Legends of Myself 49

Posted on September 6, 2012


Continued from Legends of Myself 48

49.  Port Essington, 1958:  Playground Essington, Pt. 1

My cousins Arthur and Reynold (or Artie and Rainie, as they then were) remembered my previous stay in Spaksuut, which ended in 1954 or early 1955, although I had no recollection of their being there at all.  At least one event should have been memorable.  My cousins gleefully described to me, quite soon after I arrived back amongst them, how I’d taken a hatchet and almost deprived one of them (I forget which) of his finger.

Did I?  I was sorry about that.  And no, I didn’t remember a thing about it.

In 1958 when I joined them, Art was 10, Reynold was 9, and I was 8.  Pretty much as soon as I arrived in Essington, we became a unit, a famous trio.  With Trudy to the side.  As well as being of undeniably another gender, which doesn’t always matter in these things, Trudy was 6, which felt like a large gap, then.  She also had her own room, which, sensible as it was, contributed to leaving her out, since our room was a secret society, or sometimes functioned like it.  Unfortunately, I hardly got to know Trudy during the time I was there.

As for the famous trio, the whole of Port Essington was our playground, in a way that can hardly happen in larger places.  And since it had sunk from thousands to, at best, hundreds in population, it had more places, shall we say, than people to populate those places, which opened it up wonderfully for exploration.

Four boardwalks enclosed the bulk of Essington.  Two of them met just outside of our door, in the back corner of the village.  On an old map of Essington, they are marked as Lansdowne Street and Wellington Street, although I had no notion that any of these boardwalks had names the whole time that I lived there.

The boardwalk called Wellington Street led straight from the foot of our entrance staircase down towards the Skeena.  It wasn’t a particularly populated street for the first half of it, on either side.  On the left-hand side, not far from our house, I remember an abandoned lot with some crabapple trees, the crabapples not very sweet—it was necessary to try them—but I enjoyed them canned.  Further down the same side was a derelict church, the Pierce Memorial, raised up by the Methodists to serve the Aboriginal population in 1936 and already decommissioned.  William Pierce was a half-Tsimshian missionary who preached in Port Essington and whose signature appears on my father’s baptism certificate.  The church named after him didn’t survive longer than twenty years, dying with its shrinking patronage.  Art and Reynold and I explored it, of course.  There were old pews, most still in place, old songbooks, empty walls, bits of debris and broken glass, and an abandoned organ.

Past the church, on both sides of the boardwalk, it began to get a little more populated.  On the left side there was a small clutch of houses which formed its own neighbourhood.  I remember going over there for visits more than once.  He was an uncle perhaps, who we visited, although I was never clear on his relation to us.  Most of the Aboriginal people were related somehow or other in Spaksuut, I would think, and I don’t suppose it mattered any way at all.  Our host clearly delighted in our visits, treated us like princes, giving us sticks of smoke-dried salmon which we dipped into jars of ooligan grease.  This is the treat called in that neighbourhood, and all up and down the coast, “Indian candy.” Now sticks of dried salmon dipped in pungent fish oil might not seem like much of a treat to those who’ve not been raised to it.  But if you want to make our mouths water like Pavlov’s dogs, you need only mention it to any Aboriginal person raised as a child on the northern British Columbia coast.

We understand (theoretically) that not everybody likes ooligan grease as much as we do.  And that’s all right, because that means more for us.  It’s hard to get already.

My cousins and I visited that house and that neighbourhood for the hospitality, for dried fish sticks and pots of sweet tea, and to play games of Fish, a silly simple card game to which our host brought as much relish and enthusiasm as any of us.  “Do you have any threes?”  “Do you have any jacks?”  When one of us guessed wrong, he said, “Go fish!” snapping the table with his knuckles and laughing hilariously.

The side of the boardwalk opposite the church was another distinctive neighbourhood, and where the Boltons lived, Gus’ in-laws, Auntie Irene’s family.  What struck me most about that neighbourhood was the complete absence of raised wooden sidewalks.  The sidewalks walked above the muskeg landscape everywhere and in every neighbourhood of Essington except there.  There, you made you way on dirt paths, crossed impromptu bridges, took all the detours you had to take to skirt the ever-present mud and muskeg—which was the reason that Port Essington had boardwalks in the first place.

I didn’t know it then, but where the Bolton’s lived was not just a neighbourhood, it was the Indian reserve.  And that explained the lack of sidewalks.

Many years after leaving Essington, I read a history of the place.  There was a story in there about a visit by an early 20th century provincial politician from the governing party.  When the story took place, Essington was rather more important, the largest settlement up until then on the north coast, and the politician, as politicians do, arrived with news of government largess.  The province, he said, was going to repair all the sidewalks in the town.

Reading that story, I realized something that I had never thought of before.  The wooden sidewalks in Essington were the equivalent of roads and streets found in other places.  They were thus the responsibility of government.  The province kept the wooden walkways in Port Essington in repair, but bypassed the Indian reserve because that neighbourhood was the responsibility—as constitutional lawyers and the appropriate government bureaucrats will tell you—of the federal government.  And the federal government, then and now, has never been very enthusiastic about taking on those kind of expenses.  Consequently, infrastructure that other Canadians take for granted, Aboriginal Canadians often do not get, and in Port Essington what they did not get was wooden sidewalks.

And that is why, although I had no idea of constitutional law or racial geography at the time, or even that there was such a thing as an Indian reserve anywhere, it is still clear to me where the site of the Indian reserve was in Port Essington.  Because of the intersection of law and race, even a community so small that it contained only nine school age children, plus me, still had room for its own ghetto.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 50

Posted in: autobiography