The Trip (at 12,130 meters).

Flying often makes me wistful and pensive. There’s something about being strapped in a 737 flying over varied prairie and mountainous landscapes at 12,130 meters that brings it on. Well, flying in a much smaller Bombardier turbojet between Edmonton and Calgary also got me musing, especially about the place of humans in the world and about time.

We had flown from Comox on Vancouver Island directly to Edmonton in central Alberta a few days earlier to visit my sister-in-law who lives in the Dickensfield care home in Edmonton and to see my brother who has recently moved from Regina to Edmonton. The day before yesterday my niece drove us to the Edmonton International Airport for the start of our trip home. At this time of year Edmonton is covered in dirty snow and when it thaws a bit and then freezes again, the side roads can get treacherous, but the highways were clear and the traffic was light. It was 6:30 AM and the temperature in Edmonton was -8 ˚C and steadily dropping. I took the picture below with my iPhone somewhere between Edmonton and Calgary. I don’t know at what altitude we were flying but it couldn’t have been more than 3,000 meters. The patterns created by carving up the prairie into quarter sections is clearly visible in the photograph I took from the cabin. The snow helps delineate the quarter sections. The other photograph is a screenshot of the Alberta township system map that you can find here. Every square inch of the land is marked by human intervention. The symmetry evident in both photographs is superimposed on the landscape and is obviously not natural. Still, the grid is plain to see in the photograph from 3,000 meters up. Fences and tree breaks attest to the surveyor’s work and our penchant to delineate land to own, clearly separate and distinct from our neighbour’s land, forces us to recognize our pretence of dominance over the land. The scars are real.

Where is there room for burrowing owls, bison, prairie dogs? In patently very few places it seems. That’s plain to see. Humans have been transforming this landscape for centuries, millennia even, but nothing on the scale of the past 100 years. Alberta is the playground of humans for now at least. Wildlife (freelife) must find pockets of compatible space in the interstices of human culture to build homes and forage for food. In another 10,000 years, the scars that are evident from 3,000 meters up will likely be erased. ‘Alberta’ as a political entity will be no longer. Burrowing owls will likely be extinct. In a hundred million years new species may roam the land. In a half a billion years, the prairies may be lake bottom or the Rockies may migrate further east. The continents as we know them will be undone and redone. I don’t know how the future will unfold in detail. Geomorphologists know about these things, about plate tectonics and the like. All I know for certain is that everything will change radically over time.

Regardless, the way we think of time is conceptually extremely limited. Brian Edward Cox OBE, FRS, English physicist who serves as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and BBC documentary commentator argues that the universe is finite and will come and go in the blink of an eye. Our human lifespans are infinitesimal yet we live them as though they are forever. The Prairies and the Rocky Mountains seem forever but they are not. They will ‘die’. The speed at which they will die is extremely slow, of course, from our perspective, but there are other perspectives which have alternative assessments of the passing of time. Cox, for example, argues for a different conception of time than the one that rules our lives. For him time on a universal scale is vastly different than how we perceive of time at the human scale. However, for him, that matters little. All time happens in the blink of an eye.

My grandparents are dead. My parents are dead. I’m next in line. My children and grandchildren will follow me into the void. My life has passed in the blink of an eye. It really does seem that way to me. On a planetary scale, the Rocky Mountains will be gone in the blink of an eye as will the scars that crisscross the Alberta prairie.

Flying over the Rocky Mountains, then the central valleys of British Columbia and finally over the Coastal Mountain Range at 12,130 meters, before descending over the waters of the Salish Sea to the airport in Comox, it was evident that the landscape was not conducive to carving up the way Alberta has been into quarter sections. Mountainous terrain is hard to do anything with from a human point of view. Agriculture is sparse. Of course there’s always mining, logging and skiing, but only in limited areas. Many of the mountain ranges are inaccessible, the peaks are sharp and the mountain sides are stratified attesting to the fact that these peaks were once pushed up from deep inside the core of the continental plates. The Burgess Shale, close to Field, BC, in the Rockies contains innumerable fossils. From the Burgess Shale website:

The locality reveals the presence of creatures originating from the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary burst of animal origins dating 545 to 525 million years ago. During this period, life was restricted to the world’s oceans. The land was barren, uninhabited, and subject to erosion; these geologic conditions led to mudslides, where sediment periodically rolled into the seas and buried marine organisms. At the Burgess locality, sediment was deposited in a deep-water basin adjacent to an enormous algal reef with a vertical escarpment several hundred meters high.

From ocean floor to mountain peak in a few million years. In fact, when the Burgess Shale was created, the planet looked entirely different than it does today. This map from the same website noted above shows that the continents were not yet formed as we know them.

British Columbia has been carved up for the needs of humans, and some of those carvings are visible at 12,130 meters, but not in the same way as Alberta. BC has nowhere near the absolute symmetry of Alberta’s political-economic divisions. Mountains and prairies offer very different options for human interference. In a million years that human interference will not likely be evident at all.

So, things come and go. People, mountains, plains, continents, planets, even universes. We are all finite. We all have our turn to get transmogrified with every atom of our bodies converted to other uses for other organisms. From that perspective, mountain ranges and prairies are no different from each of us as individuals.

That’s life. Flying gets me thinking about these things.

Rushing to print is often a mistake.

Rushing to print is often a mistake and I do believe I rushed to print with my last couple of posts. I think that was a mistake. Research can often turn up evidence from the past that makes a lie out of what we thought was true. Does this really matter? Maybe. Not certainly. It depends on what we want to depict, on what we want to understand and have understood.  I could write fiction, drawn from my imagination, enriched by my experience. How would that be different than what I am doing here? The ‘truth’ of fiction is in how believable it is, how sympathetic the characters are and how ‘realistic’ the scenes. In turning my gaze on my family, I enter a very different realm than I would occupy writing fiction. Of necessity, family histories are mostly fiction, the details of lives lived drowned in a sea of unrecorded continuity just as one tree can be made insignificant standing in a forest. Moments that stand out get into the history books.  Sometimes, they are recorded in a photograph.  More often not. When writing about family, the truth sometimes comes out slowly, not always in one go.  Even the ‘truth’ of a photograph, objective as it might seem, can be revealed more fully in all its complexity when the past, present and future of the depicted scene are entertained.

When I look at the picture I analyze in my last post, I am struck by the innocence of the scene, the mundane aspect of it.  The full impact and relevance of the scene cannot be appreciated at first glance. The scene is nothing outside of its living context. The people depicted in the photograph have no idea what awaits them in the near future, the death, panic and sorrow that they will suffer, as well as the love and sacrifice that will energize life and make it livable for them. What can I see in their faces? Nothing that belies their future. My mother would never have dreamed when this picture was taken that within 3 years she would be having a baby with the man standing next to her in this picture, a man married to the woman who stood just on the other side of him, both of whom had been her family’s close friends for years.

Now, I must make a correction to my previous post where I suggest that Yvonne died on June 22nd, 1945, because it was rumoured my father couldn’t afford a transfusion which would have saved Yvonne’s life. That may still be true, but I now know that my father had asked my mother and aunts to give blood to save his wife. Cecile donated blood sometime after midnight on June 22nd, but it was too little too late.   I learned this by looking through calendars my sister Claudette created for us over the years which contain pages from a diary my mother kept for a few years during the 1940s. It may be that my father had to find blood donors himself because he didn’t have the money to buy blood from the usual sources.  I find this difficult to believe because St. Mary’s was a Catholic hospital and I can’t imagine they would let someone die who couldn’t afford a blood transfusion, but no one lives who can set the record straight.  That makes the photo I introduce in my last post even more compelling to me because now, Cecile, my wonderful older aunt, standing on the far right in this picture, is also intimately involved in the final stages of the drama that was to unfold at St. Mary’s Hospital on June 22nd, 1945.  Death in childbirth was not as common in 1945 as it had been in previous generations but everyone knew that it was a dangerous time.  Yvonne was 29 years old, a mother of five daughters.  Such a tragedy.

It seems my mother and her family were very close to my father and his family for some time before they were married.  There was much socializing between the families starting in Alberta around Bonnyville and continuing in and around New Westminster in British Columbia.  My mother’s diary is full of references to visits to my father’s home in the years leading up to June, 1945.  She writes on Sunday, January 7th, 1945: “My day off [from work at St. Mary’s Hospital]. Went to Zenons for supper and a party.  Stayed until 3 AM.  Had lots of fun…”  On Sunday, March 11th, “I went to Zenons for supper then to a card party. I won $1.50 first prize womens. Zenon won $10.00 door prize…had lunch at Fraser Café with Albert and Gill, Mrs. Lagrange and Zenons.” The close familiarity between the Alberts and Leguerriers is evident in the photograph and it waits patiently, silent in the background to give added meaning to the scene for those who wish to know. The events to unfold in the following few months can only be understood in light of the tight bonds that existed in the community of ‘ex pats’ from Alberta now living in British Columbia.

A photograph can hide as much as it shows.  It can give us the impression of time stopped for an instant, frozen in a way that allows us to return to contemplate the moment, to relive the essence of a snapshot, lingering and maybe meditating on it.  It’s an illusion, of course, but that doesn’t prevent us from taking pictures, from trying to momentarily pause the clock. But clocks are stubborn things.  They stop for no one.

I have another photograph.  This one was probably taken on June 25th, 1945, the day of Yvonne’s funeral. She was buried along with her son, Roger, in St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery in New Westminster.  It shows my father kneeling before Yvonne’s grave which is covered in flowers, his five daughters by his side.  The same day, my father asked my mother to quit her job at St. Mary’s Hospital, come work for him and look after the girls.

I have an old photograph.

I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1944 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my step-sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1944. Given that my father’s first wife, Yvonne, died on June 22nd, 1945, it stands to reason that the photo was taken sometime in 1944. It doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger, but she may have been.

There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warmish spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.

In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my step-sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old or so and she has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.

Who could know when this picture was taken that my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would be his new wife within two years. So, here we have my father flanked by his wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.

As it turns out, my father and Yvonne had over the years since moving to British Columbia in 1936 made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time and it was they who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother to come help look after the children while he went to work in local sawmills. That wasn’t a stretch, because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to BC during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of mill-related work so he was able to find employment. My mother too.

When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.

Now my step-sisters had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest step-sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.

I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on.  Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.

This man ran an Indian residential school in Alberta.

Fr. Martin Michaud OMI

Martin Michaud OMI
Martin Michaud OMI

 

Father Michaud OMI was born on January 31, 1922 at Fort Kent, Alberta, Canada.

He passed away on August 28, 2007.

 

When I was a boy, maybe 11 years old, my mother and father packed up the ’57 Dodge with about 8 or 9 of us kids and piles of supplies [I have no idea to this day how they did it] and took us on a road trip.  My memory is a little sketchy as to the exact itinerary, but I distinctly remember that we left Maillardville, near Vancouver, BC, and headed north up highway 1 to 97 to Prince George where we spent some time with some  family who lived there.  I remember that we went as far north as Dawson Creek then headed east into Alberta to Edmonton, then south again to a place  that stunned me and that I have never forgotten. As far as I can remember, the place was close to Trochu, Alberta, but I can’t guarantee that.  It was an ‘Indian’ residential school and my ‘uncle’ Martin Michaud was the man in charge. It was summertime so all the ‘residents’ were away at the time with their families.  Us kids [maybe all of us] slept in the dorm.  I had no clue about the political significance of the place and others like it.  I was struck particularly by the names of some of the kids that lived here during most of the year.  I remember specifically two names: Johnny Born With A Tooth and Johnny Born With A Gun.  I’m quite sure about these names because they were so distinctive.  I found them so unusual, so foreign to me.  How could anyone be called something like that?

But back to Martin Michaud.  I didn’t really know him.  I knew his brother, Father Guy Michaud, OMI, much better because I went to a private residential school in Edmonton, College St-Jean, a kind of prep school for the French Canadian boys (mostly) west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.  He worked there as director for a short period of time when I was there.  My parents sent me there hoping that I would become a priest, but as it turns out, I became a sociologist instead.  They tell me that I begged them to send me there because all of my friends were going.  That may be, I really don’t remember.  The point is, my experience at College St-Jean, where I got a superior, classical, education, was much different from Johnny Born With A Tooth’s experience at his residential school.   As I said, I didn’t know Martin Michaud.  But given what I know about Indian residential schools, at least as reported in Shingwauk’s Vision by J.R. Miller and What is the Indian ‘Problem.’ by Noel Dyck, among many other reports, and given the stories of pain and grief experienced by residents of the many residential schools in Canada, I wonder about what kind of a man Martin Michaud was.  Noel Dyck points out that in many cases the people who worked in residential schools or as Indian Agents were people with the best of intentions.  The religious personnel of these schools would have believed that the only way to salvation for the poor little Indian children in their care would have been to rescue them from their savage parents and cultures.  This may have entailed using physical punishment to ‘beat the indian out of the child.’  I don’t know what kind of director Martin Michaud was.  I’d like to know.  Obviously, it’s been many years since the residential school I visited was shut down.  I’m hoping there are survivors who can help me determine want kind of a man my ‘uncle’ was.  If you have any information about Martin Michaud or the residential school he directed, please, I’d like to know.  So far, my research hasn’t gotten me too far.  I’m hoping you can help.