Day 194 - Don (2nd person I approached)
July 13, 2014 - Don was sitting on a bench in the corner of a very sunny park, tucked in under the shade of tree. There was a beer can at his feet. I asked him if he would chat with me and gave a short explanation of what I am doing.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly,
“I didn’t understand a word you just said.” I asked him again, slower this time, if we could chat. He told me that he was just about to leave, but if he “had another beer, I’d sit a while longer.” I told him I didn’t have any beer with me. He asked me what kind of things I wanted to talk about. I showed him the Facebook page and he curled his upper lip, saying
“I’m not a photographic kind of guy.” I didn’t say anything.
“But sure okay, we can talk for a few minutes.”
“I was born in Prince Rupert,” he started.
“My mother used to like going between here and there, here and there.” Don continued telling me bits of his life, interspersed with moments of contemplation. He is the second youngest of eight children, five girls and three boys.
“I had another sister who died before I was born. And I have a sister who had a child that also died before I was born. My niece died before I was even born,” he said shaking his head slowly.
“My mother used to like to travel between here and there. When fishing season ended we’d come down here to Vancouver. That’s how I ended up here,” said Don.
“I’m from Kitkatla. We always ended up going back to my village though.” Kitkatla is located on Dolphin Island, off the coast of northern British Columbia (BC). It is home to the Kitkatla band, one of 14 bands of the Tsimshian nation.
“My father was never able to get work when we came down to Vancouver, so we always stayed in slums in the Downtown Eastside (DTES - the poorest neighbourhood in Canada),” he said. Don then went quiet. I wondered if he was going to end our conversation. I could sense he was becoming emotional.
“These questions, they bring back some pretty awful feelings. Things I don’t think about much,” said Don. I made sure he knew he didn’t have to talk abut anything he didn’t want to.
“The tough thing was suddenly one day my mother would say ‘We’re going to Vancouver’ and I had no warning and I didn’t get to see my friends. One time when we came to the live in the city for the summer, I didn’t speak to anyone for an entire month. And then when I did speak, my voice had changed. We moved around so much when we were down here that I never had a chance to make new friends.”
He went to school in both Vancouver and in Kitkatla.
“There were two teachers in my village, Miss Hodgson and Miss Moore. They were so nice, everybody liked them. I could easily have fallen for Miss Moore. In fact maybe I did a bit,” he says with a grin that goes from ear to ear. Don has a particularly loud, strong belly laugh that comes from deep inside.
“Some of us thought they might be gay. They didn’t live in the village. They were both single and they lived together. It didn’t matter to me. They cared about every single one of us. When they gave you the strap, it was the most gentle little tap, and it looked like they were about to cry after they strapped someone. I was lucky to have them as teachers,” he said. We sat quietly for a little bit.
When he was about twelve or thirteen, he can’t remember exactly when, Don was removed from his family home.
“They shipped me off down here. It wasn’t one of them residential schools, but it wasn’t home. I still don’t know why, but they did,” he said. I asked who ‘they’ were.
“The government. Some of my sisters had already been shipped out too, but they were in a different city.” Don was put in a foster home in Coquitlam, and went to school while living there.
“Some of the girls at school were really nice, but some of the guys were assholes,” he says, making a fist.
“They’d say things like ‘Hey you sure are a fuckin’ ugly Indian, aren’t you?’ and I knew I could take them out with one punch. I just wanted to hit them so hard, but I never did. That was some real emotional time for me,” he said. Then Don looked at me, smiled and said
“I sure do like you. You’re asking some good questions.” He was warming up to me and becoming more engaged.
“You know who else I liked? The woman that looked after me when I was in Coquitlam,” referring to his foster mother. I asked him what her name was and he thought about it. I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to come up with the answer, so I told him it didn’t matter.
“No! It does matter. I just never called her by her name… Gloria! I never called her anything for the first while. It took me about a year to feel comfortable to call her anything. Then I just called her Mom, ‘cause she was like a second mother to me. She was so lovely,” he smiles with that big grin again.
“Hey you’ll like this story. She was so nice, she got a commendation from the Prime Minister of Canada on account of all the kids she had helped. There was always kids running around in her place. She almost had a heart attack when they told her she was going to be presented with her commendation from the Prime Minister. I went along to watch, it was incredible,” he said proudly. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister at the time.
“The funding for the program that had me shipped to foster care ran out, so I went back home to Kitkatla. I never saw Gloria again. I went back a few years ago to find the house we lived at in Coquitlam but the house had been torn down,” he said.
Back in Kitkatla, Don got a job working at a local fish processing plant, where he worked for the next seventeen years.
“The plant closed down and I got another job doing maintenance around the village. I was cutting grass and odd jobs. It was supposed to be just for the Elders, but I helped out others too. I did some of the same work in another village, Metlakatla, which is further north past Prince Rupert. It was kind of a stupid job,” he said.
“It rains about five days a week in that place. You can’t cut grass when it’s wet. But I still got paid. I’m sure that has changed nowadays,” said Don.
Four years ago, Don moved to Vancouver.
“It gets pretty fucking boring up in Prince Rupert. There’s nothing to do, so I came down here,” Don said. He now lives in the DTES, although he tells me
“Officially my address is one block into the ‘west’ side, but it’s still the DTES. I have a room there. I’m just waiting to go out fishing for the season.”
Then Don told me he had to get going. I took a few pictures and showed them to him.
“See, I told you, I don’t look so good in pictures. Especially if I’m smiling!” and he let loose another of his deep belly laughs. He was heading to his sister’s home for dinner.
“It’s Sunday, we always have dinner on Sunday,” he tells me. He throws his empty beer can in a garbage can nearby and surveys where we’ve been seating to make sure he has all his belongings. I walk a few blocks with him to where he will get a bus to his sister’s home.
“My sister tells me I’m the baby of the family, even though I’m not the youngest. But that’s okay. She likes to take care of me. It’s like she’s another mother for me,” he says.
“Hey, I have one more story for you. Gee, if we sat and talked for a while, you’d be able to write a book about me,” he adds, laughing.
“My mother passed away two years ago, and on her death bed, she said to my sister ‘Promise me you’ll take care of Don.’ And that’s what she does. She takes care of me. I think my sister’s daughter, my niece, gets upset sometimes, because my sister looks after me so much. That was my mother’s last wish.” #notastranger