A Generation Gone

Today has been three years since my granny passed away. She was my last living grandparent. I wrote a column about her a year after she died.

I have been meaning to post more entries on this blog. I will make an effort going forward.

For now, here is the column, which was originally published in Wawatay News. It appeared in their June 15, 2015 edition (Vol. 42, No. 1).

A Generation Gone

There was an odd feeling when I arrived in Moosonee this spring for the goose hunt.

I felt like there was something I had to do, but I couldn’t sense what. Then I remembered, and sadness came over me.

Because for years after I moved down south to cities like Timmins or Thunder Bay, one of the my first instincts was to visit Granny.

To have her greet me by planting her mouth on my cheek and clucking her tongue several times, the way she always kissed her grandkids. No, I could not expect that on this visit. It’s coming up on a year now since she left for the spirit world. She gave that same kiss for as long as I can could remember, from when my parents would take my sisters and I to her apartment on a Saturday morning. She would greet us and we’d all sit around for a while. Like most families, our grandparents’ homes was a gathering place for extended family and so it was not uncommon for my uncles and cousins to be there as well. Noon would come and the adults would uncap their dabbers to play radio bingo, leaving us kids to our own devices to play in the building’s hallways or outside. Then the parents would corral us back into the apartment and we’d all sit and listen and laugh for a while until it was time to go home.

With that came another kiss. My mooshoom kissed us too though it was more of a peck. One time he was unshaven and his whiskers itched my cheek and I immediately scratched. Those who saw laughed, especially Granny. The next Saturday it was time to leave again. “Go say bye to mooshoom,” my mom said and it got quiet as I approached as everyone watched. Although it did not itch as much as the first time, I reached up to scratch again. Laughter. As usual, Granny laughed the loudest.

Granny would look after us at times and when she cooked, she cooked a lot. I was a scrawny child and so she’d try to get as much food as she could into me. “Meechisoo, meechisoo,” she’d say. “Eat, eat.” She was probably happy to see when I finally put on weight, even if not in the right places.

She’d become annoyed if the toast was too dark or the bacon was not cooked to my liking. “Ever fussy,” she’d say as she scraped the toast.

We moved away when I was 14 and from thereon I developed the routine to visit her once I got off the train or unpacked at my dad’s.

It’s an unfortunate and sad reality that it was only after Granny became my last grandparent that I realized she was my remaining link to my family’s past. My maternal mooshoom, Xavier, passed when I was very young. My kookoom, Sandra, passed when I was a teenager, and my mooshoom, Alfred, gave his last breath when I was 21.

While I have fond memories of each of them, I missed on the opportunity to ask them about their childhoods and what life was like for them living along James Bay before there were skidoos and boat motors, let alone running water and electricity. The stories and memories they must have had.

So with each visit, I ensured I spent time at Granny’s to ask her about her life. Over time I learned she had grown up in Fort Albany and moved to Moosonee as a teenager with her family because one of her sisters was very ill and needed to be cared for at the hospital. She told me the struggles of living through the Great Depression and a World War, and later meeting my mooshoom, one of the “Attawapiskat boys” who worked on the nearby railway. They had eight children together, my dad being the fourth.

She asked about my life, of course, and inquired about my sisters and little brother. I’d tell her about going to high school in Timmins, then college in Ottawa and again in Thunder Bay where I studied film before I returned to journalism.

During what would be my last visit with her, I told her about a recent trip to Los Angeles. She chuckled before saying, “World traveller.” I learned then that save for a trip to a U.S. border town, she had never left the province.

She passed seven weeks later.

I’ve learned that death is the most honest yet way of telling you time has passed. I’m 31 now. My siblings have their own kids. My parents are the mooshoom and kookoom now. I’m still trying to come to grips with the fact that I no longer have any living grandparents — that a generation of my family is no longer with us.

I hope we can live up to what they hoped for us. To instill that goodness and love toward a better future for the next generation as they did for their own kids and grandchildren.

We love and miss you Granny, as we always have. Going back to Moosonee will never be the same.

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Anne and Alfred Carpenter. Photo by Leica Carpenter.

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Boyden: ‘I discovered a gold mine’ on James Bay

Amid the controversy of Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous ancestry, or lack thereof, I cannot help but look back on how he presented my hometown and people in the novel that won him the Giller Prize in 2008 — and the lack of recognition he has given to the community directly.

Going back, I initially liked Boyden upon reading his debut novel, Three Day Road. I even wrote a positive review on it for a northern Ontario in-flight magazine. Although choppy at times, I was taken by the fact that Mushkegowuk Cree are the main characters — and snipers at that — in an acclaimed novel set during the First World War.

So I looked forward to his next novel, Through Black Spruce, especially after I learned it was mainly set in my hometown of Moosonee.

Reading the first 60 pages, I was flush with memories as the novel described the town, making specific references to people or places I knew. But as I read on, and when I looked back on some of those early references, I felt something was amiss in how he depicted the community.

One of the characters in the novel mentions an Elder by first and last name. She is described as only speaking Cree, is originally from a northern community, and is known for her beading and crafts.

This is a real person. I’ve known her daughter since kindergarten, and I asked her if she knew about her mom being mentioned in the novel, which by this time was released five months prior and won the Giller Prize. She said yes, but only found out through a co-worker not long before. It had been years since they saw Boyden and didn’t even recognize his name. It was only when they saw his photo that they remembered the man who would come to their house and ask the Elder teach him how to bead and make mitts or moccasins. They never knew he was a writer.

In June 2009, ten months after the novel had been published, I met Boyden when he hosted a fundraising event in Timmins. I mentioned I knew the Elder referred to in the novel, that they didn’t know she was in the book, and they had not seen him in years. He looked down sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess I should go visit sometime,” he said and changed the subject.

Boyden at the time said he visited the James Bay region four to six times a year. But evidently he never took the time to visit the Elder to not only ask permission to use her name, but to tell her he had written in her real name after the fact. In the novel there are other real people named, including some who had died before the book was published. It is unknown if he sought permission in those cases.

In the same conversation, I told him I was from Moosonee, and I grew up on the locally famous “Sesame Street” referenced in the novel.

“Oh, really?” was his reply. That was it. No questions about what I thought of the novel, if it accurately depicted my hometown, if the characters resonated with me. Not even if I enjoyed it. Just disinterest.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him at the time I never finished Through Black Spruce, that I stopped reading with about 100 pages left. While I was initially excited about the novel’s setting and characters, I found the novel to be problematic in how it depicts the community.

Broadly, I found the story lines to perpetuate stereotypes of substance abuse and Indian Princess/Pocahontas fantasies.

But I also found the humour and dialogue of the Cree characters to be confusing. Boyden attempted to incorporate some local slang and speech patterns but it sounds forced and unnatural. It is evident he does not spend a whole lot of time conversing or engaging with locals in a real way nor understand how Crees talk and think. Non-Cree or Indigenous readers might find it charming but Mushkegowuk readers will find it lacking and inadequate in depicting local colour.

I found this to be the same in the short stories found in Born With A Tooth, which I perused one day at a library.

There is clearly some disconnect with the community.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve asked friends and other community members, even today, what they thought of Joseph Boyden, only to get asked: Who? Most don’t seem to know about him and aren’t aware there is a nationally recognized novel that is set in the very town where they’ve lived all their lives.

Following the release of Through Black Spruce, Boyden held no book signings or any event in Moosonee. The town helped to launch his career yet the community has received little recognition from Boyden.

And this is what bothers me the most. Not his suspicious Indigenous ancestry, but his blatant exploitation of the Mushkegowuk Cree.

I interviewed Boyden in 2012, at the behest of my editor, and I asked him why does he write about the Cree people of James Bay? He talked about a love of the people and the land.

Then he said:

“I’ve felt like I discovered a gold mine, and I realized quickly, ‘Oh my gosh, no one has written about the Cree of Mushkegowuk before,’ and how lucky am I as a writer to have this incredibly rich territory to mine creatively.”

The quote reveals to me how he actually perceives the Mushkegowuk and their traditional land: a “gold mine” and “rich territory” from which he can “mine” and extract resources (stories) for his own profit while leaving little connection to the people aside from the few he associates with.

I was angered by this statement. And since then, I have refused to read any new of his works, promote or share his columns or editorials, or have anything to do with him in any way.

There are Mushkegowuk people in other James Bay communities who like Boyden and some have defended him. They say he has helped to bring their stories and issues to the public eye by using his fame and stature as one of CanLit’s elite.

To them, all I can say is they should ask themselves how he acquired that fame — and wealth — to begin with. And are they OK with that?

Because, like Debeers, he came from the south, discovered our riches, and exploited them for his own gain with minimal give back to the community.

He talks about a kinship to the people of James Bay, at one time telling me that since he’s “part Ojibway, the Crees of sort of like my cousins.”

Cousins are like siblings in our culture. Any Indigenous person would not treat their brothers and sisters the way Boyden has.

[Note: An earlier version of this blog entry contained a reference to a family that was unintentionally disparaging. It has been removed. I regret the error and apologize to those affected.]