Canada, You’re Like My Favourite One-Day Uncle and I Love You
On your 150th birthday, you’re old enough now to hear this: keep your promises
Canada, Neghǫnıèhtǫ! That’s “I love you” in Tłı̨chǫ Dene. I had to ask my Elder, Tłı̨chǫ Matriarch, Rosa Mantla, for help on how to do this properly for your birthday. I’m 45 now: a husband, a father, a Tłı̨chǫ Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, living in Edmonton with my family and I’m proud to ask for help on how to say, “Neghǫnıèhtǫ!”
“I love you!”
As your 150th comes and goes, I’m learning as much Tłı̨chǫ as I can for our son, Edzazıı̀, and our family, and I’m learning as much of my language and culture for myself.
Edant’e! How are you?
Lıdı̀ neewǫ nı̀? Would you like some tea?
What a life we’ve shared together, hey, Canada? 1989. Remember that? I was working at the Stadium McDonald’s in Calgary for $4.20 an hour while attending William Aberhart High. My folks decided to head back to university for a year so we went as a family. It was one of the most important years of my life because, as a Tłı̨chǫ Dene born and raised in the North, I saw how far behind we were with our education. I walked into my classrooms filling with dread as I realized that students were fluent in French, knew how to use computers, knew world history, knew a million times more than me when it came to textbooks and class discussions, but, quietly, I’d never been prouder to be a northerner because I could feel how strong we were as a family. I was proud of my northern accent, my strut, my wicked humour, my thoughtfulness.
1989: that was the year I discovered university radio, the Mission UK, Skinny Puppy, the Sons of Freedom, Chris & Cosey, the Cocteau Twins, the Cure’s Disintegration album, and Floodland by the Sisters of Mercy. Metallica’s And Justice for All just came out and Kate Bush owned me every single night on record and headphones. It was an incredible time, a magic time and Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time was out and Van Halen’s 5150 was out. I still crank “Mine All Mine” when I need to get the juices flowing. But it was here, growing up on the 60th parallel, graduating in Calgary with a northern heart, that I realized just how blessed we are to grow up in this gorgeous country of ours: we can drink the water; we can breathe the air; the most expensive things for most of us each month are our mortgages. We won the lottery by being born in Canada.
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger
I am so grateful to have been born in Fort Smith, NWT, in Denendeh—Treaty 8 Country—and I am so grateful that we live in Treaty 6 Territory in Edmonton, Alberta. I’m so grateful that I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Fort Smith. Holy wow, I wish you could have had my life: kids in our town all wanted to be in the KISS Army; my grandparents were medicine people; I was raised in a time where we had GOD (short for the “Great Out Doors”), sleepovers or “camp-overs,” The Tommy Hunter Show, the Jolly Green Giant, Sesame Street, The Beachcombers, hockey-stick nunchucks, pop-can throwing stars, Sho Kosugi, Star Wars, Arnie as Conan the Barbarian, Aliens, Predators, Terminator, Ninjas—Turtle Power! We also had Wham!, the Pet Shop Boys, the Bangles, Prince, Platinum Blonde (you’re not much of a Canadian if you can’t do the drum solo in “Doesn’t Really Matter”), Good Rockin’ Tonight with Stu Jeffries, Degrassi Junior High—I could go on and on, but, during all of this, I was introduced to the concept of what I call “a One-Day-Uncle.”
The priests and nuns labelled every kid at the residential schools with a number and my mom’s was 12
Every family has one.
A One-Day-Uncle, according to moi, is an uncle who can charm you and regale you for hours with stories, songs, your language, and promises to take you out in the bush, teach you to hunt, take you to gather medicines and finally teach you Tłı̨chǫ, but, the next day, as you sit on the stairs of the front porch with an extra pair of socks, some snare wire you found in the junk drawer (pronounced “drunk drawer”), a pack of matches and a sandwich you made all by yourself, while your mom doesn’t have the heart to tell you: He’s not coming; he’s drinking.
My three favourite uncles still won’t talk about what happened to them when they were in residential schools. My mother and my uncles went to residential schools for more than a decade each. My mom went for 12 years. The priests and nuns labelled every kid with a number and hers was 12. I only learned of her number last November when I interviewed her for this essay and for another book I’m working on. I also interviewed her for Christmas because I wanted to give each of my three brothers a portable hard drive with Tłı̨chǫ teachings that I’ve videoed and audio’d this last year.
I explained that we don’t need more stuff for Christmas: we need more stories, songs, teachings, language. Not just for us but for our family on the way. We also need to understand our history and how we got here: yes, even in 2017 the shadow of those residential school motherships are still hovering above us.
If you ask my mom, Rosa: “Mom, do you think residential schools were a good idea?” She’ll basically answer with the answer she gave me: “If you think residential schools were a good idea, you give me your children. I will take them for 12 years and return them as a number.”
Eeeeesh. (Those are my words here: Eeeesh.)
Canada, you took my mom and uncles for more than a decade from their families and you returned them as numbers. Do you remember that? And this is why we have One Day Uncles, and this is why, at the tender age of 45, I’m proud to be learning my language and all I can with the time I have.
A One-Day-Uncle, Canada. That’s what you are. You make promises, you break them. You give us hope and sell it, too. All the reserves without clean water? Site C Dam? Muskrat Falls? Clayoquot Sound? You know what this does. Please stop. You are loved. What do you truly need to stop this?
Canada, I have dropped tobacco for you in the Torngats of Labrador, Pangnirtung in Nunavut, Haida Gwaii, Inuvik, and about every major city, and I do this to honour the traditional knowledge keepers of this great country of ours
I’ve always said that residential schools will be the sorrow in Canada’s bones and they will be. They have to be so we can learn from this and do better. That means us as Indigenous people as well: we should all be reclaiming as much language and culture as we can. I’m from Treaty 8 Country, signed in 1899. We live in Edmonton. This is Treaty 6 Territory. I like to think my family does our best to help out here and take part in as many celebrations and community ceremonies as possible. I use as much Bush Cree here to honour where I’m from and where I love to live. So many of our Elders speak Bush Cree and Dene. When I hear “Keemooch” or “Neecheemoos” (I’m typing them out like I speak them so you can pronounce them), my spirit glows. Keemooch is “on the sneak.” So, as an example, when you suddenly find yourself single in your 40s and you’re braiding up to go to the dance, well, you’re “on the Keemooch.” Or, if you’re browsing Craigslist Casual Encounters, um, you’re on the Keemooch looking for a Neecheemoos (Sweetheart).
See? Cree is fun and Cree is so sexy. Tłı̨chǫ is sexy, too. I probably know just as much Bush Cree as I know Tłı̨chǫ, but we’re learning as much as we can for our family, especially now as our boy, Edzazıı̀ (Tłı̨cho for “Marrow”), is talking up a storm. It’s awesome. May we all learn our languages with our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. That’s a good way. Neezee inkwo: Tłı̨chǫ for “good medicine.”
Canada, I have dropped tobacco for you in the Torngats of Labrador, Pangnirtung in Nunavut, Haida Gwaii, Inuvik, and just about every major city from coast to coast, and I do this to honour the traditional knowledge keepers of this great country of ours. I also do this in honour of all who’ve dreamt there. I know you are doing your best for what you think you need to do, but please remember your promises.
I do and I will always love you, Canada: with or without a birthday. You know what you have. You are worth protecting, renewing and honouring. The people—the four-legged, the two-legged, the winged ones, those that swim and crawl—and the land will continue . . .
So, on your birthday, you’re old enough now to hear this: keep your promises. Honour the treaties and all of the Supreme Court rulings that respect un-ceded territory and a duty to consult and quit putting water in jeopardy. Remember what the prophecies say: future wars won’t be for gold or money: they will be for water.
Oh. There it is: the look. I can tell you want me to go. So let’s see what you do with what I’ve said here. I’ve shared my truth with you. I hope you listened. I hope you’ll remember. Either way, my family shall continue on our pathways of reclaiming. And that is my gift to you.
Mahsi cho and with respect,
Richard Van Camp
Grandson of Mahnee and Wedzebah
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