PART ONE – Darkness to Light (cont.)
The time would come when there would be great publicity in Canada about how the government forcibly took native children from their parents to assimilate them into the white man’s culture and system of things. I sympathize with the Indians. I deem it tragic and abominable that children should be wrested from their parents, the parents being innocent of any crime.
I can slightly identify with them because I was separated from my parents to an extent. But the natives were taken from their environment and culture altogether. Their language and religion were taken from them. They were taken away long distances, and for years, forced to live together in residential buildings. Their opportunities to reconnect with their families at any time during those years were practically nil, from what I have heard.
While I didn’t suffer racism or contempt for being backwards, I did suffer contempt from my fellow students, which certainly can be more difficult than the contempt of strangers, from whom respect is not always expected.
The publicity on this issue turned out to be highly one-sided and negative. Native lawsuits claimed billions of dollars for horrible abuses by these schools and by the clergy involved. We would hear story after story in the media of great sorrow and suffering of the children in these residential institutions. Nevertheless, for the record and for some balance, I would like to declare some observations about how I saw these people where I was involved with them:
I saw happy Indian kids at the Smith Jackson School and the McKay Residential. They were smiling, laughing, playing with us, involved in all the activities, and for the most part, received by us whites, more so than some other whites were. The natives were well dressed, groomed, and well fed (better than several of us).
And it wasn’t as though they didn’t wish to be groomed. Harvey, Clarence, John, Doc and Harry took pride in carrying rat tail combs and combing their hair often. Donna was always well dressed with pretty blouses and dresses, makeup and all, and it was obvious she enjoyed it.
All their physical needs were taken care of. They seemed to have general privileges and conveniences we did not have. When I delivered the newspaper to their residential school, I would sometimes see Indian children around, playing and studying me, perhaps hoping to be playful, even a bit mischievous, if they had the opportunity.
I do not justify how the government handled matters, and I do not say that human freedoms and family contact are worth milk, cookies, pretty blouses, and rat tail combs from strangers. All I am saying is that it wasn’t always bad as made out to be, at least not in the cases I witnessed. The Indian children received immersion in the up and coming language and culture. They received education that would grant them to adapt and succeed, if they were willing, in the white man’s world, which was an inevitable development anyway.
How fair was it that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in murderous hatred, without warning, parting him and his father Jacob, who loved him as his favorite? Had Joseph decided on bitterness, he would have lost everything. Instead, he submitted to his circumstances and rose to be ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh, as God had purposed.
His sufferings first broke him then enlarged, matured, and strengthened him. In the decades to come, he saved his father from whom he was violently separated, his brothers who sought his destruction, the neighboring superpower of that day – Egypt, and the nations round about from the ravages of a devastating famine.
Should he have sued for personal damages?
What is oppression? What is evil? What is right, and what is wrong? In the end, Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He saw the Divine Hand of wisdom and destiny at work in his life. Accepting it as such, he prospered. Acceptance is the secret.
Many of us know the story of Ben Hur. What good was it for him to resist? It was futile and unproductive. But when he accepted his circumstances, he excelled and came to victory, both within and without. Gladiator has similar elements in its story line. Many stories do. We see laws at work, do we not? If we keep them, we succeed, but if we break them, truly, they break us.
Canadian native actor Tom Jackson decided to take a positive attitude towards the harshness of the system against him. After being beaten by white cops in a jail in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he decided his deathstyle wasn’t for him, and that decision took him off the street, out of self-destruction, and eventually into the company of those who are considered genuine successes.
I had no choice when I was sent to live with my uncle and aunt. What better thing could I do than to accept my circumstances and make the best of them? It was not easy to do – we do not accept because it is easy to do; that is silly. We accept hardship and unsavory circumstances because we have little or no choice, and if no choice, there is a plan being worked out in our lives beyond us, which is for good, so why resist? What is in our power is to have a resigned, cooperative attitude and make the best of it.
My advice to those bitter natives who cry in their beer is to change their attitudes, look at the other side of the coin, and begin to excel rather than languish. That, of course, goes for all who choose to bemoan their lot rather than make the best of it – red, white, yellow, brown, black, blue, or purple, the last two colors often found in those who refuse to submit.
What did the green grape say to the purple grape? “Breathe! Breathe!” That’s what we need to do.
When I still attended the Dauphin Plains school, I knew a Métis family, the MacKenzies. There were three children – Thomas, the oldest, his sister Leona, and another – Lionel, I think. More often than not, they went hungry. They were poorly dressed, dirty, and smelly.
Thomas came to school with a pocketful of garlic that he ate in class, sitting behind Raymond McKillop. Raymond complained to his mother Mary that he was nauseated by the smell and couldn’t do his work. She complained about Raymond having to be subjected to such dire circumstances, not considering that the children she complained about had little or no food. (By the way, Mary was part native and, I was told, wouldn’t have others know it.)
The teacher was concerned and tried to get food to them. Some parents brought lunches for them, which they gladly received. What was our responsibility towards them? Why didn’t I think to sacrifice some, or even all, of my lunch, if only once?
What should or could they have done for themselves when the father neglected their basic needs, choosing his liquor over their food? The family roamed; the father worked on farms wherever he could. Mr. MacKenzie once came to work for us. He was a good worker, but when he got paid, we would not see him again for days. He went on drinking binges while his family had nothing, and when the money was gone, he returned to work.
My father eventually decided that he would not pay him until the work was done satisfactorily, knowing it might not get done at all if he paid him prematurely. If Mr. MacKenzie had spent his earnings on food for the family, fine, but it wasn’t that way.
We once drove by a building where the MacKenzies had temporarily lived. It was a desolate, broken-down log building, likely a barn when last used, on a long since abandoned farm site – no windows, roof nearly gone, and dirt floor. They had nowhere to go or to live. What did they do in winter? I don’t know. They left, and we didn’t see them again. I appreciated Thomas and Leona.
One day, Ed Korpan and I were tussling and he hit me in a spot at the top of my nose that brought tears. For the life of me, I could not prevent them. I was also angry and tried to get my hands on Ed, but he was too fleet of foot. He lost his respect for me that day, deeming me a sissy, and our relationship was done for. (I was to learn in later years that he had accidentally hit me on a sensitive pressure point.)
Years after this incident, I saw Ed at a lunch counter in the basement of the Dauphin Eaton’s store. He had joined the Canadian Army. It was apparent to me that he had maintained his disrespect for me.
In years to come, I heard that Winky Childs took his own life. Years after that, while watching CBC National, I saw that Ken Dowson had become Chief of the Winnipeg City Police, was involved in some kind of native scandal, and sadly, he was also reported to have taken his life. I wonder that two of the foursome succumbed to suicide. I wonder what happened to Ed – he was from a rough family. I appreciated them all.
While at the Smith Jackson School for grade eight, I met Louis LeClair. He was Métis and always cheerful and pleasant with everyone. One day, he challenged five of us to a friendly match. We would not take him on, friendly or not. He had a reputation and confidence that was not to be ignored. He said, “OK, I will lay down, and you guys get on top of me and see if I can break free.” We accepted.
One fellow was on one arm, one on the other; one on one leg, and one on the other. I sat on Louis’ abdomen. “Are you ready?” he asked. Ready? We couldn’t see how we needed to be so ready, but we replied we were. He closed his eyes, did some gentle deep-breathing – calm and relaxed – and then suddenly he was a dynamo; within four to seven seconds, he was up, free and beaming.
Obviously, I was impressed by that event.
Louis was not much bigger than each of at least three of us. He was skinny, and he showed no impressive amount of muscle; he was older by a few years, however.
He didn’t boast or mock, though I suppose he was showing off a bit; or was he simply giving a demonstration to get the word out so that no one would challenge him? Or was he, perhaps, testing himself? Whatever was going on in his mind, he remained apparently humble and very friendly.
Louis never got into a fight, though we and many others did. I am persuaded there was nobody in school that would have been able to handle him, not even muscular John Martin or Murray Edwards, each of whom we saw as big and tough.
Louis’ kind of confidence and humility is valuable and appreciated, consciously or otherwise. His example of such traits impressed me, though I didn’t try to emulate him. Somehow, I knew there was a price to be paid for his power, but I was not prepared to pay it, or even interested.
I do wonder what has happened with so many of these people who touched my life. Louis, I hope you and many others get to read this book.
You will recall my boyhood friend, Fred Matychuk, who matured ahead of me. He preceded me at Smith Jackson School for a year or so before moving to the McNeil School at the north end of Dauphin. Fred developed a reputation as a fighter with whom few cared to tangle. He had become a legend. Again and again, I heard of Fred and the tricks he would pull to win fights.
One fellow took him on more than once; he was also Fred – Witwycki was his last name. He was also a tough fighter, part Indian, if I recall correctly. Both of those Freds – with greased hair, big work boots, and leather jackets – cracked their knuckles and were often at it, getting in trouble at school. Both Freds were generally friendly. I couldn’t understand why they fought each other so viciously. Was it hatred or simply competition? I felt badly about it.
When Fred Matychuk left Smith Jackson, he took his reputation with him and added to it at the McNeil School. He was always into fighting. Often I would hear about this tough guy, Fred. “Yeah, I know him. He and I were friends,” I would reply.
I was envious. I knew he was tough and courageous, and I knew I was a wimp and cowardly (or at least lacked ability). I just didn’t measure up. I didn’t begrudge Fred, perhaps because he remained friendly toward me, though he had outstripped me in physical maturity, courage, strength, and popularity. He seemed magnanimous about it. Growing pains!
I found certain people and social situations confusing or mysterious, whereas others may have had little problem with them. Fred and Mary Prestayko had a divorcee friend with a young daughter, who visited them on occasion. Ms. Simms had two names, her maiden name and her married name, which confused me. She was bitter and cynical toward not only her former husband, but all men.
Her daughter Adrienne was in my tenth grade class. She was friendly, sociable, pretty, and humorous. While we got along, Adrienne was rather influenced by her mother’s attitude and therefore cynical of males, though she hadn’t experienced unusual unpleasantries with them personally, that I was aware.
Somehow I just couldn’t get my head around what was going on with her mother, but I didn’t really know or care enough to try. It was just another one of those things that confused me.
One day, when I was about thirteen, I helped my Uncle Fred Hafichuk with some yard work at their small home on 2nd Avenue South, in Dauphin. I appreciated him. We talked, and I have never forgotten what he said to me, while casually expressing his thoughts on life. He concluded, “Victor, what more can a man expect from life than maybe a wife, a house, and a decent job? Then you retire, and that’s about it.” (Uncle Fred and Aunt Josie never had children.)
His mood was perhaps somewhat despondent, though more reflective and philosophical. His words impacted me. My reaction was one of dismay and disillusionment. “That’s all there is to life?! That’s it?! Is that all I have to look forward to?” I wondered. It seemed but a pittance of what I imagined lay ahead of me, but strangely, I couldn’t define or visualize what else there was to life.
Here is a peculiarity. I had three Uncle Freds (name meaning “peaceful ruler”), each of them similarly clean, neat, organized, and friendly. I appreciated them all – Hafichuk, Prestayko, and Molnar. All three were willing to have personal talks with me, some confidential.
I had a hard lesson in job-hunting when we first moved to town. My father advised me to go to the local Safeway store and see the manager, Ad Balcaen, for a job as a general duty and grocery boy. He also advised me to tell Mr. Balcaen that I could work better and harder than the other boys there. So, that’s what I did.
Promptly and sternly, Mr. Balcaen took me to task on those comments and pointed me to Ernie Gidilewich, my classmate, who was doing just fine there, able to whip an industrial floor mop around with ease. Mr. Balcaen proceeded to humiliate me in front of the others there, saying to them, “Hey boys, this guy thinks he can work better than you! What do you think?” I knew they did not think much of my boast, though I was surprised they did not take it out on me.
He scolded me for boasting, but he later gave me a job. I was annoyed with Dad for advising me so. When I told him what happened, he only laughed. The lessons? Try a little humility and discretion! And don’t believe everything that even your father tells you. Of course, I had that lesson time and time again, but was I learning?
Don’t go looking for a fight, but when it comes and finds you and won’t go away, the fateful challenge must somehow be met.
I recall a fellow paper delivery boy who took a disliking to me. He kept tormenting me, and I kept trying to avoid and ignore him. People say, “Ignore bullies and they’ll go away.” It didn’t work; it seldom, if ever, does.
The only solution to the problem finally came. One day I turned on him and, giving it all I had, put him to the ground in a solid headlock, held him down as tightly as I could, and said, “I have broken bones. I advise you to back off. You got that?” He caved immediately.
It was a lie, of course, but he seemed to believe me or hadn’t realized what I was capable of. Not only did he leave me alone, but from that day forward, whenever he saw me, he had a respectful greeting for me. I was impressed!
On another day, a known tough guy and scrapper, Clayton Riehl, picked a fight with me at recess. While we stood facing each other down, I thought I would try the headlock again. Without warning, I grabbed him and put him down, holding him in a very tight headlock.
Looking up for a moment, I saw our principal, Mr. Scrase, watching through a window. He quickly turned away, pretending to see nothing. I thought I might be in for it, because if kids were caught fighting on school grounds, they were disciplined. I finally let Clayton up, he never bothered me again, and I never heard from Mr. Scrase. He would know Clayton was a troubled street kid, and I think he ignored the whole thing, seeing it ended the way it did.
Years later, my Aunt Hazel Chute (my mother’s cousin) told me that Clayton (who was her nephew by marriage, but no relation to me) got married and turned out to be a model family man. Good for him! He had come from a broken family.
I was quite pleased with myself and with the results of taking up the challenge with bullies instead of trying to avoid them. Chamberlain was wrong; Churchill was right. Thankfully, Churchill was prepared for the hour and rose to the challenge of an ugly, powerful, vain, occultish, insane bully. (Remarkably, there are those in this world who still admire and laud Hitler on his stance against Jews. How naïve, deluded, sick, and murderous people can be!)
But like Wiley E. Coyote, Daffy Duck or Sylvester Pussycat, who waxed overly confident after some success, I decided to pick a fight a couple of times.
I had seen an overweight kid, Donald Burdeny, picked on by others. He was afraid of them and would back off in every situation. So one day I thought I would pick on him, too. It didn’t work. Donald stood up to me. We did not lay a finger on each other, but he faced me, standing his ground. It seemed I was not as impressive to him as were others. My knees literally quivered.
I backed off somehow and walked away, humiliated and shaken. I realized there was no call for what I had tried to do. The Lord was teaching me, gently. So now I learned the lesson of standing up to bullies from the other side.
But that lesson was not quite enough. On another occasion, I decided to pick a fight with a kid I didn’t like and who didn’t like me. It so happened that his father was a former boxer and had taught him how to box. Who knew? What were the chances in the late fifties in a small country town?
Furthermore, his father was there on the scene, coaching him in his fight against me, which was on the street in front of their home. I hoped I could bluff him and let it go, but his father egged him on, quite eager to test his son’s skills and training on me. He even brought out a towel and a pan of water for him. I felt a bit outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and confounded.
Though I got him down in the end, Stan Lintick won in terms of fist-fighting, and I went home humbled with a nosebleed and a bruised, cut lip. Someone else had stood up to a would-be bully (me) and prevailed.
I had no valid reason to fight and, this time, the Lord arranged a repeat, yet more instructive and comprehensive, lesson I needed to learn: If you are going to fight, have a good reason for it, or don’t do it.
Three lessons in all: Stand up to bullies, don’t engage in battles you are not prepared to fight with just cause, and be prepared to fight the battles you do fight.
There was a good-looking but troubled kid, Neil Kabel, who could not resist picking on me. It seemed he fairly despised me. Neil came after me more than once at the Dauphin hockey arena. One day I stood up to him after trying hard to avoid or ignore him. He fought me, and I was surprised by how strong he was for his build and size.
Though he did not hurt me, he did get the best of me, pinning me to the floor in the washroom. He let me go, however, and did not bother me again. It could be that he was satisfied with his temporary superiority and perhaps wanted to hang on to it without defending it again.
He also had a very pretty sister, whom I never met personally, though I would have loved to.
Jim Durston was a very thin, good-looking farm kid in seventh grade at Smith Jackson School. He was someone I was inclined to tease or pick on, more playfully than brutally, but still rudely. He was weak and flimsy.
I met him again a few years later at Clear Lake, a popular resort in the Riding Mountains, and now Jim proposed a fight with me. He was rather insistent, and it was not hard to see why. He was no longer the scrawny weakling I had known. He was filled out and muscular. Obviously, he had been bodybuilding.
I recall the comic books of those days advertising how scrawny weaklings, who had sand kicked in their faces and girls stolen by macho guys, could enroll in a Joe Weider or Charles Atlas course and gain muscle, confidence, popularity, and girls.
Jim wanted to cash in on his investment, I suppose. I subtly avoided a confrontation, feeling quite certain he would lick me. Perhaps he also had some martial arts training; I didn’t know and didn’t want to find out, at least not firsthand.
I had, naturally and understandably, negatively impacted Jim by my inconsiderate and arrogant attitude toward him years before, and he was determined to redeem himself. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing I could no longer challenge, much less bully, him.
Lesson: The weak do not necessarily remain weak, and the strong do not necessarily remain strong. “To everything there is a time and season”? And people do not forget. Other lessons I came to contemplate about that situation, however, were perhaps even more important: It is better to make friends than enemies, and we reap what we sow, though it may take time.
Many years later, I bought honey from him at his farm. No words were exchanged about the past, though I was quite sure he had not forgotten.
Perhaps because I was a mercenary kid, I came to hold down several jobs at once, which did my school grades little justice. First, I rose early every morning and walked or biked nine blocks to the train station (half a mile) or ten blocks to the bus depot to pick up my bundle of the Winnipeg Free Press or the Winnipeg Tribune. I delivered those all year, with winter mornings as cold as -30 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes colder.
One of my paper routes stretched out for about a mile, scattered wide, from 7th Avenue South all the way to the McKay Indian Residential School, Sticky’s Drive-In and the trailer court in the area. Broadwise, it stretched for about half a mile, from Main Street to the Vermillion River.
I came home for breakfast then headed for work to Brett’s Gift and Stationery, owned by Dr. Gordon Ritchie and managed by Mrs. Elmer Forbes, widow of a politician. There was a short, friendly, pretty woman there – Mary, and there were Mrs. Sytnick and Eleanor Scott, I believe. I enjoyed my duties and the staff there. I did small errands, then headed to school, which started at nine o’clock. After school, instead of heading out for cokes at the Kings Hotel, Dauphin Hotel, or the Grange Café with other kids after school (I could never stomach frivolity or hobnobbing), I was back at Brett’s until 6:00 PM, then home for supper.
After supper, I occasionally went delivering Fuller Brush products for the local salesman and territorial manager, Nick Genik. I picked up the product – bottles, cans, brooms, mops, and more – loaded my Schwinn bike, and headed out for twenty-five cents a delivery.
Nick Genik’s home was perpetually in process of being built – no flooring, walls unpainted, and things scattered everywhere. But he was a very successful salesman for Fuller in Manitoba. Nick had a glass eye, which I often wondered about.
I would have to cross perhaps three or four sets of railroad tracks to get my papers at the train station. Sometimes there were railroad cars blocking my way on one or more tracks. I tried to find my way around, and sometimes went under, them.
I developed a recurring nightmare with that theme (this being the first of many recurring nightmares I remember), likely because of some sort of uncertainty or anxiety about the repetitive experience, and perhaps because I was warned of danger in being there. This dream would be taken care of in a very interesting way.
For many years to come, I had the recurring nightmare of being in a vehicle, usually with someone else driving, climbing a steep hill, so steep that the front of the vehicle would tip back. I tried so hard, by willpower (or faith?) to not let it tip. This dream would also be taken care of.
I often dreamt of leaving my bike outside a school or store only to come back and find it missing. I was unable to retrieve it in any way.
In another nightmare I developed, which remained for decades, the streets of Dauphin confounded me. I tried to find my way and was never able to get to my destination. The day would come when I was free of this torment.
I recall a particularly unpleasant event. On one of my paper routes, a double murder had occurred. Some fellow had shot two women with a shotgun while drinking. They were murdered while trying to run out of the house. I saw blood and pieces of flesh on the steps, ground, and walls, both inside and out. No “Police Line, Do Not Cross” tapes anywhere, not even days after the event. It was horrible – but no nightmares. Why? I expect psychologists have the answer.
Mrs. Strilchuk, one of my newspaper route customers, lived two or three blocks away from our place. She ended up with breast cancer and a mastectomy. When I would come to the door to collect, I saw a very gloomy, frail, lonely person. She was the only one I heard of with cancer in all those years, in a town of 5,000 people, not that there weren’t others, of course.
My, how the quality of life and medicine would advance in a half century for North Americans, after the Cancer Society sucked billions out of the gullible, so that it is now nearly one in two who will contract cancer!