Knowing my Place

Cyril Dabydeen

Canada

The plane coming down, and sheer headiness is in me. I will now be on Canadian soil! The noise is overwhelming… we’re about to land at Pearson International in Toronto. I am here!

But who am I? Not who are Canadians? A drawer of water and hewer of wood I will soon be, like a tale I started peddling; and was there someone called Susanna Moodie? The years I’d spent sending for tourist magazines that came from the Canadian provinces. Now do I really want to be in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Winnipeg, British Columbia? Sure, exotic. 

How I used to stare at the glossy magazines with pictures of healthy men and women fishing, skiing, and the words under the pictures. Real, see. The veritable North, more than an imaginary place. And one day I will write an anthropological narrative that will help Canadians see themselves…as I will presume to know how others see them. Will I? An outsider’s instinct: to say who or what Canadians really are. I am indeed here.

Ah, I remember an Anglican Church minister who’d come to our tropical district. Cherubic-faced the 24-year-old parish priest was, with an infectious Canadian smile, who wanted to take local youths to Canada. To meet… whom? 

A special group was selected to visit a Native reservation in Northern Ontario: Sioux Lookout or Longlac. And attractive Savi – East Indian, she is, chirpy or sprightly – would be one of the group. And upon returning to Guyana she became transformed: you could see it in her eyes. See what?

“What’s real.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“But how can it be?”

“What d’you mean?”

“About Canada…”

Then, “You should see the poverty!”

“What poverty?”

“Among the Native people.” Savi looked at me, solemnly.

“No…”

Unconsciously I thought of our own Native peoples: Arawak, and other tribes like the Wapishana, Wai-Wai. Now about real Canadians.

“Yes, they all are!”

“Genuine Native people, d’you mean?”

Here at the Toronto International Airport, like my pre-arranged entry point. I heave in: being in transit. But not long after I’m taking off again, heading for Northern Ontario with the mighty Lake Superior images from the tourist magazines yet in my mind…as I also think of what Savi and her group might have experienced. After a 50-minute plane ride, I land in Thunder Bay. Here I come!

The Sleeping Giant mountain with the Native reservations; and yes, I start thinking too how cold Canada can be. Really ice cold, though it’s Fall. Unconsciously I start shivering in my navy-blue jacket and with my shirt and tie on. I should be clad in wool, I say!

I fidget, rifling through the carry-on bag between my legs. I pull out a heavy sweater which a relative – a village politician – had given me, one he’d brought from a visit to Moscow.  Really…there. He’d called himself a revolutionary. Now where are the Native Indian reservations?

I struggle to pull the sweater over my head, twisting and turning.

The heavyset man in the seat next to me wonders why I’m making such a fuss. It’s not the beginning of the winter season, eh? The man’s a Ukrainian, Finn, or Italian-Canadian with Irish and Scotch mixed in, I figure. Tell him I don’t want to freeze to death.

“You’re new to Canada, aren’t you?” he asks.

Storms, the real weather. Ice-pellets: the more I imagine it.

I nod.

“Nice country,” he says.

“Really?”

“You will like it.”

Nothing about Northwestern Ontario winds blowing and about Native poverty? Tell him about the Anglican Church minister who’d brought a special group to see what it’s really like. And  Savi… yes, she will marry this Anglican Church minister one day.  Months… years in the making.

“My name’s Bob,” the man says.

I smile, with Bob.

“It will soon be cold though.”

“How cold?” I feel really bunched in my heavy Russian sweater, like a quarterback in a football team with heavy shoulder pads on. Yeah, me. Runt that I am?

Tell Bob who’d really given me the thick woollen sweater.

Now I will head straight for it… to see Natives coming out of the reservations… who will welcome me? A sweet-grass ceremony in the making, as I also invoke the Great Spirit, then talk about a coyote transformed as a trickster! Do I see a bear in the Lake Superior clouds?

I keep fidgeting, but ready to disembark from the plane with the other passengers. “Please, what’s the hurry?” asks the tall attractive stewardess. The tourist magazine images, sure.

“Please…”  Her politeness mixed with impatience.

Tell her I just want to find out who Canadians really are.

Bob, the heavyset man, seems amused.

I’m still expecting a crowd of Crees and Ojibwas to greet me as they’d greeted Columbus long ago. Imagine, eh. And they’re also greeting the likes of Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and other voyageurs of old!

Yes, the Sleeping Giant, Nanabijou, being more than a high ridge or mountain overlooking Lake Superior – welcoming everyone.

“You will like it,” Bob repeats.

Who are Canadians?

The plane had indeed touched down close to the world’s largest lake; but strange, it’s as if I’ve always been here, thanks to Savi and the Native peoples. “Why are you back so soon?” I hear.

The Anglican Church minister rattles with a laugh.

“Because…”

“Because of the poverty you’ve seen?”

“No, er, yes!”

Bob winces. He does?

Tell him I hope to write about Canadians, as the plane’s engine whirs louder somewhere in the background. Unconsciously I wait for more words of welcome, creating my first experience of life in Canada. Natives with totem poles greeting me, yeah.

Bob forces a grin.

I am yet with bulky, heavy sweater on, as if arriving from the Gulag archipelago. Voices asking, telling. Susanna Moodie, again. Bush camps with Crees and Ojibwas, and soon it’s my turn to start “roughing it” on Canadian soil.

Bob nods.

Instinctively I pull the sweater tighter on my shoulder; I already begin to feel bigger, in Canada. Hands waving to me. Words I hum to myself, about how Canadians actually see themselves: what I will muse about in days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Slowly I disembark from the plane.

Bob waves a goodbye and also welcome.

I wave back, looking around, and now expecting everyone else to wave. Real native, eh?

What else do I know, or think about?

What’s to come, with narrative ongoing.

A beginning, nothing else I say – way I declare to myself, being on landless soil, yet on hard ground. The plane whirring, somewhere – but being nowhere too as I contemplate my sense of place.

Yes, on hard ground, looking around: at trees, a mighty lake, a reservation, and places to come from, more than islands in between. Memory and consciousness, being who I am, only. Indeed, narrative in the making. Time… undenying.





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Cyril Dabydeen’s works have been included in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse, and published in Wasafiri and World Literature Today, among others