In our house in northern Manitoba when I was growing up, fall really meant one thing: hunting season. When I’d hear the geese call plaintively, almost mournfully, overhead, marking the end of summer, I knew my father’s hunting friends would soon arrive and stay with us.
I’d watch all the preparations as they sat at our grey kitchen table getting their shotguns ready, sliding them open and closed with a loud cracking noise and squinting one-eyed down the barrel to check the sight. The thick smell of gun oil hung in the air as the men would brag and joke with my parents. Talk would be about their families, where this year’s hunt was, how they’d once been stranded up river by the ice, what kind of grub they were taking and who had brought the rum.
On their first day out, I would wake in the dark to the smell and gurgle of perking coffee. I knew Mom was up, making their loaves of fresh sandwiches to pack with Thermoses of steaming coffee.
My dad owned Bert’s Quick Freeze and Locker Plant in The Pas, a store and butcher shop where the hunters’ wild game was prepared. There were always geese and ducks piled at the back of the Locker Plant in the fall and I loved to stroke their soft downy necks held in round metal clasps. The birds were taken for plucking and gutting over to the shed in our backyard, right next door to the store.
Sometimes walking home from school in the fall, I’d hear voices in our yard and would slow down, curious to see what was happening. During most of the year, our shed held various tools, lumber and picture-framing equipment for other jobs my dad did in the community. But in the fall, the shed transformed into a lively mix of conversation, blood, feathers and guts.
Women from The Pas reserve, wearing patterned scarves covering their hair, sat in a circle around a large metal bucket, their bloodied hands plucking and gutting the birds as feathers and steam from the meat floated in the air.
Their children tottered in and out amid the talking and laughing. I watched through the wide-open door and it seemed warm and fun in there, almost like a party to which I wasn’t invited. I breathed in the pleasing smell of smoke from their home-tanned moccasins and the scent of the freshly finished wild birds.
I wonder now what the women and children saw as I walked by the shed – the white-skinned, English-speaking daughter of their “boss.” Neither my father nor I could speak their language.
What I saw were dark-skinned people with a language and customs I didn’t understand. All I knew was that the Cree people lived on one side of the river and I lived on the other.
I think now about that river, the mighty Saskatchewan that divided white settlers on one side and the original peoples of this land on the other. I think about how I was raised with little knowledge of their history.
Instead I grew up in a climate of white privilege that did great damage to relationships. Deep inside me I held beliefs that I was better, smarter, more capable than the Cree people. As I grew older, I was ashamed to face my hidden bias and knew this same prejudice existed in a lot of Canada, regardless of geography, age or background.
As I wrote down these memories of hunting season, I began to ask myself what it was about these images that mattered? I realized that the most poignant part of this writing was not about my father and the fall hunting season, even though this was an important part of who I have become.
No, there was something else that made these memories important. When it came to me, my breath stopped for a moment. These Cree women my dad hired were the mothers, the sisters, the aunts, the grandmothers of the friends I never had.
My heart ached with a deep loss that I had never known until now. Two communities side by side that were divided by more than a river, divided by history, language, culture and likely fear. What I had known of their life was so small. In the not knowing it was easy to be afraid.
It seems to me that this is at least part of what I thought those days near the shed. I don’t remember ever entering when it was occupied by the women my dad hired, but I stood close by. There was a part of me that spoke of curiosity, of interest in the ways of another people. I began to learn about them as I got older.
This memory has helped define my life. It is why I am living what I did not experience as a child. It is why my work, my spiritual interests and my relationships with first nations people have been a central point.
I have been influenced by the wisdom of native elders to enhance and expand my own spiritual and professional life. Elders have also taught me to laugh more and not take myself so seriously. I love the work I do, primarily with first nations organizations and communities as a therapist and consultant, and I believe I am a better person for these relationships.
I have had so much to learn.
The little girl standing near the doorway to the shed is now able to enter.
Sandra Hayes-Gardiner lives in Winnipeg.