Legends of Myself 8

Posted on February 5, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 7

10. A Prehistory of My Father Pt. 4 – The War and the Legion

The War. My father served in the liberation of the Netherlands, which fact I reconstructed from remarks he made about encountering black bread—the other soldiers didn’t like it, but he thought it was fine—and the Black Forest—which, I guess, other soldiers tried to spook him with, but, coming as he did from the Northwest Coast, he found pretty tame.

And then of course, long after the war, he returned to the Netherlands to visit.  He said how, as Canadian from his generation, they made a sort of fuss over him there.  Hearing which, I must admit, made me a little happy.

I never heard what happened to my Uncle Gus in the context of the war, although I know he was the third brother drafted.

As for my Uncle Jim, apart from the anecdote of meeting my father in London, the first story I heard him tell about the war concerned kicking about in London.  He said how he was wandering broke and far too sober around London with a buddy, another soldier.  They saw a window display of what looked like good whiskey which tempted them beyond resistance.  But after a smash, a grab, a hasty escape, they discovered that it was only coloured water.

So ended his crime spree overseas.

I remember Uncle Jim telling that story on himself in our kitchen on William Street in Vancouver, that story and so many others strung together which I wish I could recall, and me and Dad rocking and holding our sides, trying to keep the laughter from spilling out onto the floor.

He opened up about other serious matters to other people, some of which got back to me, but I remember Uncle Jim–who had experienced the most ferocious war of the three brothers–telling me only one thing about combat.  It came in the form of a statement about war films.

The one thing that war films left out or didn’t quite get right about war was the sound of it, he said.  Yet sound was one of the most terrifying aspects of the whole experience.  Those objects roaring by or above the soldier were deadly, but they were also loud.  They howled and whistled overhead.  They percussioned hill and tree and field and wall when they landed and exploded.  They spit and stuttered bullets.  They thundered, thumped, screamed and rattled now and in the moment after, and all at once, and all around.

Amidst cacophony and discord, soldiers died.

My Uncle Jim was not the only one who remembered combat from the way it sounded.  Years after he made his criticism to me, the film “Saving Private Ryan” was released.  That film was noted for its Dolby-enhanced opening sequences set on the beach on D-Day, sequences which attempted to replicate the aural chaos of that battle.  Steven Spielberg’s otherwise fairly conventional war story reportedly sent many World War II veterans into shock.  The intensity of the opening sequences was evidently much too real for some of the soldiers who had actually been there.

Uncle Jim served in Italy, and was wounded there from “friendly fire.”  He found himself on the battlefield with an arm blown off and a wounded comrade next to him.  He pulled himself off the battlefield carrying his wounded comrade with his good arm and his detached limb tucked beneath his stub.  What ultimately happened to his wounded comrade I don’t know.  The surgeons were not able to reattach the limb.

Going to the Legion after the war.  My father was the last in the family to see his brother whole.  What it meant to him to encounter my Uncle Jim after the war without an arm, I don’t know.  What it meant for my father to be conscripted along with his two brothers and compelled to combat, I don’t know.

I do know he thought it ought to mean something.  He wasn’t the only veteran to return from the war expecting at last to be treated like a man.  Somehow when you’ve risked death for your country, a person feels entitled to that.

What his actual welcome home was like, though, I learned when his brothers finally told the story at his funeral.

It must have been 1946.  All three brothers had been discharged from the army by then, and had returned to Canada, to their home territory and Prince Rupert.  As veterans, as young men strutting about, as cocky heroes back from battle, as the clan Katzenjammer reunited and made respectable, I guess they decided to buy a round or two at the local veteran’s bar, the Royal Canadian Legion.  Hadn’t an armless sleeve and combat medals paid their entrance?  Weren’t they veterans and the Legion a veterans bar?

But when they sat down, they were reminded that this was still Canada.  In Canada, Indians were still not allowed to drink.

The waiters wouldn’t serve them.

My father couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  My Uncle Jim said that my father didn’t drink well, couldn’t seem to drink and have fun.  He always got angry somehow.  But this was a special case.

“I fought in the war,” my father said, beginning to present his reasoning, reaching out, finding something and smashing it for emphasis.

He was entitled to be there.  He broke chairs.

He had fought for his country.  He tilted tables.

He and his brothers had fought for Canada.  He smashed mirrors.

They’d been fired onShot at.  He tossed long shelves of liquor bottles onto the floor.

They’d risked their lives, lost limbs.  He shook and elbowed aside the waiters who attempted to crowd him, to pull him down.

They’d fought side by side with other soldiers.  With attackers on his back, he rushed tables full of glasses and slithered the floors with hops.

He was entitled to drink side-by-side with them too.  He smashed more chairs.

He was entitled to be treated like a man.  He tilted more tables.

He had fought and earned the right to be regarded as a man.  He dislodged more waiters.

He had a right to drink in that bar.

As I have said before, my father was incredibly strong. Every waiter, barman and bouncer in the Legion, it seemed like, got involved in trying to stop him.  My uncles described them as piling on in layers, two or three at a time.  And my father just shrugged them off, continued with his mayhem, continued with a monologue explaining just what he thought about the bar’s customer policies.

My uncles didn’t join him destroying the bar, but they protected his back.

“Some of those waiters,” my Uncle Gus said, “were trying to hit him over the head from behind with chairs, but we wouldn’t let them do that.”

By the time the crowd in the Legion joined the waiters and finally pulled him down, my father had overturned the whole bar.  Uncle Jim laughed when telling the story. “I couldn’t believe your Dad had turned over that place from end to end by the time he was finished.”  He shook his head at the very scale of the mayhem.

I never learned what the aftermath of that incident was.  Perhaps my father did a little jail, although sending someone to jail under such dubious circumstances was possibly too embarrassing an alternative for even the most racist authorities in those racist times.  My father was, after all—as well as an Aboriginal person—a veteran fresh from the wars, and the gratitude of Canada towards its veterans was still fresh then as well.  I didn’t get the impression, not ever, not from anything, that my father had ever experienced prison.

But there is something which I do connect to that incident.  A conversation that my father alluded to with an Indian agent, where the Indian agent was trying to persuade my father to give up his Indian status.  “We can force you out,” the Indian agent said, “or you can just sign and do it voluntarily.”  My father signed.

The pretext of Indian status was what allowed the Legion to refuse to serve my father, was what allowed them keep the Indians out.  It’s an idea that might need a little explaining for persons unfamiliar with the Indian Act.

The Indian Act is legislation by the government of Canada, a kind of everything and anything Act, around since 1876 but revised many times, which tells Indians all kinds of important things about themselves, including whether they are Indian or not.  That’s where status comes in.  If you have Indian status, you are entitled to live on your reserve, which is convenient, because that’s usually your home community.  You’re entitled to vote there, and run for chief and council.  There weren’t many other benefits, and, in my father’s day, rather more than one restriction.

If you had Indian status, you couldn’t vote in general elections.  At an early era, you couldn’t become a priest or a lawyer.  Until 1951, you couldn’t potlatch.  You couldn’t sundance.  You couldn’t sell the produce of your farm.  At one time, you weren’t permitted in pool halls.  And, relevant to the present story, you couldn’t drink alcohol.

Some of these restrictions were there specifically for the purpose of enticing people with status to give it up.  The government in Ottawa has always found Indians inconveniently expensive and was chronically torn between the conflicting goals of controlling everything Indians did and off-loading responsibility for them altogether.

They didn’t call it off-loading, of course.  They called it enfranchisement.  And they even had a theory to justify it.

The theory was that once Indians became White enough, they were entitled to take on the rights enjoyed by other (White) Canadians.  The right to vote, for instance.  This was what giving up Indian status meant.  The government regarded the right to surrender your Indianness as a privilege, a desirable thing.  It was the right to assume the same rights and privileges which White people got by just being White.

But of course enfranchisement held a bonus for the government as well, which no longer had to provide an enfranchised Indian, or his family, with services.  And the government could and would with your enfranchisement kick you and your family permanently off the reserve and out of the community where you were born.  Those were lands reserved for Indians, the government could argue, and with enfranchisement one was no longer an Indian.

They said it with straight faces.

Losing your home, surrendering your community and identity, were regarded by practically all Aboriginal people as steep payment just to be allowed to vote.  The privilege of full citizenship in a society that would continue to privilege Whites regardless, in most ways that were important or relevant, didn’t tempt many takers in the century or more that the enfranchisement provisions remained in the Indian Act.  That’s where the liquor laws kicked in.

It’s classic economics:  prohibition creates scarcity, adds value.

You want your booze, you can have it, say the government men.  Forget the bootleggers, we’ve got the bootlegger clause.  We are the Bootleggers-in-Chief, chief.  Sign here on the line.  Give up your Indian status.  And we give you the right to be your own bootlegger and drink like any White man.

The Indian Act used to say that Indians couldn’t handle their booze and so had to be protected from it.  Thus the liquor prohibitition clauses.  Yet a simple signature on the dotted line to surrender your Indian status, and suddenly the law assumes that you can handle your booze.

Remarkable.  There’s powerful medicine in that ink and in that law.

When my father signed away his Indian status, though, it wasn’t really about the booze.  The Indian agent’s actual leverage was Grandpa Hammond.

In the government’s concept, the issue with Indians was genetic:  they weren’t White.  And genetics, those that counted, were male.  An Indian man who married a White woman made her legally Indian under the Indian Act, as were the children of the marriage.  A White man who married an Indian woman made her legally White, as were the children of that marriage.  The issue got a little more complicated if people didn’t get married.  But there were still clauses in the Indian Act to deal with the situation.

If the government could prove that a status Indian had a White father, they could remove him or her from the Indian register involuntarily.  The Indian agent who spoke to my Dad thought he could prove that Dad’s father was White, and he was willing to go through with it if he had to.

“Just sign, George.”

And he signed.

I don’t know whether my father ever returned to the Legion, or wanted to.  Somewhere, sometime, he turned away from alcohol.  In my lifetime, I seldom saw him drink and never once saw him drunk.

He had a rule, carefully followed, where he only touched booze every second year.  But that rule mattered so little to his habits, he drank so little regardless, that to this day, despite being in a theoretically perfect position to tell, I still can’t say whether it was odd years or even years where he was allowed to drink.

He never got back the Indian status that he surrendered.  He died never able to call himself legally an Indian, although the Constitution has since made the aspect of the law under which he lost his status unlawful.

As for the Royal Canadian Legion, a branch of which refused to serve my father so long ago, every year approaching November they begin to sell poppies, which I don’t buy, selling them in honour of soldiers which in my consideration they fail to honour.

In 1946, the Legion wouldn’t serve my father—or other Aboriginal people—using as a pretext the Indian Act, rather as Jim Crow laws existing in the same era were used as a pretext in the American south for, in that case, banishing African-Americans.

To this day, in some Legions, arbitrary rules continue to serve as a pretext for excluding men in religious headgear—turbans and such—who must choose between drinking at the Legion or honouring their religions.

Apparently, the Legion has still not learned the lessons of my father’s war.


Continued at Legends of Myself 9

Posted in: autobiography