Dispatches

Contact No Contact

Margaret Nowaczyk

The term “contact” is used to describe initial encounters between Indigenous peoples and European explorers, and it carries a special charge in accounts of North American history.

The stories here are a selection from the project Contact No Contact, a gathering of personal narratives by Indigenous and settler contributors describing significant first contacts that brought new insights. These stories are a living (and growing) record that enhances our understanding of the experience and impact of “contact.”

When I Was a Child, Everyone I Knew Spoke Cree

Duncan Mercredi

I grew up in Misipawistik (Grand Rapids, Manitoba), an Inninew village of about four hundred people. The village was divided in two by the Saskatchewan River, the reserve was on the south bank and the Métis community was on the north side. But at that time, we never identified as status, non-status or Métis. We were Inninew, Cree-speaking people. Our language identified us.

In all the time I spent with my nookum (grandmother), I never once heard her say a word in English. People who dropped in to see her spoke to her in Cree. She would not acknowledge a visitor if the person didn’t speak Cree to her. That was how she was: her home, her terms, her language.

There were two families in our village that were Caucasian: the store owners. In those families there were three boys, blond as blond could be, and they spent as much time with us as they did at home. They all spoke Inninew, Cree, with us. To us, their friends, they were just a whiter shade of Inninew.

We never knew that outside of our isolated village we were different, until Manitoba Hydro arrived to build the Grand Rapids Generating Station. Manitoba Hydro created a tiered system in which they were on top, the workers they brought in were second, the Métis third and at the bottom were status and non-status people. The dam flooded more than 2, hectares of our land. Worst of all, we nearly lost our identity, our language.

Two Solitudes

MaŁgorzata Nowaczyk

Soon after I moved from Poland to Canada, I was sent to the Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital as part of my pediatrics training. In the bare white examining room I explained to an Indigenous couple that we needed to catheterize their daughter’s bladder. She had had several infections and just finished a long course of antibiotics. “We need urine straight from her bladder to make sure that all the bacteria are killed in there,” I said. The father left the room after I had finished describing the procedure; I assumed that he meant to give his daughter privacy. His wife stayed behind and, as I retrieved the sterile medical tray from the cupboard, she stroked the girl’s long hair. I covered the girl with a white linen sheet. Her brown eyes stared up at me. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said and patted her leg. I washed her hairless perineum with a brown iodine solution and spread a blue sterile paper towel over her lower belly. I scrubbed my hands and just as I was to insert the lubricated catheter into the tiny pink shell of her urethra, the door slammed open and the husband barged through.

“Did I tell you that you could do it?” he snapped.

He hadn’t. But he didn’t tell me that I couldn’t either.

“This is my little girl,” he said, pulling up her panties and yanking down her skirt. He scooped her into his arms. “You violated her. Who do you think you are?”

I thought I was a doctor. I was performing a medically necessary procedure indicated under the circumstances. But something seemed to have gone wrong and she now was not going to get it.

Neither before nor during my rotation did anybody teach me how to talk and listen to First Nations peoples. I was an immigrant to Canada, figuring out the vocabulary of body language and in-jokes and the social niceties in which Canadians engaged as part of their verbal exchanges, my own attempts at banter flailing and failing.

It was 1994 and I had no idea about the abuse that Indigenous children had suffered at the hands of government doctors and nurses for generations. As a medical student and resident in downtown Toronto hospitals, I had met homeless and indigent First Nations patients, but knew nothing about the root causes. In medical school, an Asian professor had delivered a lecture on Chinese folk medicines, but the only teaching on Canadian First Nations was given in passing: Indigenous people were taciturn and had a high level of tolerance for physical pain, make sure to account for that during physical examinations.

Later that day, my supervisor warned me against interpreting silence as assent, to always obtain verbal acknowledgement for any procedures. “They don’t talk unless you ask a direct question,” he said. As I was leaving, contrite and chastised, he attributed the father’s behaviour to “troubles with the band council,” and advised me to take it easy.

Social Studies

Randy Fred

My first contact with white kids was in grade seven, when kids from the residential school were bussed into town so we could go to a “public” school. We didn’t want to be there, and it was pretty clear that the white kids didn’t want us to be there either. Social studies was the worst class, because Indians were sometimes the subject. I didn’t know who the Iroquois were, or who the Hurons were (no other Indians were mentioned in those classes), but I knew they were Indians, and so was I.

Snapshot

Steven Heighton

Ironically, I owe the moment of contact and the memory of it to ethnic intolerance. That’s what drove my Greek mother to flee her community, elope with my non-Greek father and hide out in a small mining town in the heart of Ojibwe country—northwestern Ontario. There my father found an entry-level job as a teacher. He also got to know the Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, who at the time was painting huge canvases on butcher paper in brooding, dark colours.

So my father’s “first contact” story, featuring a difficult, brilliant, aesthetically germinal figure, is surely more interesting than mine. My story is a mere snapshot—though unlike most old photos it’s not faded and discoloured. It’s brilliantly lit up by what must be a spring sun, May or June, the day warm and windy. I’m five years old. Kindergarten has let out. A girl and I are walking along holding hands. Her hand is brown. The memory includes the knowledge—possibly layered onto it after the fact—that the town has fallen behind us and I’m in an unfamiliar place, approaching a red tarpaper bungalow among birch trees. Quivering leaves cast dense, animate shadows. A lake shimmers behind the house. The girl’s mother is hanging white sheets (maybe shirts?) on a line that runs from the side of the house to a tree. She’s smiling broadly as we approach. And that’s it. The whole memory. I struggle to let more light into the moment—to push the recall both backward and forward. A meeting in the schoolyard before we walk to her house? Playing by the lake afterward, or having a snack in the kitchen? Later days when we did the same things? I’m left not with a story but a fragment, which for some reason I’ve retained, vividly, while forgetting almost every other moment I experienced up north.

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Margaret Nowaczyk

Margaret Nowaczyk is a pediatric geneticist and writer who lives in Hamilton, ON. Her memoir Chasing Zebras was published in 2021. “Metanoias” is part of her forthcoming collection of essays from Wolsak & Wynn.


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