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Cougar WebWorks Publications

 

HyperLife:

A Life in Hypertext


Trumped in Peckerdom

 

We landed softly on the sand that serves for an airstrip in Inoucdjouac, Nouveau-Quebec. Immediately I spotted one of my students. Johnny Nastapoka, chubby and always cheerful, stood among the crowd greeting us, a big smile on his face. "You brought good luck," he told me. "This is the first sunny day all summer." Mosquitoes still flew thick in the breeze.

Jeanne and I, just married that summer, chose to walk the half-mile to the village, taking in the fresh air after the cramped and too-hot atmosphere of the Twin Otter. We talked of our eagerness to start the school year--and to get out on the land for fishing, goose-hunting, and picture-taking. Our blue-green house stood waiting for us, full of forty-some boxes of goods that we'd shipped by air cargo in advance. Books, teaching materials, bulk foods for the year, our supply of alcohol . . . and a new pack of Rook cards.

It took three days to unpack and set up housekeeping: interspersed with evenings of partying with the other returning teachers and our local friends among the young Inuit adults. The returning teachers (Wayne, Claude, Suzanne, Jeanne and I) revelled the two newcomers, Sandra and Ann, with tales of last year--"the Golden Days."

There were stories of a teacher who was railroaded out of the north, a raving self-proclaimed genius. Of a mysterious pregnancy among the Inuit teaching staff, and aborted teacher strikes. Of Claude himself, tall and red-haired, with proudly tailored mustache and beard and friendly wrinkling eyes, venerable in his seven years of service without a full year's teaching, due to every mishap from fire and plague to lack of a principal. Wayne began to kid him right off the bat: "So, Claude, what's it gonna be this year, huh? What have you got up your sleeve now? Another strike for us, this time for real? Of course, you're not even working full-time to start with, with this P.E. job you wangled from the front office. What a con-artist, for Christ's sake. Now how 'bout some of that cognac. C'mon, Claude, I know you've got some . . ."

"No," Claude smiled sagely, "not for you, Wayne. This is for something special."

"Ah, dja hear that Sandra, Ann? It's gonna take something I don't have to pry it loose from this cheapskate. How about it?"

Wild-haired but balding, ultraradical yet also deserving of Jeanne's malicious label "bourgeois pig," Wayne was King of the Office Mondays through Wednesdays, and chief party host the other nights of the week. An Ojibway teacher the previous year had nicknamed him "Pecker." Rough and ready Conrad, who'd lived with Suzanne the previous year, was moving on and would be sorely missed. But with Wayne the regime continued. Our North had become, in a year of hazy weekends of Alcool, hash and Rook, his "Peckerdom."

But there was another force to be reckoned with. Not the previous year's principal, rotund Roland Chenier, alias The Black Knight. Nor his wife, affectionately referred to by Wayne as The Black Knightie. They were not coming back. The hidden force was mythological, at times synchronistic. It surfaced with a phrase we heard repeated often while playing Rook, on Dylan's recent release Blood on the Tracks; an expression fast gaining the status of an official philosophy among the teaching corps, and even among the students. When my oldest student, a Mark Messier clone named Adamie, showed up late for class one day and I asked him why, he replied with an ironic grin: "I dunno, man. Just a simple twist of fate." Alice Cooper gave the darker side of this force a name: "The Black Widow."

I was full of renewed hopes for educating Inuit youth, after a rocky beginning. All along there was an underlying malaise I had to feel in this venture, because of my role as colonist, assimiliator. More and more, during my first year, I had found myself in the uncomfortable role of weaning the younger generation of Inuit away from a lifestyle and culture that I admired more than my own.

The students' parents didn't agree with my uncertainty. "I grew up in an igloo," one told me via translation. "The winters were cold and people died of starvation. That's why we moved into the settlement. These children have to learn how to live in the whiteman's world now."

All right--I resigned myself to doing my job. But I continued to commit myself to doing my part to foster the student's respect for their original culture.

It was a propitious time to be playing both sides like that. In the fall of 1977, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was going to be signed into law. One of the first changes to come would be a transfer of power from the federal ("D.N.A.") and provincial ("C.S.N.Q.") schools to a new, Inuit-run school board. Kativik Regional Government would also be taking over services from the provincial D.G.N.Q. But in return, Inuit had surrendered their aboriginal sovereignty over the land, and final authority in the North would now rest with Quebec's laws and ministries. The latest bill now in passage when we returned in August was Bill 101, the charter establishing the preeminence of French language and culture throughout the province of Quebec.

On Friday we all left town for a weekend series of meetings, euphemistically called "pedagogical days." Teachers traditionally met in workshops by day and partied like crazy at night. The Francophone teachers flew to Fort Chimo, and the English-speaking teachers flew north to Povungnituk, the town which had never signed the James Bay Agreement, never even voted. It seems they had a translation of the treaty to study beforehand.

The tone of these meetings was definitely lacking in pedagogical concern. They consisted mainly of "sharing" of personal feelings and attitudes, and of distribution of daily record books. We spent our time more profitably wandering over the warm tundra in search of camera angles and edible mushrooms, fishing and boating, chatting over anisette and char fondue. The Maltese couple Jeanne and I stayed with complained of a summer break-in that cost them some bottles and guns out of their locked storage room. We sympathized, smug over Inoucdjouac's unspoiled atmosphere of trust.

One workshop settled strangely with us. Yves Michaud, a dwarfish character with booming, forceful voice and sharp, penetrating eyes, was a longtime resident in "POV," a trilingual "communications facilitator." He'd been instrumental in setting up community radio services, and in educating his community about the James Bay Agreement. Now he told us in ominous tones that far-reaching events were coming to a head in the South. Bill 101 approached certain passage in the following week. The Inuit, Yves Michaud informed us, were strongly opposed.

He had our attention--but what did this have to do with us? Did it mean that if we taught in English we'd be out of a job?

Wait, he said.

We looked at each other. That wasn't a no.

He read us pertinent parts of the Bill itself, predicting that protest would come to a head very shortly. Bill 101 violated rights guaranteed to the Inuit in the James Bay Agreement, by requiring the use of more French, and therefore less English or Inuktitut. "One has to remember that the Agreement was signed on behalf of the Inuit by the Northern Quebec Inuit Association. These are young men who have spent their lives learning to deal with the South--as well as communicating with Inuit in the Northwest Territories--in English. They signed for protection under Quebec law; now they find these same language rights in need of protection from this Bill 101."

He paused, looking around the table at each one of us, a somewhat diabolical twinkle in his eye. "It is important for you to realize that technically, you are all employees of the Quebec government. From now on, everything you say or do will be a political act."

Everyone hearing this seemed to flinch as if an electric pulse had passed through the room. Everything would be different now. No one said anything immediately. His meaning was slightly mysterious, but portentous.

"Have a nice afternoon picking mushrooms." Our facilitator smiled his gnomish, gnostic smile and we nervously left the room, to do as we were bid.

Monday morning, August 22nd, we returned to Inoucdjouac. At the plane we were greeted by our portly school board caretaker, Tatti. He puffed out his chest like a miniature Mussolini and informed us, with a strange mixture of sadness and pride, that our houses had been broken into. "So I put new locks on the doors after, but ha--I find out after, I have no keys."

We had to force our way into our own houses, using table knives, to survey the losses. Jeanne and I found that five forty-ounce bottles of wine and rye, our year's supply, were missing, as well as a big garbage bag full of dried comfrey leaves that we brought up as a remedy for my allergies. The thief must have thought he had found his lifetime supply of marijuana. That joke was on him. But even so, we were more convinced now that a mysterious presence was at work behind the scenes, a menace to which we now began giving positive identity: the Black Widow.

Everything was different. No longer did our community feel affectionate and supportive toward us. Now our position here was tainted with previously latent intimations of Inuit hostility, white encroachment, historical injustice, cultural alienation. These we now dimly understood in "our" living room, while still searching for some deeper meaning to the theft, so petty at first glance. What next? We plugged in the radio, tuned into the local FM station, and proceeded unpacking from the weekend.

An announcement came on the radio: at one o'clock there was to be a demonstration around the Quebec flag; the teachers were invited by the Community Council to attend.

How exciting, we thought, looking for a cause to transcend our bourgeois pangs of loss. The people are standing up for their rights. Right on! The situation was not a little ironic, because we also supported the Parti Quebecois--authors of this Bill 101--in their struggle for cultural integrity alongside English Canada.

Parade signs began to appear outside our window: "Stop Bill 101"--"Protect Our Language and Culture"--"We Have a Right, Too!"

We joined the multitudes heading for the grassy slopes in front of the government agent's office. The whole able-bodied village was there, motley colors and faces in the bright windy sunshine as we milled about in holiday style, taking pictures and shaking hands, blithely smiling. We hadn't seen these people since the spring, so our homecoming was now become a festive occasion of solidarity.

A young Inuit councilman took a bullhorn in hand and began speaking to the assembled crowd. One of the Inuit teachers standing nearby translated for Jeanne and me as the speaker continued in his own language. The Inuit, he said, didn't want the government looking over their shoulders telling them what to do; but they did want the government at least to consult with them on matters such as this which directly concerned the Inuit.

We nodded in agreement.

Then two men at the flagpole pulled at the ropes, and the blue flag with the white cross and fleurs de lis came fluttering down. The man with the bullhorn raised it to his mouth again, and this time spoke in English: "The local branches of the D.G.N.Q. and C.S.N.Q. are now closed for business. We ask the government employees, including the teachers, to leave the settlement until we can get satisfied with our grievances over Bill 101."

The flag was neatly folded and handed to Richard Chenier, the government agent, with instructions to relay this message to his government. He, like us, appeared stunned, speechless. It was exciting, the extent of these people's radicalism, their courageous stand--but what would become of us? As the crowd dispersed, Claude, with red beard flaming in the breeze, guided Wayne, Jeanne and me to his trailer. It was time, he said, to break out the cognac. Claude was charged up--but with what, it wasn't exactly clear. He flung documents down on the table, highlighting passages, lambasting Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau in turn, drawing "101" large on a paper and then flinging a large needle point-sure into the center of the "0." Wayne, bilingual but chiefly Anglophone, had confused sympathies and challenged him at every point. Jeanne, always perverse, took the side of the Government. I merely tried to figure out the drift of the argument as I sipped the excellent cognac, and grinned at Claude nervously. This was both serious and fun. We were on vacation, now--because of the revolution.

Having spent three days unpacking and setting up house before the POV trip, Jeanne and I now had to spend two more days to pack up again. Our forty boxes of belongings would sit in an empty house, for how long nobody knew. These nights featured drunken group discussions, uninformed plans, half-baked revolutionary glimmerings, and leftover clingings to securities of contract, baggage, and accommodations in Great Whale River and beyond, to the South.

Inoucdjouac was the first of four settlements to send their teachers packing. In Great Whale River, two hundred miles south and at the meeting line of trees and Inuit, the police station was closed. CBC shortwave reported that five hundred and fifty demonstrators took down the government signs and flag and, without violence, "carried the police out of their buildings." That was a sight we tried hard to imagine. Camille Laurin, the P.Q.'s Minister of Language and Culture, responded with assertions of how "obvious" it was that Inuit language rights were guaranteed in his Bill 101; that even while the bill was being rushed into passage, the Inuit reaction was "premature"; and that there must be a "mutual understanding of the intentions of the Government."

Diminutive Andre Mercure, our new principal, remained alone in Inoucdjouac, awaiting at least an indication of how long his teachers would be staying in exile. He was also reluctant to leave the houses with all our worldly possessions unchaperoned. Fresh out of graduate school and sporting a neat goatee, Andre smoked Gitanes and spoke little English. We wished him well and took his lily-white wife, Aliette, and two boys with us on the plane. We rode to Great Whale with a copy of Bill 101 in hand, reading it with critical eyes for the offensive passages, which Claude underlined in unforgiving yellow pen.

Arriving in the big town we were apprehensive about going from the frying pan to the fire. But there was no outward sign of hostility to greet us; just the normal gray, windy sky blowing over the wide, sandy streets. We marched with our carry-on luggage to the old army barracks where we were to be lodged while awaiting further orders. Rooms were divided up; the grounds explored; and like sheep we followed our noses to dinner in the cafeteria. At least the tab was on C.S.N.Q.--or so it appeared. Were we still to be paid? This was the question of the day.

After a restless night on the thin, narrow mattresses, we breakfasted amid reports that twenty-five riot police were arriving soon to "keep the peace." Wayne pointed out that that meant giving protection to Nordair facilities, government offices, and Hydro-Quebec installations. He thought we should call the front office in Ste-Foy to get us out immediately.

We decided to have a meeting about it back at the barracks. Leaderless and without direction from above or below the 55th parallel, we were on our own. Jeanne, Claude and I all agreed with Wayne, that the sooner we could go south, the better. But Sandra Primiani, the six-footer from Montreal, said, "What about all our stuff back in Inoucdjouac? What's going to happen to that if we leave?"

Her roommate Ann chimed in. "You saw what happened when we left our stuff unattended for a weekend."

Wayne retorted, "The cops are coming, didn't you hear? Things could get heavy around here."

We were interrupted by the CBC news. "Articles 16 and 17 of Bill 101 were suspended earlier today by Dr. Camille Laurin, leaving what he called a still-strong French objective for Inuit organizations. They would be allowed to speak Inuktitut or English in the territory of Nouveau-Quebec, but not in their transactions with the South."

A major development--but would it be good enough to resolve the dispute and send us back to work? We all doubted it. We agreed to call the school board the next day requesting evacuation if we didn't hear from them first.

Andre arrived on the next day's plane from Inoucdjouac, looking haggard and beaten. The Community Council had told him they didn't care whether the school was closed for one year or ten years for that matter as long as their demands were unmet. So he was escorted "practically at gunpoint" to the plane, having worked all the while to transport our collective cargo from houses to airstrip.

Later that afternoon we heard from our director-general, Jacques Juneau, in the South. "Wait over the weekend," he told us, "until we have more news about negotiations. Then I'll make a decision about your evacuation, whether further south or back to the north. The trouble is this: there's no point in sending the whole gang of you down here with all your cargo and everything, if you just have to go back to the villages again in a few days."

So we waited, musing through a range of preferred choices, from returning to work (a minority view) to exotic vacation plans (a heavy favorite). We lounged around the barracks in assorted moods of excitement and boredom, almost desperately tuning to CBC broadcasts, shuffling like prisoners to the D.G.N.Q. cafeteria.

When the riot police arrived on Saturday they were billeted at the other end of the same corridor in the old army barracks. Strange company--as they no doubt felt about us. Their mandate must have been limited to riot control, as they somehow tolerated our music and laughter and illegal smoke from early morning till late at night. They, like us, really had nothing else to do, with no actual riots afoot. But they were ready: strolling down the corridor to the common shower room, naked but for the black leather gunbelts at their waists.

On Monday we learned from J.J. that we'd have to sit tight awhile longer, to wait and see. "On veut voir, on va voir," he said on the phone in soothing tones.

Some of the women started to panic. Meek Ann Limeburner was particularly edgy: "We should phone CBC and tell them we're being held hostage!"

The chance for such fame was tempting; except that our situation was pre-empted by more serious events. That very night, on As it Happens, we learned that in Uganda seven teachers had been murdered on the same day we left Inoucdjouac. After hearing that, we were less excited about phoning CBC with the story from Northern Quebec. After all, our main concerns were our threatened salaries, and how long the drugs and booze would last.

We were left to wallow in what we almost fondly called limbo-land. The boxes were tucked under beds, stacked against the walls of the rooms and corridor. We played that new pack of Rook cards till they were faded and furred. The Black Widow myth was played out with regularity in the form of the trump cards, striking without warning to snap up the most loaded trick. In this way we learned to relish the same twisting fate we sought to escape.

We ate, slept, and drank; played cards, guitars, and loud tapes. I read such relevant literature as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Lenin in Zurich, with Point Counter Point for contrast. We followed no schedule but mealtimes and bedtime. Cards were shuffled and dealt first thing in the morning, while the rum and Christmas wines flowed.

Every two days or so we tried to contact J.J. to find out what was happening; and all his responses sounded the same: "Tomorrow perhaps I will know for certain when the next meeting will take place, when for sure it will be decided that you can probably leave, possibly for the south or maybe even back to your settlement. If not, you can likely count on hearing from me again soon."

Lenin's shadow lurked under the bed, while the two cats licked each other, and Jeanne, Penelope-like, untangled Ann's knotted wool.

The days were rainy. Starved for exercise, we wandered anyway away from the barracks out onto the land, among the gray rocks and stunted trees of the foggy taiga, toting cameras and feeling lost, imagining life in the barracks for a year or eternity. Soccer games fizzled in the mud. When the weather cleared we joyfully trekked to the Hudson's Bay shore to soak up sun and fresh wind. The beauty of the blue water and the pure sand and sky gave us some love of the vacation land we might see here, were we more convinced of our direction in the greater scheme of things. We erected a symbol of our condition, a flag stuck in the sand: a willowy shaft whose tapered end held nothing but the breeze.

This was our country.

J.J. arrived at last on a final Friday, and after spending a weekend in the barracks with us, decided we couldn't stay rotting in Great Whale forever. The climaxless drama of "Waiting for Juneau" was finally ended after two weeks as we boarded the Nordair on Tuesday. Up to the last we believed that the Black Widow, who had caused us such unforseen trauma to date, would strike again.

The myth didn't die when we left Great Whale for the trip south. Everyone was on their own. For Jeanne and me, a three week stay with friends in their two-bedroom apartment in Cap-de-la-Madeleine turned into an eight-week marathon. Each week, phone calls would come--telling us we were going back next week, or that we'd hear something more next week, or that there would be a meeting next week, or to wait one more week for negotiations to crystallize. We knew better, but had no choice but to believe, as the weeks turned into months.

Relations with our hosts became strained. I forgot to clean the lint out of the washing machine; Vicki pronounced fork "fark," and talked too much; while Jeanne and Pierre, whose association predated the two marriages, began openly flirting. On the tenth of November I said to Jeanne, "Let's go to California now, instead of waiting for Christmas. They're not gonna call us back before January now."

"You may be right. But what if they did call while we were gone? We might get fired."

"What do they expect? We have nowhere to stay here, any longer. At least in California we can camp. Leave them your mother's number in Victoria."

She agreed to leave with me on the fifteenth. On the thirteenth the phone rang. It was J.J. "It's all settled, guys. Vacation's over. School starts next week. Okay? What do you think? I know you've been enjoying yourselves, but--"

"How did it get settled?" I asked glumly.

"Oh, it's not totally settled yet. Negotiations are just getting going. But it is arranged that there will be a quicker transition to Kativik School Board, sometime in the new year. You won't have me to blame anymore for all your troubles."

"Hey, we never blamed you. It was the Black Widow."

"The what?"

He wouldn't understand. "Just fate, J.J.--a simple twist of fate."


Next...

© Nowick Gray



Stories - in rough chronology

The Baby Boom
The Boys in the Park
First Love
Youth
Trumped in Peckerdom
Of Ducks, Trucks and Bucks
Stephen King through Rose-colored Eyes
Just Coyotes
The Meaning of Life
Deep Summer

Life - a novel of the baby boom

Prefaces and Introductions . . . without end

rendezvousstrange lovemy country

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