Fiction: The Story of Canada

Half As Much

Half As Much

Gus wakes up to the sound of old Mrs. Bernier crying down the hall. She gets confused and starts wandering in the night, all the while moaning in French about her long gone Chihuahua. Gus was sympathetic, at first, but it started to wear on him. Not like he was going to sleep past 6 a.m. anyway. His alarm time still ingrained from all his years working. Even now – even when his old body has to get up to piss three times a night, or wakes up at 3 thinking about things long gone – still, 6 a.m. comes strong and he is up to face a day, even if there is nothing in it.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

Outside it’s still dark but getting brighter. The street lights still shine and anything that melted yesterday is frozen over once more. He can just make out the river from his window, a shiny sheet of ice atop the thick, cold water running too far up the banks. Tache Street dirty with sand frozen and melted and frozen again a dozen or so times. It’s cold – not ass-biting cold but probably still below zero. Gus remembers Aprils that were real springs, but not this one. The month always comes like it’s a promise, like winter will actually go away. Hardly ever does, though. Not for a while yet. Not here.

He slips into his new old-man slippers and shuffles around. He likes coffee first thing but they won’t let him keep even a kettle in his room, so he has to make himself presentable before he goes out the door. He knows just as soon as he does those nurses will be right on him, “Bonjour, bon matin. Comment ca va? C’est un beau matin, oui?” – same damn thing every morning. Pretty broads, most of them, but a bit too high-pitched for his liking.

Housecoat securely tied (not like some) and his old-man soft slippers, he goes out, nodding when he has to, trying to keep a half-smile on his face. When he first moved here – when his niece Frieda and her son Jimmy moved him in after his first stroke – Gus tried to pretend he was deaf ‘cause he thought they’d all just give up and stop talking. But they only talked louder! So he gave that up and started stupid smiling at them, which seemed to make them happy. Smiling and looking at people isn’t the most comfortable thing for Gus. Never was. Gus spent his whole life looking down and not making eye contact with strangers. It’s weird, though. Now an old man, he is not as threatening, he supposes.

He gets his coffee and grabs a paper. They don’t let him take food in his room, not even coffee, so he goes to sit in the front room. It’s full of windows so colder, less people. But the light is growing and it’s quiet this morning. He can see the big wooden bust of Louis Riel’s head down the road. He likes to give it a good nod, as if to say good morning to his “old uncle” as he has always called him. Only by tradition, mind – his family was never related to the Riels. Not all Métis are related to all Métis. He did have a grandpa or a great uncle fight in the Red River resistance, or the other one. He knew all that once, but has forgotten. Still can be proud, though, even if he doesn’t remember all the details. His brother Joe knew all that stuff – made lists and did research and everything. Joe knew where everyone came from and what was happening. He died last spring. Gus is the last one now. Doesn’t know what happened to all the lists of relatives and such.

Newspaper’s the same load of bull it always is. Gus flips through too many adverts thinking the crossword is the only thing worth reading, when he sees: “Supreme Court Rules Métis and Non Status Indians are Federal Responsibility.” Gus leans back for a moment, before leaning forward and reading the whole thing. “… are Indians under the constitution,” it says “… no need to distinguish between First Nations people, non-status Indians and mixed ancestry communities such as Métis.” It goes on, words like, “landmark” and “historic.” Gus doesn’t remember this one, this court case. Newspaper says it was a guy named Daniels who started it, out in Ontario almost 20 years ago. Joe would’ve known all about it, but Gus could never keep track of them all. There were a lot of cases going on all the time. The one he remembers most is the land claim one for the city of Winnipeg. That one was won a few years ago. Joe was so excited.

“We’re going to get what we were supposed to in 1870, Gus; 140 acres per family, they said. This whole city is really ours,” Joe had told him.

Gus waved his hand, “Ah heck, they never give us nothing. And why should they, we lost!”

“We didn’t lose, Gus. We made a deal. A deal that was never honoured and should be.”

There were other ones, cases, about hunting rights, fishing rights, bunch of stuff, and the Métis won all of them. Now this one saying the Métis are real Indians too. Like all those years of trying to convince everyone the Métis were different was just a waste of time. Gus never bought into the excitement part. He never saw anyone get much of anything and didn’t think that would ever change. It was different for Joe. He had hope. He had a beautiful wife and four boys, got a job at CN when the money was still good. Joe had all the luck. Gus had to scrape by more than Joe ever did, and no women ever did work out, probably because he never had any money. Still he always worked. Even when he had to go to that crummy call-out place and get shit labour jobs, he always worked. He got some good ones, made up his pension and saved a bit. Until he got arthritis so bad he couldn’t move his hands any more. Until his first stroke buggered up his knee too bad. He was always ashamed he didn’t work harder. His brothers and sister all got government jobs and made more than he ever could. He remembers once, right after the last one retired, them bragging about how many sick days they had.

“I had 67 when I retired,” Joe had said with a wide grin.

“Oh I had close to 90. They kept trying to get me to take them but I just said, ‘What the heck am I going to do with 90 days?’” Phil had added. “They did make me use them up before I got my pension though. That lost me $10 a month too, damn it!”

“Well, I had 108 days. They gave me a certificate and a fancy pen,” Clara put in. “It came in a velvet box. I keep it in my china cabinet.”

Gus never got a fancy pen or certificate. But he got hired on a few good crews and was able to buy a nice, little house. Didn’t need much more and never asked for anything. And when he got laid off, he got himself over to that temp place and got more work. He took shit jobs up North, built roads, dug ditches, whatever he had to do. No one could ever call him useless. That’s all that matters.

Gus’s dad, Big Joe, was as far from useless as they come. Never called in sick a day in his life. He once even drove through a snowstorm while he had pneumonia and still did a full day’s work.

“Never call in sick,” he used to say to them. “Especially not on a Monday. They’ll fire you for less.”

His dad had a union job but still swore they’d fire him for less.

“And never go drinking with them either. Sure, they’ll invite you but never have more than one. They will turn on you the second you order that next one.”

Gus had found the latter to be true more than a few times. He was never comfortable drinking with strangers or even work buddies. Even the most open minded guys would turn after a couple beer, and say something backward, like, “Oh you took that one fast, didn’t you, Gus?” or “Man, this must be the good stuff for you, hey Gus?” So he didn’t much bother. Not even when he was up in the bush for months on end. It was lonely but so was everything else.

“You have to work twice as hard for half as much,” Big Joe would tell them. “Never expect much, just work hard.” His dad was hard like that. When he was younger, Gus thought he was full of shit, but still did it. Still got a job by 14 and went to work everyday since. Definitely only got half though, if that.

Gerry comes in the front room, shuffling his feet like an old man. He brings an extra cup of coffee for Gus, just the way he takes it, black. Gerry is nice like that, real thoughtful. He still talks with a thick accent but doesn’t try to talk French to Gus. Gus is glad for this. He hasn’t really spoke French since he was a kid. He still understands most of it, still dreams in it sometimes, but hates talking it. Too afraid he’s going to get something wrong and get laughed at.

“It’s a cold one out there, eh?” Gerry says sipping his extra milky, extra sugary coffee.

“Yeah,” Gus sighs. “I was hoping to go for a walk today but it’s not looking good.”

“No, no, they won’t let you out in this, no sir. ‘You could catch your death!” Gerry exaggerates his voice into a high pitch.

Gus laughs. The nurses treat them all like babies, but only Gerry and Gus seem to mind. It was hard to get used to at first, being inside all the time. Gus was used to walking. He didn’t often have a car so had to walk everywhere, but he never minded. He liked being outside. Whenever he was doing a job inside he would always make sure to take a walk or go outside for lunch. He remembers once, one job, maybe 10 years ago, they were building up those condos on Waterfront, just across the river from here. That was a long job and he was stuck inside for hours so he took his bagged sandwiches and went outside to eat. There was a nice park along the river, lots of benches under the trees. Gus remembers it was nice, not too buggy yet.

He wasn’t done his first sandwich when this young looking guard or something came up.

“Move it along now.” The guy had bright blond hair, even blond eyelashes. Gus remembers that.

“I’m just eating my lunch.” He was going to say ‘officer’ but it wasn’t a cop so why would he?

“You can’t eat your lunch here. No loitering.” The guard seemed to get angry for no reason. “That means you can’t just sit here.”

“I know what it means,” Gus said, but quieter than he wanted to. He wanted to say something like, “It’s a fucking bench, what else is it for?” or something like that, but didn’t. He just took his bag and walked out of the park. The young guy followed him. On the way they saw two women sitting on another bench eating their lunches. No one said a thing though.

One of the reasons Gus likes Gerry so much is they can just sit and not talk much. Gerry takes the paper, reads the Métis thing but doesn’t say anything, just sort of nods. Gerry worked for the city as a janitor. Gus thinks it’s was real lucky for him because Gerry is darker than most. Gus was always pretty dark too, and he figures this worked against him. His brothers and sister were more light skinned like their mother but not him, he looked like he “fell right off the reservation,” his dad used to joke. His mom never liked that joke, and always told Gus to stay out of the sun.

Gerry dozes off after all the paper reading and coffee. There’s really not much else to do so Gus goes back to his room and tidies up. He was able to take some of his furniture, including his mom’s table so he has to keep that nice and polished. When he’s done he just sits back down and looks out the window. The day not melting, the river still swelled up and cold.

“Hey Uncle Gus, how you doing?” It’s Jimmy. Gus’s great-nephew wanders in with a tray of teas and a bag of donuts. He puts them all down with a smack of the newspaper too. “How are you today, Uncle?”

Gus feels groggy and the light in the room is different, he must have fallen asleep a bit.

“Okay. You?”

“I’m great. It’s a great day, isn’t it?”

Gus looks out the window at the same cold day and only shrugs.

Jimmy passes him a tea. He’s a good boy but Gus never can figure out what he does for a living. He’s studying Native Studies or Aboriginal something, his niece Frieda’s told him a bunch of times. It’s like all about the history and politics of Native people, including the Métis, and Jimmy is getting his PhD and that’s the highest diploma you can get. Frieda is very proud of this. Gus doesn’t much understand it, how a grown man can still be in school. Jimmy visits a lot during the day during the week, so he can’t be working that hard.

Gus opens his tea to cool. They always make it so damn hot, so he just lets it sit a while. Jimmy also hands him a honey cruller, Gus’s favourite. Jimmy is a good boy, even if he’s a bit lazy. Then his nephew points at the paper. It’s folded to the page and that big headline. “Did you see this? We won.”

Gus nods. “Yup. Saw that. Saw that. What did we win exactly?”

Jimmy laughs. “It means we were supposed to be under federal jurisdiction all along, just like any other First Nation group. It means they were wrong to have separated us. Uncle, legally speaking, were Indians now! Always have been. Real ones!”

Gus chews his doughnut and thinks about this, about how Jimmy is so excited like Joe used to get. He thinks about how his brothers and sister and dad all worked so hard their whole lives, and still all died before they were 70. All heart attacks or diabetes. His dad always taught them not to be useless, as if that was the most important thing. He thinks of his mom making him wear long sleeves all summer, and even of that young guard with the blond eyelashes. Yeh, none of them knew any difference either.

“Yup,” Gus sighs and looks down. “Knew that already.”

After that, uncle and nephew sit quietly a while, both looking out at the river. Gus thinks about how it moves real fast underneath the surface. It doesn’t always look like it, but it’s always moving. Even now, overflowing and cold as hell, down there, it’s going, pushing what’s left of the winter out of the way. No matter how long it takes, spring always comes, even if it takes a while. Even here.

Author’s Note: On April 14, 2016, and after 17 years of litigation, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Métis and non-status Indians are “Indians” within the meaning of Canada’s 1867 Constitution. Very long story short, Métis and non-status Indians have always been treated differently and have been largely ignored by Canada. This decision does many things, including “setting the stage for possible negotiations over land, education and health programs,” and for many of us, is a great step toward righting this huge historical wrong.

Katherena Vermette is the author of The Break, winner of the First Novel Award, as well as North End Love Songs, which won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry. She lives in Winnipeg.

CREDITS: Illustrations by RYAN GARCIA; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by BRYAN GEE