Legends of Myself 108

Posted on September 5, 2017

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PART VI:  Ward of the Court, 1962-64

108.  Cloverdale, 1962: The Temporary Farm Boy

In 1899, in a poem urging Americans to take up arms against the Philippines, Rudyard Kipling invented the term “White man’s burden”, which was the burden of spreading White civilization, often violently, always arbitrarily, and despite the foolish objections of the natives.

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Underlying the “White Man’s Burden” was simple racism

That burden is usually taken up in stages.  First, there are the soldiers.  Then, in Canada, there are the quasi-military police, the Royal Canadian Mounted, originally known as the North-West Mounted.  Then, in Canada, there came the Indian agents, assisted by the missionaries, who took a dangerous and ominous interest in the children.  And when the missionary solution for children, residential schools, began inevitably to reveal its destructiveness, the provincial child welfare systems, starting notably in the 60s, took over where the residential schools left off.

And continued the destruction.

I found myself a ward of the state in 1962 because of the theory of the “good White home.”  Whiteness, according to this theory, was a solution for my Indianness.  Whiteness would change me from a delinquent (which to the Children’s Aid Society I always was) to a good boy, would rescue me from the Indianness of my father and my sisters, and give me a better chance at life.  It was the same theory as the residential schools, which were meant to teach concentrated Whiteness while isolating Indigenous children from home influences.  I was put in “good White homes” as a natural consequence of White men (and women) taking up their Kiplingesque burdens.

Another thing, too.  I grew up hearing how Indigenous people couldn’t adapt to the city, and it seems clear in hindsight that that idea was in the minds of the people who were deciding what kind of “good White home” to send me to.  Accompanying that theory and reinforcing it, and present from the start among White critics of Indianness, was the idea that our hunting and gathering pasts required good agricultural restructuring.  And anyways, behind it all, and recognized by many residential schools, for instance, farms always had room for brute labour suitable to the skill set of folk only a hop-skip from barbarism.

I suspect some reasoning of that kind of flavour and import  explains how I wound up on a farm in Cloverdale.  No one asked or consulted me about it, of course.  I could have told them I was used to the city.  I was used to towns and villages, small places, large.  What was entirely alien to me was life on a farm among White people.

I don’t remember the transition from Juvie to Cloverdale, although I must have been paying attention.  I seem to have absorbed some of the geography of the route going there.  All I explicitly remember from then is arriving at night, after bedtime, and climbing a set of stairs to a set of dim upstairs rooms which had cots arranged all along the walls.  Every cot held a foster child, and I lay down on my own cot frightened, not wanting to move, not wanting to bring attention to myself.  And after awhile I needed to pee, but still I didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to move from my bed, didn’t want to go down those stairs again, and I tried to repress the urge to piss, I tried to fight it back by rubbing my crotch against the bed.  But a little bit leaked, a drop here, a drop there, and by morning there was a puddle on my mattress, perhaps four inches wide.  And all the boys woke up, and somebody discovered what happened to my mattress, and then I was the new Indian kid who pissed the bed.

That was how all the boys knew me when they met me first the next day.  Teddy, who pissed the bed.  And if there was any sympathy anywhere for the kid who lost his family the day before and now found himself among strangers, they didn’t share it with me.

I can’t remember the name of that first farmer who took me in as a foster child.  I don’t remember the names of any of my foster families, except the one finally nominated by my father.  None of them were real enough for me.  I suspect, since these things go both ways, that they would not remember my name, either, such as them as are still around to recall me.

He must have had a wife, but I can only remember the farmer himself.  I remember him talking about his 80 acres.  He had a farmhouse, a barn, a toolshed, a tractor, what were to me huge horned cows, fields, and on the other side of the fields, a patch of woods which I was never sure were part of his 80 acres or not.

Up the road and on the other side, nothing to do with us, was a mink farm, which we could smell the stink of when the breeze blew the wrong way.

I’m not sure why that farmer kept an attic-full of boys.  We were certainly put to work.  I remember loading 40 or 50 pound bales of hay and clover from the barn, which is quite a carry for a skinny 12-year-old from the city.  But we weren’t working all the time, and having a bunch of miscellaneous boys do farm work  probably wasn’t all that efficient from a labour standpoint.  So I suspect we were there mostly to collect children’s aid money, a supplementary source of income to keep farming profitable, with the additional child labour a kind of bonus.  Nothing in that home led me to suspect altruism or a love for children as a motive for that farmer.  I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line he encountered a few abuse complaints, maybe even a charge of reckless endangerment of children, given the attention he paid, or didn’t pay, to things like securing dangerous materials.

One day one of the other foster kids called me into the tool shed.  There were fuses in there, and blasting caps, and the kid brought me over to a bench where he showed me the technique of activating the cap, so that it exploded when you inserted the fuse and lit it.  That was quite interesting, and later I returned to that shed by myself and began my own experiments with fuses and blasting caps, which were to me a kind of super firecracker you could fashion yourself.  I never actually exploded a blasting cap, because I couldn’t think of any way of doing it without attracting attention, but I’m sure I would have someday solved that problem given time and opportunity.  And so might have some other kid the farmer kept in his attic.

And lost his arm or eyesight or life.

But I only remained in that first foster home for three weeks.  It was long enough for my own home to fracture.

I explained near the beginning of this increasingly fat narrative that I was the chosen one, the child my father decided to keep when my family broke up after my mother died.  My father endeavoured mightily to de-emphasize that favouritism when my sisters rejoined us in 1961.  But when the Children’s Aid stole me away, it became clear once again that I was my father’s only real attachment to parenthood.

Was it a week, 10 days, two weeks?  I don’t know.  But one day he went down to the Fisherman’s Hall, bringing my sisters.  Disgracing himself in the eyes of the people at the Fisherman’s Union, he abandoned them there, saying, “If they’re going to take my son, take my daughters, too.”  That was perhaps the worse thing my father did in his life, but my sister Marylou who suffered more for that decision than anyone, refuses to blame him for it.

“He was distraught,” she said.

As an adult I have talked to social workers, who often, with the assistance of the courts, have used the shock doctrine of child apprehension to—theoretically—convince parents to be better parents.  Often the result is the opposite, but somehow this insight doesn’t prevent the same tactic from being used again and again.

Authoritarianism doesn’t learn.

Anyway, by the time my stay at my first foster home had ended, I already had no family to go back to.  My father had left town.  And my sisters were living in their own foster home on School Avenue in Vancouver.

The foster home terminated because one morning I plugged the toilet.  Because somehow if the flush didn’t work, it was a fault of mine. I remember the farmer sitting at the breakfast table, his legs straddled, his sneering face turned toward me with an expression I’ve since seen on a thousand bullying faces, telling me that if this kind of thing was going to happen, maybe I should shit in the yard.

That was too much for me.  That man, that place, the horrible possibility of being banned to the yard, terrified me.  I knew I had to get out.  And I knew how.  Hadn’t I already traveled hundreds of miles hitchhiking?  I waited through the day until I saw no one was around.  Then I sidled carefully out onto the road, glancing back and nervous about the farmhouse until the barn hid me from view.  Then I started walking and hitchhiking towards Vancouver.  I knew in general which way I had to go.  It was a dangerous thing to do, always a dangerous thing for a kid to do, although I was mostly unaware of it.  But I got lucky and somehow I got rides.  By nightfall, I remember riding around in Vancouver, my driver inquiring here and there where School Avenue was, and finally finding the entrance to it from Kingsway.

I arrived in the darkness at my sisters’ foster home address, a typical White home—meaning utterly strange and uncomfortable to me—with a carpet, a living room and a dachshund.  Okay, I really didn’t have any trouble adjusting to the weiner dog, and I was happy to see my sisters.  And I guess I hadn’t really escaped.

Marylou told me many years later, quoting Irene, “Teddy ran away from one foster home to another foster home.”

I corrected her.

“No, I ran away to my sisters.”

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