Don Robertson used to be the Executive Director at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center (MFNERC). He’s also my father. And while I grew up disconnected from my First Nations identity, he and I have been making up for lost time over the last two decades. In learning about the history of my family, Dad’s quick to point out that our story isn’t a Residential School story. Even though my grandmother, Sarah Robertson, attended a school in Norway House, I get what he’s saying. She never talked about her experience, and since many of the school’s records have been lost due to fires, it’s an experience we may never know more about. What we do know, is that my grandmother stressed the importance of education to her children, including Dad. The absence of knowledge, the fact that my grandmother never shared her story, to me, doesn’t make our story a Residential S chool one, or not. I think our story is our story. What we know and what we don’t, all goes into that. The process of my personal healing has been a practice in two types of reconciliation. One, I have to reconcile with the reality that some of our history is lost. Two, in doing that, I’ve chosen to concentrate on what I can learn, what I can experience, and the healing that only knowledge and experience can bring.
This summer was the biggest step in that journey for me and, I think, also for Dad. I’ve been to Norway House Cree Nation before, with and without Dad, but up until this June I’ve never been on the land around the community, areas where many from the community use to live and sustain themselves. Dad hadn’t been on the trapline since he was a boy; a time spanning close to seventy years. So, in 2017, when Dad told me that he wanted to go out onto the land one last time, there wasn’t a question. We were going.
It was a long wait. The winter is always long in Winnipeg, but it seemed particularly long this time around, because I felt so much anticipation over the trip. When June finally arrived, it felt like Christmas morning when I was a child: tearing into the living room to see what Santa had brought, after staying up all night waiting for the morning to come. Those nights were absurdly long, but it made the opening of presents that much more satisfying.
Going on the trapline with Dad, is the best gift I’ve received. The entire two days we were in the community or out on the land were pretty great, actually. Because we were together, and home. That’s what Norway House has always felt like to me: a second home, a place where I belong, because my relatives grew up there. Stepping foot onto the tarmac, off the small, twin engine plane, is in itself a little bit of reconciliation. And driving the community is, too. Taking the cul-de-sac on Robertson Bay, and seeing where Dad and his family used to live. The small bungalow that they grew up in, after my Aunt Effie burned the bigger house down (an unfortunate doll accident, but one, thankfully, where nobody got hurt). The shore by Little Playgreen Lake where Dad used to spend time swimming, and make-believing tiny paper boats were freighters coming into the community. The old cemetery in Rossville where many of my family is buried in unmarked graves. The church built by Joe Keeper that looks out over the lake, where Dad spent some time ministering in. He tells me a story of one such Sunday, after spending a few years in Phoenix, at Cook Christian Training School, where he was conducting a sermon in Cree. My grandmother was in the congregation. After the service, they were taking a skiff back over the lake towards Robertson Bay when my dad asked his mother, “How did I do?” His mother replied, “Oh Dulas, you almost had me in tears!” Dad wondered why, had he done so well? No, his Cree had become so bad. It’s a funny story, but also reflects what happens when we disconnect from our families, communities, culture, language. It’s not a Residential School story, maybe, but it certainly is a colonial story.
Out on the land, all of that was behind us. I live with anxiety. I have for over ten years now. It takes a lot out of you. It’s a constant barrage of overthinking that leads to worry that leads to physical symptoms, and so on. My therapist has tried to teach me about mindfulness, a kind of meditation where you live in the now, and do so non-judgementally. When Dad and I were on the water, and later, on the trapline, I was practicing mindfulness. I was living in the now, even while, I feel, Dad and I were healing together through the experience of the now, by reconnecting with things that had been lost. For me, and for him. After all, he never wanted to stop living on the land. The Government of Canada’s first welfare program dictated it, because they required children to live at a fixed address. So, families on the trapline needed to live in the community to access financial support, effectively changing how many families, including Dad’s, lived. If the calm was written on my face, and inside my body, I could see a contentment on Dad’s face as well. This wasn’t just my reconnection.
We spent several hours on one of Dad’s traplines, a pocket of land at Black Water, an area where the water turns from blue to black right before your very eyes. He showed me around the area, where he used to chop wood, where they stored their food, where they used to sleep, and told me stories of when he was a child. We stood by a boulder in the middle of the land after visiting every place we could get to, and looked out over the memories, and it felt like this was where our journey was taking us. That the last twenty years were leading us right there, together. I’ve never felt more at home in myself, than in that moment, and I am so grateful that that moment has stayed with me, and I hope it has stayed with Dad. Don’t get me wrong: I still have anxiety, I still have questions, I still have so much more to learn, but it has become a foundation that is sturdy, and that I can continue to build on.
This reclamation that I have gone through, and continue to work on, is part of the work of reconciliation. In understanding Dad’s life better, the history of my family, it has helped me, in turn, to understand myself. It has also helped me to understand that I am able to define who I am as a First Nations man. Everybody’s journey is different, and, today, it requires us, as First Nations people, to walk in both worlds, while not losing who we are. And I don’t think we will. More and more Indigenous Peoples are going on a journey of their own, a path of reconnection and reclamation that will feed down into future generations. The sort of intergenerational healing that will lead us to a better place tomorrow. And Dad’s probably right. Our story isn’t a Residential School story. I’d like for it also, to not be a colonial story either one day. I’d like for it to be our story, defined by us, owned by us, and a story that we can pass down for what it is and, for nothing else to be lost.
David A. Robertson