A Life In Pieces

The Early Years

As a young boy growing up in the mountains near Tulita, Joe was learning from the masters. His father, uncles and Elders taught him about the land, sky, water and animals. From his mother and other women he learned about relationships, respect and love. He was taught sewing, washing and other camp work, in case he ended up alone in the bush.

Elders told stories about how landmarks such as Bear Rock, where Yamoria confronted and killed giant beavers, were created. He loved the stories of Yamoria, the man who set the law for the Dene. His favourite stories were about how the raven came to be so black, and to squawk as if something is stuck in his throat.

Joe recalls the hard work, even as a child. Getting wood, ice, or water, or visiting rabbit snares early in the mornings, usually in cold weather. At times, it was not easy on the land. But he always felt safe. He was loved unconditionally, cherished, even on those days when he forgot to visit the snares. He felt honoured to be part of this big family.

The only ways to travel in those days were by dog team in the winter, or by hiking or boat in the summer. To travel down the river they needed a boat and the whole camp got together to build one from mooseskins. The men shot a lot of moose during the winter and took great care of the skins. In the spring when the river was high and fast-running, the men would start making the frame of a canoe and the women would sew the mooseskins together.

Joe remembers his part. Even as a five or six-year-old, he walked the forest with his grandfather looking for the best wood for the frame. He recalls the joy of collecting spruce gum to hold the skins together or helping make sinew, the “thread,” to sew them. There were songs, laughter and happiness in the air when the boat was completed.

He remembers riding in these ancient boats. The Mackenzie Mountains stood strong and majestic, its waters clean, ice cold and powerful. The area was home to hundreds of thousands of animals, birds and fish. Many times Joe simply could not breathe as nature revealed its beauty at every turn.

No matter where he was on the land or what time of the year it was, he felt at home. There was silence when you wanted it, when you didn’t want it and every other time.

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He learned how to pay respects to a new area of land or water when he arrived. He learned to feed the fire and pray. Joe learned from his Elders the kind of songs to sing in the mornings. One of his fondest memories was waking up and hearing the older people outside singing about the beauty of being alive and songs for the land and the sunrise. He’d hear them talking, joking and laughing. As long as he lives, he will never forget those early morning moments.

Something else he will never forget is a trip he took with his dad. Driving two dogs, making and breaking trail, they went out far in the bush and made fire and a lean-to. After they’d eaten, his dad told him about the area they were in. They walked outside and watched the stars and the aurora dancing across the huge teepee in the sky. His father told him stories of what song the lights were singing.

Later they slept on spruce boughs with thin little blankets and a good fire going. He was with his dad. He was safe. The Creator was very good to him. He was certain the temperatures were in the minus 30s or 40s, but he never worried or ever doubted his father’s ability to survive.

The Start Of The School Years

There are other things Joe will never forget. When he was eight, Joe was sent to school in a faraway place. He will never forget that day. Never!

It was in the fall. Joe and his two older brothers had to get an education that was not available in his hometown, at least that’s what he heard. So, it meant boarding a small plane and flying somewhere. He was too young to understand. He thought he and his brothers were just going to school for the day.

They were taken to the beach. There were a lot of others kids heading down to the beach too. He still sees his mother crying as her three young children were taken away. The Indian agent had given all the kids chocolate bars for the long trip. Joe was very sad to see his mother cry. He gave his chocolate bar to her so she wouldn’t cry.

He will never forget how the Indian agent yanked the chocolate away from her and threw it back to Joe. He will never forget the hurt, pain and humiliation in his mother’s eyes, or the anger he felt. He had never wanted to kill anyone before that incident. But, at that moment, if he had had a gun he would have shot the Indian agent like a rabbit.

He fought and didn’t want to get on the plane, but being a child among men he lost the battle. He remembers looking out the window, frantically trying to see his mom. There she was on the beach. Joe started to cry. He cried his eyes out looking at her standing all alone, crying and waving to them. He will never forget that day. It was the saddest day of his life.

Joe always wonders what it was like for his parents, elders and communities when there were no children around. He heard his grandmother say two of her daughters were taken to residential school and never returned. She died not knowing what happened to her girls. Joe’s dad passed without finding out what happened to his sisters. After that experience on the beach, Joe often wondered, what did his dad and grandmother go through when their children were taken away? What was it like for his father, standing there helpless and wondering if he will ever see his boys again?

Joe never had a chance to ask them.

The New Beginning

An Elder had told him to spend time alone, just to get a sense of what others are putting up with. Others told him to spend time on the land. Being alone on the land scared the daylights out of him.

Joe was not ready to go out on the land but one day he decided to spend part of a day out on the highway. He drove slowly, stopped and sat in his truck. What was he doing? Was he crazy? What the hell is going on? Deep inside he knew he had to deal with what happened to him. He parked his truck. He walked like an old man deep into the bushes.

He didn’t want anyone to hear him or see him. He didn’t know what he was doing or where he was going or why he was out there, but he wanted to be alone. After what felt like an hour of aimlessly wandering he came upon a small clearing. He sat on a log. He felt very alone and stupid. He was scared a bear or wolf would come and attack him. After half an hour, it occurred to him that it was not the bears or wolves he was afraid of, he was scared of being alone with Joe.

He wanted to pray but had forgotten how. He looked into the sky because that is where God is supposed to be. Then he looked at the rocks and said to no one or thing in particular, “I forgive you.” Joe looked nervously looked around to see if anyone heard him. He was still alone. Slowly he said the phrase over again to the emptiness around him. But as the minutes added up, he felt like he was talking to something or someone. Although he was alone, he was not alone. Strange!

After what felt like hours of talking to himself and whatever, Joe felt a little better as he drove back into town. He hoped no one saw or heard him. He still felt lousy.

He went back on the highway the next day and said, “I forgive you,” even before he got back to the same spot. In minutes he found himself saying, “Catholic church, I forgive you.” Then he mentioned the supervisors and one nun who hurt him and said, “I forgive you.” He said it over and over again. He felt bad that he didn’t mean any of it, but he said it over and over again. He stayed for over an hour this time and by the time he left he noticed two things. His breathing was deeper and longer. He felt the muscle in his shoulders relax.

The next day he went back to same spot, but this time a new fear and anger gripped him in his throat. Joe stopped walking, looked around and didn’t know what to do. He sat down in the bushes for a bit. Deep inside Joe knew exactly where the fear was coming from – the one supervisor who abused him and caused so much pain!

How do you forgive the unforgivable? He said to himself, “No fucking way am I going to forgive that fucking asshole. May he fucking burn in hell and his fucking mother too.”

Then Joe thought of the Holocaust survivor he had met.

“You have to forgive but never forget. Always remind people that bad things happen when good people look the other way. The anger will consume you and eat you alive. Forgive, but never forget!”

Joe knew the time had come to stop looking the other way. He started walking to the spot again. His mind was going a hundred miles an hour. He stopped. This time he sobbed uncontrollably. Joe will never know how long he cried but after what seemed like a long time, he had no tears left. He looked up and saw a robin on a branch of a tree. It seemed happy, joyous and free.

Then he thought he heard, “You too can be happy, joyous and free.” He looked around but saw no one, just the trees swaying in the wind. He was sure he was going crazy. But this time he didn’t care. At least for a moment he felt like he did not have the same anger and hate.

He started walking again to his “I forgive you place.” But when he got close to the area his legs wouldn’t move anymore. He tried to push himself but his body refused. It didn’t want to deal with the supervisor who hurt him and took away all the trust he had. His body didn’t want to feel violated again. His emotions were raw. He was scared of crying and feeling used yet one more time.

What made the difference was his spirit. Although broken, Joe’s spirit was still a powerful force. His spirit reminded him he comes from great people. It said his people will be happy only if Joe is happy. It said, “You can do this. You can do it.” Reluctantly and slowly his spirit won and he inched forward to his “I forgive you” spot.

All of a sudden he yelled at the top of his lungs,“You fucking asshole. I fucking forgive you.” Nothing happened. He looked around nervously. He was sure the supervisor was going to come out of the bushes and hurt him. Then it occurred to him: he had turned into the frightened eight-year-old again.  

Then anger and hate came like the Mackenzie River during breakup. Nothing, but nothing, holds the river and ice in the spring. It moves at will. Its brutal force crushes everything in sight. Joe’s hate and anger were unstoppable. He swore like there was no tomorrow and screamed like there was no yesterday and cried like there was no today.

He picked up a stick and starting hitting everything in sight. He hit the rocks, the trees, the flowers. Nothing was safe from his free-swinging stick. He didn’t know how long the swearing and hitting went on or when he stopped. Suddenly, it was quiet and he was sitting on a rock, tired, wasted and gasping for air. After a few minutes, his breathing slowed and he felt much lighter.

Joe looked at the sun and felt the sunlight like never before. He felt the gentle wind on his face. Mother Earth felt comfortable and safe. He sat crossed legged in the middle of some moss, bowed his head and said, “Creator, please forgive this man for what he did to me. Help him so he does not hurt another child.” Then, looking up he mentioned the man’s name and said, “I forgive you.”

He didn’t feel anything different. He just spoke words that were meaningless. He closed his eyes and he saw his father saying the same thing to the former supervisor. “I forgive you for hurting my son. You must have been hurt too. Deal with your own pain and leave my son alone. Get out of our lives and deal with your own pain.”

It was then that Joe knew, his parents never left him. They were gone but never far away. They were always with him. In that moment Joe had a clear and concise thought. My dad was not Catholic so he would not be in Catholic heaven. When I die I want to be with my dad so I don’t want to go to Catholic heaven. I would rather go to the same place my dad and other elders went. There was no fear, no guilt. Joe was no longer afraid of the Catholic God. Maybe there is a chance of some kind of a reconciliation or relationship here.

Forgiveness is still not easy for Joe. There was a deliberate effort to take away everything that was near and dear to him and the system almost succeeded. How do you forgive that?

How do you forgive the loss of language and culture? How do you forgive being abused sexually, physically, emotionally and spiritually? How do you forgive the cover-up and the denial?

It was hard not to be angry or full of hate. It was still hard not to want to hurt someone, but Joe knew he could not live that way anymore. Many times he said, “I forgive you,” even when he did not mean it.


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