Legends of Myself 78

Posted on June 12, 2013


Hartley Bay c 191578. Hartley Bay, 1960:  Tommy’s Family

Hartley Bay is just around the corner from the Inside Passage, perhaps five miles away by boat from a junction with Grenville Channel, sidling around Promise Island—the island which provides partial shelter to Hartley Bay harbour while preventing a direct look at the Passage from the village.

The home of the Gitga-ata, originally actually known as Kitkata or Kitkata Bay, stands on the north side of the entrance to Douglas Channel.  I remember seeing ships passing by beyond the harbour, always seeming out of place and incongruously large, and never stopping in.  Of course, no facility on the village waterfront could have accommodated vessels so large, even those slightly more modest ones which seemed to carry passengers, cruise ships, maybe, or ocean-going yachts.  The traffic beyond the harbour (that which was not fishery related or purely local) was likely passing there on business to and from Kitimat, at the interior end of Douglas Channel.

I don’t believe my father and I had stopped at Hartley Bay when passing south along the Inside Passage, before our double-back at Klemtu.  He would have mentioned a village with my brother in it.

My brother’s home was another place of wooden boardwalks, like Port Essington, like Klemtu, a feature which I accepted as readily as the roads I found in other places.  It was a village stretched out around the harbour, facing the water, as traditional Aboriginal villages—along the North Coast and up the river valleys—have always done.  The fish boats and floats, if I remember rightly, were at the western end of the village, to your right if you were looking out at the harbour.  The church and the school buildings held down the chiefly spot at the mid-point of the semi-circle.

Since the Gitga-ata founders were—despite a powerful missionary influence—still very much traditional Tsimshian when they planned and built Hartley Bay, their placing the church—schoolhouse hard by—where a village chief’s house would otherwise stand was unlikely to be error or coincidence.

Chief Clifton 1951 - 2The family that my brother Tommy lived with, who had adopted him and made him one of them, still possessed, in 1960, living memory of William Duncan, the charismatic missionary whose influence ultimately led the community to erect a church at its heart.  Heber Clifton Sr.—grandfather and namesake of the Heber Clifton who adopted my brother, in whose house my brother’s adoptive father himself grew up—was still a powerful presence in the community.  The elder Clifton had gone to school in the previous century in Metlakatla, while it still harboured Christian Utopian dreams, before the Gitga-ata’s 1887 return to Hartley Bay.

Heber Clifton Sr. was raised and carefully trained as an important nameholder of the Blackfish clan, who began even as a teenager to distinguish himself.  He was also a serious Christian.  In late November 1899, for instance, as president of the Christian Epworth League, he journeyed by canoe through hostile fall weather to evangelize in Klemtu.

Stone artifact from Old Town, Gitga-ataFrom early in the 20th century, when increasing European settlement in Tsimshian territory began to make it an issue, Heber took an interest in defending the rights of the Gitga-ata to their traditional lands and resources.  In 1913, when the McKenna-McBride Commission was touring British Columbia making—as it intended—a “final” allotment of Indian reserve lands in the province, Clifton Sr. was one of those in Hartley Bay who refused to co-operate with the commission and the reserve allotment process until the matter of Native title had been acknowledged and discussed.

(Didn’t we hear somewhere about a Royal Proclamation, 1763?)

In 1927, the Canadian government amended the Indian Act with a clause that promised six months in jail for anybody accepting money in the pursuit of Indian claims.  Existing Aboriginal lobby groups all across Canada asserting Aboriginal rights, asserting Aboriginal sovereignty, asserting the Aboriginal right of self-government, immediately collapsed.  This included, in British Columbia, the Allied Tribes of B.C. and the Euro-Canadian support group, the Friends of the Indians.

Clifton Sr., together with some others, responded by forming the Native Brotherhood of BC in 1933, ostensibly a fishers union as well as a social charitable organization (and still fulfilling those functions) but also a means for keeping the fight for Aboriginal title alive.  After helping to found it, Heber helped build it by taking his fishboat from community to community on organizing trips.

Native Brotherhood logoUntil the Pursuit of Claims law was removed from the Indian Act in 1951, it was fundamentally illegal for Canadian organizations to promote ideas like Aboriginal title, and the law applied as much to organizations like the Brotherhood as any other.  This meant that when the topic came up at meetings, as it regularly did, a careful lookout was kept, and when the Indian agent or other agent of a hostile government approached the discussion was interrupted and a Christian hymn struck up.

For many of the years when he was engaged in organizing and so on, simultaneously pursuing a living as a fisherman, Heber Clifton Sr. also assumed the role of village chief—a traditional role of political and social significance.  He oversaw both his village and his family.  Many chiefs and leaders from the community, taking roles defined by tradition or by the Indian Act, grew up in the Clifton family, often in the elder Clifton’s house and under his instruction.

That was the family my brother had been adopted into.  Of course, I knew nothing of it at the time.  I knew that he’d been given out for adoption for health issues. They had affected his life as well.

My brother had to spend a lot of time in hospitals, and the hospital that could best deal with his issues was in Oregon, so he grew up a long way from home a lot of the time.  On one occasion, returning alone from Oregon in a bus, he met my father, his father, who was just a friendly stranger also riding the bus, going the same way.  The stranger stayed near, kept nearby, but respected his independence, his adventure, and when my brother got off the bus at the end of the trip, the person who collected my brother at the station said, “Oh, I see you met your father.”

That was the first my brother knew who the friendly stranger was.

My brother was Tommy, that’s what I thought, but now that he was a member of another family, his name was Aleck.  I had a hard time getting used to that.  Twenty-three years after I left Hartley Bay (I know I’m getting a little ahead of the story here) I received a phone call.

“Hi, this is Aleck.”



“I’m sorry …”

“Aleck, your brother.”

Aleck, my brother, who our family all knew as Tommy.  The name Aleck was a surprise even when I encountered it as a boy in Hartley Bay, and somehow the six months or so I spent in his village wasn’t sufficient to cement the alteration in my mind, at least to carry away with me.  Perhaps the memories could slip—his name revert to Tommy—because I wasn’t actually living in his house then in Hartley Bay, and according to the way the classrooms were arranged, I didn’t see him much in school either.

I expected something of my brother, of having a brother.  Coming to Hartley Bay was the first time in a very long time that the idea of family, a family beyond my father and me, occurred to me.  I hadn’t had a sibling since my sisters had ridden away on the train to residential school in 1954.  I hadn’t met a brother or sister since that separation.

I liked the idea of a brother.  And I wasn’t disappointed in the brother that I got.  That wasn’t it.  But I was disappointed in the connection I made with him, and with how much I saw of Tommy, of Aleck.  I can’t really say why, really, but Hartley Bay in 1960 and 1961 just didn’t present a sufficient introduction for me to get to know him.

He had his own family then, perhaps, or maybe I just didn’t know how or what to do.  But I don’t think Aleck and I ever moved past the novelty of being brothers-in-fact to the reality of being brothers-as-family.  That happened, but it happened as adults.  We got to know each other well, and that’s a whole different story.  Yet if we hadn’t gone through that journey as adults, I would hardly know him at all.  Whatever expectations my encounter with my brother in HartleyBay might have stirred up, they never gained much substance in 1960 and 1961.

That was why, 24 years later when he called me on the phone, I had forgotten his name.

No, not Tommy.  Aleck.

My brother and a Clifton, both.122222222222222

Posted in: autobiography