’d heard she became a commercial pilot in the north. These days, she is a First Officer on Air Canada’s Airbus 320 series. I am very proud of this brilliant young woman as I hope Merlyn would be of me. I would be honoured to know that she was in the Captain’s seat of any airplane I was on board.

So, thank you, Merlyn, for trusting a very young aboriginal kid to take control of something so much larger than himself and at a time when kids feel they have control of nothing in their lives. I can promise you that it has made all the difference these many years later. Because every now and then, I will turn to the smallest, youngest, shyest of my high school film students on the set and say, “You wanna direct?”

I hope they get butterflies in their stomach when they hear those words.

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“Fearless” Frederick Lepine
(formerly Birddog 117, 450th Squadron)
Flying Colors Design
Vancouver Island

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Mabel’s Story

(This week’s short story is loosely based on the character and experience of my mother, Alvina Lepine (1918-2009), who at 64, decided it was time to learn to read and write. She won a Peter Gzowski Literacy Award for her efforts. She appeared on CBC North television and as a result, she inspired a 43-year-old Inuit woman in the eastern Arctic to do the same.

To celebrate her story, I wrote this. It ended up the Grand Prize Winner in the 1996 Northwest Territories Writing Contest sponsored by NWT Literacy. As a result of that, both my mother and I were interviewed by the Bravo Channel for a documentary on literacy – a documentary that I have never seen. BTW, the references in this story to the National Enquirer are there because as soon as she was able to read at that level, my mother began to believe all the stories she read in the NI. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Leave me a comment.

PS: Not to be outdone, my brother Frank won the same contest the following year. Don’t worry – I have a story coming soon about him, too… 😉 )

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“Not all true histories have been written; not all written histories have been true.” – FFL, Talking in Circles (Gallery Show, 1992)

My mother and I, 1963ish.  Hay River, NT.

My mother and I, 1963ish. Hay River, NT.

Her foot had slipped out like a shot from under her short, plump body and she ended up sitting there like a rag doll on the sidewalk. White and green plastic Northern Store bags flailing, cans of Klik Luncheon Meat, the ones with the neat little lead skeleton keys welded on the top, and Libbyʹs brown beans with the tiny useless portions of pork rattle across the icy concrete and into the snow. Now, as I run to help, her National Enquirer flies up in my face and I catch a glimpse of Navajo Medicine Man Meets E.T. in Desert.

ʺNisit…,ʺ she cries when she realizes what has happened. She is consoling her ankle through worn woolen mittens. I have to get her off the concrete or sheʹll freeze there. Colin, the store manager, a tall balding white man in his fifties, rushes out through the litter of Pilot biscuits, Kraft Dinner boxes and cans of Coke. His foot catches a bottle of HP sauce and punts it off the sidewalk and into the parking lot.

I am trying to pick her up by the shoulders of her thin spring parka, but sheʹs not helping. She just rocks back and forth and holds her ankle crying, ʺNisit, nisit…ʺ

ʺAre ye okay Mabel?ʺ Colin asks in his thick Scottish accent. Heʹs down on one knee now, and begins rubbing her foot as well. Iʹm still trying to get her off the concrete, because for some reason, I think sheʹs going to freeze there. The raspy voice of my mother floods in from somewhere in the sharp November wind like a scratchy LP, ʺWhiss, you sit on the ice like that, youʹll get piles…!ʺ

ʺDo ye want me to call an ambulance?ʺ asks Colin. Then, before she can reply, he turns his head and yells, ʺAaron, get me a blanket! Unʹ be quick!ʺ At first I donʹt see young Einstein, the clerk who had come out of the store behind Colin. He is there more out of curiosity than concern. At Colinʹs bark, the pock-faced kid scatters like he just discovered he has wiped the hard drive clean on his old manʹs computer. Iʹm still trying to get old Mabel to her feet, and I finally manage to pull one cheek off the concrete, Colin says to me, ʺLet her rest a wee bit. Sheʹll be okay in a minute.ʺ

Okay with me, I think. I place her gently back down on the sidewalk, and begin to chase puffed bags of Cheezies and Lipton Noodle Soup boxes across the parking lot, because thatʹs the only thing I can think of doing right now.

By the time I have collected the last pages of the National Enquirer from under an old Volvo across the street, Colin seems to have things well in hand. I trudge back to the store entrance with most of the paper under my arm, the rest I try to read in the light of the parking lot. Bigfoot Spotted in Las Vegas Motel.

Colin already has her and her bags stuffed into the back seat of Philʹs taxi. He has placed a brand new grey woolen blanket around her and I hear him saying, ʺ Donʹt ye worry now, Mabel. Iʹll have Rita Williams the home nurse drop in on ye tomorrow morninʹ. Aaronʹll bring the rest of yer groceries around tonight on ʹis way home. Iʹll get someone tʹmake sure ye get home in one piece. You just stay off that ankle until Rita gets there, yʹhear?ʺ

Something like ʺEhhhh…,ʺ comes from the back seat. Man. Old people! I think.

ʺMake sure she gets home okay, will ye, Tommy?ʺ Colin turns to me holding the cab door open.

ʺNow wait a goddamn min…ʺ I blurt. Colin glares at me. ʺDonʹ fret, heʹll carry yer groceries up fer ye, as well, Mabel. Heʹs a good lad.

“Oh and Phil, make sure you get Tommy back to where heʹs going to and charge it to the store.ʺ He fakes a smile as I slide numbly into the back of the cab.

A ride in Philʹs taxi with an old woman – probably the first free thing Colin has given away since he came North. Probably just trying to avoid a lawsuit. Damn, I was just going for a beer with Kicker and Big Man. Looks like theyʹll have to start without me. Great- theyʹre slappin back cold ones, and I get to take care of Granny, I think.

Within minutes we are clipping down the highway out to the reserve with this old lady, two bags of snow covered groceries and a National Enquirer. Phil is thumping his fingers to Alabamaʹs Mountain Music on the radio. We have to take the long way to the reserve because the ice bridge across the Hay River hasnʹt frozen over yet. Itʹll be last call by the time I get back, I think.

ʺTansi,ʺ she says quietly after a while. I just smile and nod. I begin to pretend reading the National Enquirer with the help of passing streetlights. I can feel her staring at me from behind the thin blue paisley scarf.

ʺWhatʹs your name, Tommy?ʺ she asks a little while later.

ʺTommy,ʺ I say. Geez. Some old peopleʹs kids.

ʺWaal! I mean your last name.ʺ A chuckle wheezes out from deep in her chest.

ʺSquirrel.ʺ I give up the information as though she might stalk me some day.

ʺSquirrel…Your parents from around Norman, eh?ʺ

ʺDonʹt know, never been there. Iʹm from here.ʺ I keep my gaze planted on the Enquirer. Lose 40 Pounds in 40 Days!

ʺUsed to know some Squirrels from up around Norman one time. Good hunters, them. Whatʹs your Mooshumʹs name?ʺ

ʺMy grandfather? Squirrel.ʺ Iʹm not going to make it any easier for her.

ʺWaal!ʺ I mean ees first name.ʺ That throaty wheeze again.

ʺJames, I think. I donʹt know. I think they just used to call him Old Man. Donʹt know anything about him. Never met the guy. I think heʹs dead.ʺ My eyes are still glued to the paper. Make $10,000 – This Month Alone!

ʺI think I know who see is.ʺ she says.

ʺWho is?ʺ I ask, puzzled.

ʺYour Mooshum.ʺ

ʺOh him – my grandfather. You mean who he is,ʺ I correct her and go back to the Enquirer.

ʺEh-hehn. Him – I think I know who see is. One time – looong time ago – one winter, it was hard to find food. Lots of snow, eh? That time my family just starving. My husband Alphonse, seeʹs real sick with the flu. We live in Wrigley that time. Your Mooshum, see come down from Norman, that time with ees kids. Maybe your Dad too. They kill a caribou on the trail, there. Wah-whay, they feed us good until Alphonse gets well again. Good hunters, those Squirrels,ʺ she trails off in the dark.

Then after a long silence, she says, quietly, ʺMe, I never forget that…ʺ

ʺHmph,ʺ I say without looking up. Loniʹs Big Night Out – and Sheʹs Not Alone!

Nothing is said for several minutes and soon the streetlights have all passed. We are bathed only in the light of Philʹs dashboard with the hum of the car and Buck Owens singing Loveʹs Gonna Live Here Again in the background. Phil is banging away on the steering wheel, but now heʹs singing the guitar parts too. I push the newspaper into one of Mabelʹs Northern Store bags and play with my leather gloves.

ʺHow come you donʹt know your Mooshumʹs name?ʺ she suddenly asks out of the dark. She sounds bothered.

ʺHuh..?ʺ I look up. ʺWhat do you mean?ʺ

ʺHow come you donʹt know your own Mooshumʹs name? How come you donʹt know nothing about him?ʺ

ʺNot important, I guess. No need.ʺ I shrug.

ʺEschia! What you mean not important?ʺ I can feel her glaring at me in the dark. Kind of like being watched when you go outside to get an armful of wood at night.

ʺI got better things to do than live in the past.ʺ Iʹm about to add that stuff like that is for old people, but I catch myself. That sets off my motherʹs voice again – this time sheʹs coming through the whine in the back tire. ʺBe nice to old people – some day you, youʹre gonna be…ʺ

ʺWhiss, you kids these days donʹt know nothing ʹbout where you come from. How you gonna know where you go from here?ʺ Mabel sighs and looks out at the night. I go back to playing with my leather gloves again. Old people. God if I ever make it past twenty-five…

Then she leans back in the seat, closes her eyes and begins to hum quietly to herself. It is not long before I find myself humming along with her in my head. My mother used to sing that song, but it has been so long, I have forgotten the words.

ʺI live across now, eh?ʺ she says softly pointing in the direction of the reserve with her lips. ʺBut Iʹm not from here, eh? My name is Mabel Vera Cardinal. Iʹm a Cree from Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan. I grew up on a trapline near Waterways in Alberta. When I was a smaaall little girl, maybe nikotwasik, six, my mother see take me to the…kiskinwahamatowikamik… the mission school in Chipewyan, eh? See says you stay here now – you learn English. I come back and get you when itʹs finished. They say you learn to read and write in Cree and English too, when itʹs finished. Wah-whay, I wait by the gate every day, every night. I wait by the river. But my mother, see never comes back. See never come back.ʺ Then she quietly adds, ʺMe, I think, taniwa? Where see is?

ʺAnd those priests and nuns in the mission – some of them were not very good people. They say God, see save your soul. I say from what? They say, from the Devil. Me, I never heard about the Devil till that time, eh? They tell me bad things about being Indian. Crees, especially. The Devil see lives in Crees, they say. They donʹt let me speak Cree no more. Only English and Francais. But we fool them, eh? We sneak at recess time. Talk Cree all the time.ʺ She wheezes a dry laugh once again. ʺFinally, my aunt, see come one day. See sees whats been going on there. See take me away after two years. See take me back to the trapline with my uncle. Ay-hay, I speak my Cree again.ʺ

ʺOne boy I meet at mission school, Alphonse. I marry him in 1946 in Fort Smith. Yeah, 1946, Ay-hay, we move all over the place. See work for the Hudson Bay Company, that time. Him, see buy a camera to take pictures, eh? See sure like ees camera, Alphonse. Him, see speak Slavey. All the time me, I speak Cree. I learn some Slavey, some Chip and maybe some Dogrib. Sometimes English, but all the time Cree. Me too, I force Alphonse to learn Cree. Ay-hay, see say why? Nobody here speak Cree. I say, thatʹs why. Nobody here to talk to. So, see learn Cree. Alphonse, see was a good man, eh?ʺ

ʺMe, I never forget. I teach my kids Cree when theyʹre small. I say someday you meet your grandmother, you talk Cree to her. But they forget. Soon as they go to school, they forget. After a while they forget everything I teach them. Now, I donʹt know where they are. They forget.ʺ Her voice trails off again. ʺMy mother. Maybe see forget, too.ʺ

With a clunk we are off the highway and onto the reserve road. The smooth pavement has given way to frozen gravel and Philʹs taxi is riding like a big lake fish boat rolling on the water. For some reason I am becoming not just interested, but quietly fascinated in how her story comes out.
ʺWhat happened to Alphonse?ʺ I find myself asking.

ʺAlphonse, see die from pneumonia in 1973. Twelve years after we meet your Mooshum. Your Mooshum, he was a good man, too. A good hunter, that one. Ohhh, see really know how to play the fiddle. Alphonse, see play the guitar. All night long.ʺ That wheezing laugh again. ʺI remember one time. Alphonse and him, they make a bet who can stay up the longest playing all night, eh? Your Mooshum, him see bets ees fiddle. And Alphonse him he bet ees camera. Wah-Whay! They still awake the next morning when I go for water! Both of them still playing!ʺ Her rasping laugh soon turns into a hacking cough. I am caught up in her story and find myself laughing with her.

For the next several minutes she tells me about the time Alphonse and Old Man Squirrel were playing a jig when the fiddle suddenly broke off at the neck. She supposed that Old Man Squirrel might have been playing a little too hard. She breaks up with another low cackle, this time the coughing has her wheezing for air.

Then, suddenly she is telling me about going to night school. She has decided to learn to read and write at the age of sixty-six. ʺAy-hay, maybe I have some great grandchildren someday. I write to them. Teach them Cree,ʺ she says.

Once again everything returns to the soft hum of the car and this time Pasty Cline is crooning Sweet Dreams of You. Phil is whistling the piano parts now.

ʺMe, I have a history, eh?ʺ she suddenly blurts out in the dark.

ʺWhat do you mean?ʺ I ask.

ʺThatʹs what they tell me at night school. I have a language and I have a history. Even when I was married, the Catholic Church, they take my name. They even take me away from my family. They try to teach me that where I come from is wrong. They say, ‘You, youʹre just a woman. You, your familyʹs not important.’ But me, I keep the truth alive, eh? Because me, I know where I come from, eh? I am Mabel Vera Cardinal and I come from Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan. I am a Cree.ʺ

Proud anger. Defiance. From behind the thin blue paisley scarf. From the dark back seat of Philʹs taxi.

As we approach the streetlights on the reserve, she softly repeats, ʺI have a language, and I have a history,ʺ then adds, ʺbut me, I have no one to pass it on to. Everybody here speak Slavey.ʺ

We finally pull into her driveway and I help her out of the cab. Arm in arm, we slowly climb the steps of her tiny house. She seems much smaller, lighter and frailer than she appeared in the parking lot at the Northern Store. I help Phil carry her groceries in. He is still singing, this time he is giggling along with Chuck Berryʹs My Dingaling. The house is warm and welcoming. The dry kitchen air tells me she has cooked bannock here today. Maybe even earlier tonight. I help her get seated and take off her boots. She asks me to get her cane from behind the couch in the living room.

As I enter the tiny, dimly lit room, I am overcome with that same feeling of being watched. But this time it is different. This time it is comforting. I slide my hand along the wall and flick the light on. To my surprise I find myself surrounded by people. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs fill every bit of available space on the walls, the furniture, even the floor! People are everywhere. Old people, young people, families, couples. People smiling, singing, working, playing. Women, men, children, dogs, horses, farms, tents, trading posts. People on boats in the river, in the bush, fishing, hunting, trapping. Each photograph has been painstakingly framed in hand-carved birch or intricate floral beadwork, and there in almost every picture is the same, small, thin beautiful face of a woman at different times in her life – Mabel.

ʺYou got time for tea and bannock, Tommy? I got some hot raisin bannock,ʺ she calls from the kitchen. I can hear her removing her coat and scarf.

ʺUh, not really, Iʹm supposed to meet somebody.ʺ I answer from the living room. I find her cane and bring it to her. She has already put the kettle on when I get there.

ʺYou sure you gonna be okay with your foot and everything? I could drop in later this week and…ʺ I am shocked at what I am saying. Hey, Iʹm the guy who doesnʹt like old people.

ʺYou wait here. I get something for you.ʺ She hobbles with her cane into the bedroom. A few moments later she comes out with a cardboard box under her arm. It is about the size of a case of beer, wrapped in a brown faded copy of The World News and tied with cotton string, worn, knotted, and in a bow.

ʺHere. You get home, you open this. Fresh bannock,ʺ she says.

Phil has fallen asleep on the horn now, so I say goodbye as quickly as I can. I want to protest her giving me the bannock, but she smiles, gently touches my forearm and says, ʺMahsi, nikosis.ʺ

Once again, we are back on the paved highway leading into town. I have the grey woolen blanket wrapped around my legs now, surprised at the fact that I am not worried about catching something from old peopleʹs blankets. As I reach behind to adjust the blanket, my hand brushes against the National Enquirer. Has she left it for me? I wonder. I open it once more.

Stradivarius Found in Mayan Ruins

What follows can only be described as a thin slice of deafening silence. Then in a frenzy, I begin to tear at the box. The old newspaper disintegrates like brittle tissue, itʹs all over the back seat and on the floor of the cab. Only after several tries am I able to break the thick cotton string. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, I lift the top off the box.

It is truly beautiful. Inlaid with pearl and finished in a deep golden brown varnish, I wonder how it has kept its finish after all those years on the trapline. As I look closely, I can see where the neck had been cracked once and was carefully repaired again. The strings are still taut. There is still a splash of resin left on the body. Whether the fiddle is in or out of tune, I cannot say. But that doesnʹt matter. What does matter is on the back of the scroll near the tip: the tiny hand-carved letters J. Squirrel 1958.

ʺHey Phil? You wanna turn around? I think I forgot something back there.ʺ I yell over Hank Williamʹs Honky Tonk Man.

ʺWhat? All the way back? Why – what did you forget?ʺ he asks in the rear view mirror.

ʺThe rest of my history lesson.ʺ I smile. Heck, a free cab ride from someone like Colin comes around once every 30 years or so. Might as well make good use of it.

*************

Fearless Frederick Lepine
Hay River, NT

Fire in the Mountains

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    Our view from the cockpit of a Ted Smith Aerostar.

    Our view from the cockpit of a Piper (Ted Smith) Aerostar forestry Bird Dog airplane.

    This week I am posting a previously-published short story written in 1996. It was selected to be part of an anthology of new Canadian native writers called Steal My Rage. Edited by Joel Maki, profits from the book went to the establishment of a Native Mens Residence in Toronto. It is still available for purchase from Amazon.ca Books.

    Unfortunately, I do not have the story in text format, but it is available in Adobe PDF format. You will need the Reader which, if not already installed on your computer, you can download here: http://get.adobe.com/reader/

    When you are ready, you can download the story here: http://www.flyingcolorsdesign.ca/fire_in_the_mountains.pdf

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy it! Let me know what you think by posting a comment here or in Facebook.

    Cheers, everyone. Mahsi.

    ————–
    Fearless Frederick Lepine
    Bird Dog 117

    Ten Little Indian Boys

    There is a circle to storytelling:

    First you listen to a story.
    Then you understand it.
    You remember it.
    And, finally, you tell it again.

    That’s how a story takes on a life of its own. This is one story that has come full circle for me.

    Frederick Lepine, circa 1963, Hay River, NT

    Frederick Lepine, circa 1963, Hay River, NT

    In 1967, when I was 9, I attended St. Paul’s School, a Catholic elementary school of about a hundred or so students. This was in the older, poorer part of my hometown, so nearly all of the students there were Aboriginal – a mixture of Dene and Cree. Most of the white kids attended a new elementary school in the New Town.

    This was a time in history before Canada began to explore what it really meant to be Canadian. That would not happen – at least in the north – until the seventies.

    In the sixties, we would learn about ourselves as Northerners from a Social Studies textbook titled Our Canadian Neighbors. (Think about that for a minute.) We discovered that we northerners preferred to be called Eskimos, that we huddled in iglus to keep out the year-long dark, bleak cold, eating raw seal meat and that we greeted each other by rubbing noses. Don’t forget – this was a time when we were still learning to count by singing Ten Little Indian Boys.

    Being Catholic meant that Christmas was the biggest celebration of the year. So, the teaching staff, mostly Dominican Nuns and led by a very stern Sister Pouliot, planned a huge Christmas concert for the town and committed all of the students to be the performers. There were to be several Christmas choirs, a nativity play, solo singers, solo musicians and dancers. Some of us would be participating in as many as 3 or 4 separate performances.

    So, from October of that year, while we kids began to practice our lines and dance routines, some of the more ambitious mothers and school staff formed a sewing bee and began an assembly line that produced hundreds of little costumes for all of the presentations. After all, there were hats and cloaks and coats and shoes and pants and mittens to be made for shepherds and sheep and cows and little drummer boys and choir girls and choir boys and tap dancers and singers. Then there was the set design and a few of the fathers and maintenance staff got together and built a huge stage in the gymnasium and painted backgrounds and made plywood scenery cutouts for each performance.

    And we kids practiced and practiced. In dress rehearsal, we nailed our entrances, our songs, our lines, our steps and our exits with perfection. When we got backstage, we were stripped of our old costumes and adorned with new ones, ready for the next act. To save time, the costumes were sewn together with as few pieces as possible. So an entire suit of clothing could be pulled over your head in a single motion. They taught us how to hold up our arms with each change of clothing. It was brilliantly efficient.

    After almost three months of practice we had the entire production down to the split second. We were ready.

    And a week before Christmas, we did our stuff. We sang, acted and played our instruments like seasoned professionals.

    The crowd, packed to the rafters in that gymnasium that night, cheered and applauded and stomped their feet louder with each and every performance. And I kept up my part of the show. I stood in the front row of a 20-kid choir and sang my 9-year-old heart out. We all did. We sang about Peace. We sang about God’s love for all of his children. And we sang about all brothers and sisters being equal in the eyes of God. Then after a quick costume change I was back on stage and aced my lines as the Sheep No. 1 in the Nativity scene. And the crowd roared louder for us.

    But the best was yet to come.

    We were whisked backstage for the last costume change. A sense of excitement began to build. We knew this was the final performance of the night and it had to be not just good – it had to be great. As the mothers slipped on our last bit of costuming, a deep murmur rolled through the crowd. I peeked from behind the stage as Sister Chapeau stood up from the piano with great dignity and informed the audience that this was to be the last performance of this historic night. I could see this massive, dark, swaying blob of humanity hungrily drooling for the grand finale. I could see our principal, Sister Pouliot, sitting next to the mayor in the front row. For some reason she looked different tonight. I realized that it was the first time I had seen her smile. I knew she was going to be proud of us.

    Before we knew it, the big moment had arrived. Sister Chapeau introduced us and sat back down at the piano. The stage was ours again.

    And there we were: Ten Little Indian Boys – five entering from stage left, five from stage right – dressed in matching black tuxedos with silver sequins, top hats and walking sticks in hand, white gloves – all high stepping in perfect unison. And as if our skin wasn’t dark enough, the nuns had painted our faces, ears, throats and necks with dark brown grease pencil. And in case you couldn’t see our eyes and lips from the back of that gymnasium, they had been painted white. Ten Little Indian Boys, all dressed in black face!

    And we ten little black choirboys – some with Cree accents, some with Dene – opened our tiny hearts wide with a traditional gospel song called Go Tell It On the Mountain. Sister Chapeau hammered out the tune on the piano and we smiled our biggest smiles and opened our eyes as wide as we could because we were told that’s what the people wanted to see. And they could see us and hear us now from all the way in the back row.

    We gave it our best because, after all, this was Christmas and dammit, tonight, in celebration of the birth of Baby Jesus, we were not just ten little dark-skinned native boys – we were called The Negro Spiritual.

    And when we at last fell to our knees, arms spread wide, we brought the house down! They jumped to their feet and gave us a standing ovation that seemed to go on for decades…

    ———

    I swear I can still hear echos of the clapping and foot stomping whenever I drive past the corner where the school once stood. The stage that was built just for that performance remained in place for a few years after but I don’t think it was ever again used for a Christmas concert. It was dismantled long before fire brought the entire school itself down.

    Today, I often wonder if my nine little black Indian choir brothers remember this story. Few people in my hometown seem to remember. Maybe they just choose not to remember. And today, even though the Roman Catholic Church continues to insist that all men are created equal, I also wonder if the people who worked for the church and are still living remember such things from their past.

    Probably not. Perhaps some stories are best left buried in the ashes.

    Then again, perhaps some are never meant to be forgotten.

    I hope you start the circle of this story again.

    ———–
    Fearless Frederick Lepine
    1969 Alter Boy of the Year
    Roman Catholic Church
    at Hay River, NT
    Written July 2009