the same boat


In September, 2015, the body of Aylun Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. His family had been trying to get to Kos, a island in the Greek Dodacanese chain; they were fleeing Syria, as were millions of others. The boat that took them was inflatable, plastic or rubber, and capsized not far from Bodrum. The image of his body galvanised people around the world; it became a symbol of the migrant crisis. It also became a turning point in the Canadian election and voters turned their backs on the Harper Conservatives who fumbled and prevaricated, particularly then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. Justin Trudeau seemed to speak for all of us (or most of us, enough of us in any case) when he reiterated the Liberal promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees: “Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.” Our own provincial Premier, not a woman known for her compassion or willingness to help the underdogs of our society (let alone any other), cried in public and announced a special fund to help settle migrant families in B.C. A million dollars out of thin air…It felt as though the human family was in the same boat, on the same water; our hopes and dreams were the same: to make a better world for ourselves and those we love.

Speaking of boats, my grandmother came to Canada in 1913, travelling in steerage from Antwerp to Saint John with five small children. Her husband had gone to Drumheller the year before to arrange for land for his family. They weren’t rich. They were, I guess, economic migrants. Everything I’ve heard of their early years indicates such hardship. That husband died in October, 1918 in the influenza epidemic. He left a wife and 8 children. My grandmother fended for herself for a couple of years and remarried, having two more children, one of whom survived: my father. My grandmother’s children all married – several married Ukrainians, one a Syrian. They raised families. Those children are part of the intricate fabric of this country. Over in Saskatchewan, my grandfather’s cousin, from the same part of Bukovina and probably raised by the same grandparents who raised my grandfather, also had a large family; one of his sons went on to change his name and earn a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his illustrious goal-keeping. That was Johnny Bower.

In the 1980s, there was a First Nations firebrand around who constantly called us on our complacency about the deep history of our province (and by extension, our country). His name was Bill Wilson. He spoke forcefully and powerfully of what it was like to be an aboriginal person living in a colonial enterprise. I remember reading a long piece in the Vancouver Sun where he detailed his family’s history, the history of the potlatch, and the various ways his family needed to both defend and protect their culture and legacy. The article concluded very powerfully:

Now at 63, with my father and mother and all but two of my immediate family dead, I look back on the last 150 years since B.C. was named. For my people it has been a constant struggle which continues today. My people and other tribes built this province despite being marginalized, ignored, trampled upon, incarcerated, abused and even killed. My reminisces do not leave me angry even though I have cried to myself in recounting them. Instead, I am proud of my family and their accomplishments. I have one of the highest ranking names in our Potlatch. In March of 1983, I helped draft and successfully argue for the entrenchment of the first and only amendment of Canada’s new Constitution. We have 18 university degrees in our family and best of all I have five granddaughters who by their strength and breeding will continue to make this province and this country a better place for all of us.
Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson, BA, LLB)

And the beautiful continuation of this story told by Bill Wilson is that one of his daughters, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is now Justice Minister in the new Liberal Cabinet.

Now that terrorist attacks have shaken France, and the rest of us too, it seems that too many of us are willing to move to the other side of the boat. Brad Wall, the Premier of Saskatchewan, wants the Canadian government to suspend its plan to bring in 25,000 refugees. Our Premier, the one who cried, is now expressing grave doubts about security. I’m not sure of exact numbers of those who have fled Syria. The U.N. says more than 6 million have been displaced within Syria and at least 3 million have fled; more are leaving every day, every hour. So 25,000 is a drop in the bucket. Though it’s also a start. More than half of the Governors of the United States say they will refuse to cooperate with efforts to bring refugees into their individual States. (Authority over the admission of refugees is a federal responsibility but individual States would be responsible for welcoming and settling those who entered the country.)

In the middle of the night, these are things that keep me awake. I was listening to the news most of the day and was so distressed to hear the new rhetoric (although it’s also old rhetoric) about immigrants. In two days, it will be one month since we elected a new government to take our country in a new and compassionate direction. Wasn’t that the promise? And didn’t we love to hear it? Why is it so difficult now to believe that we can still be that country, the one that continues its tradition of welcoming newcomers? Those Syrians are leaving in huge numbers because they’re as afraid of terrorism as we are. No. Actually they have direct experience with it while we have the kind of fear whipped up by right-wing journalists, commentators, politicians who haven’t read enough history, their own and the country’s.

In my grandmother’s papers, there is a letter which a friend in the Czech Republic recently translated for me. The letter was written by my grandmother’s god-daughter and was sent from a village very near my grandmother’s own Horni Lomna. There’s no date but I feel that it was written sometime before the Second World War. By then my grandparents had moved to a very modest house in Beverly, then just outside of Edmonton, though now it’s part of the city. They didn’t have much. They grew potatoes, they had chickens, and an extended family, all of whom had done well enough by the standards of the day.

Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe…I don’t have any other news except that Adam Gumda (illegible) from … died and that in Bukowec a Filanc shot Pacholek who was carrying 2 kilos of meat from Poland, he was dead on the spot. We come to live in times when they eat our food and take our lives. But there are things happening these days because the people have been revolting.

What would any of us do to make a safe life for our families? My grandmother was lucky enough to be able to leave, though I wonder if she felt lucky in the belly of the Mount Temple as it made its way across the Atlantic to Canada? Five small children. All her worldly possessions. No English (not yet, though she learned it as soon as she arrived, and even attended my father’s grade one class to learn to read and write). I’m sure there were times when she felt unwelcome, when she wondered if it might have been better to stay and take her chances in that old world of plum trees and gunshot, of grazing pigs and hunger. My father said his parents were proud to vote and they were proud to have raised children and although sometimes there wasn’t much more for dinner than potatoes, they were grateful. Why do we imagine others would be any less grateful? Or deserving? There’s a picture of my father that I treasure. He is riding a small tricycle through a bleak yard, which must be the yard of the house in Drumheller. He’s probably about the age of Aylun Kurdi. It’s not much, but so much more than others can even dream of.  And it’s time for more of them to have those dreams come true.




Of quilts and woodsmoke

Today I’m hoping to begin a quilt. I have some Moravian blueprint bought in Roznov last February, at the Wallachian Open Air Museum — The Museum was fascinating, a collection of traditional Wallachian wood buildings, set among spruce trees. It was there (and a little earlier that same day, in my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna) that I began to feel the stirrings of my own Czech blood. (I’m a quarter Czech, I said to John in wonder as we left that part of the CR by train. How is it that it took me 57 years to realize that?) Anyway, I’ve preshrunk the beautiful fabric and I’m trying to “see” what might be done with it.


In the meantime, here’s a short section of the novella I finished last week. I’ve given it to my husband and my daughter to read, to see if it hangs together, if the dialogue works the way I’ve presented it — I didn’t want to clutter the page with quotation marks or em dashes so I tried to embed the dialogue within the actual narrative. I might have to revisit this but for now I like it. So this is the narrator, a young woman in her late 20s in 1978 (and no, she’s not me…), considering a quilt she has inherited from her grandmother, a Roma woman who came to Canada in 1913, falling in love with a Czech man on the Mount Temple and marrying him once they arrived in Canada.



I shook out the quilt. It was large, big enough for a queen-sized bed, composed of scraps of wool, mostly, though I could also identify some coarse linen, a few bits and pieces of velvet, and the back was striped ticking, the kind you find on old mattresses. I think it was in fact a cover for what would have been a mattress in the Calderas’s wagon and it was pieced together, probably from scavenged outer edges of the bag once the central part had worn thin. A bag, roughly woven, to hold dried grass or hay, or goose feathers. The stripes had been deep blue – I could tell this by examining the seams where the fabric still kept its vibrant colour, those blue stripes on a creamy ground. Now both were faded almost to grey.

The wool scraps were loden, once green – again, I could tell this by looking closely at the undersides of patches from which the stitching had loosened. And the velvet was black, though faded and rusty. The green wool and black velvet was appliquéd to linen squares, the stitching fine as bird tracks, in thread that was now a faded yellow but which once had obviously been rich gold. I had glimpses of the original colour where the stitches had been covered with sashing, now frayed. And between the squares was sashing pieced from various lengths of grey wool.

The smell of woodsmoke and musty air. My grandmother’s house. My own small flat, on the second floor of the converted theatre, had a set of double windows with a generous sill. I hung the quilt to air, leaving it for an hour or so while I rode my bike into Oak Bay village to buy some groceries. Nuts, rice, and yoghourt at Earth Household; carrots and apples at the Super Valu. I decided I had enough money for a bottle of wine and chose a Hungarian red, the one with the bull on its label.

Riding back, I saw the quilt hanging from my windows like a banner. I propped my bike against the side of the building and looked up. The loden green scraps were leaves, scattered over the surface. I saw this when I looked from a distance, adjusting my eyes to its perspective. Groups of two in some squares, three in others, a single leaf in many. I ran into the building, up the stairs to my apartment. I touched the fabric. It was densely woven, a kind of felt. I bent my face to the leaves and inhaled something animal, oily. Rubbing my fingers together, it was like touching sheep, that coarse wool suffused with lanolin. My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It was very warm, she said, repelling both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within. We sat under trees while the rain poured down and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

memory and assumptions

I’m learning to be more careful when it comes to reading the past. For instance: I believed my father’s stories about his mother and her journey to the new world. This world, though of course North America was very different in the early part of the 20th century, before the wars, before the Great Depression, before climate change and the migration of populations to the cities that swell and strain at their seams as I write. So when did your mother come to North America, I asked, and he told me 1911. But the passenger manifest proves it was 1913.  The second mistake is mine entirely. I read the names on the manifest — Anna, Josef, Jan, Paul, Barbara, Franc –and assumed the Josef was my grandmother’s first husband. But then I scrolled over and saw that in fact Anna was travelling with five children. Josef was her son! So she was alone on the Mount Temple in the winter of 1913, in steerage, with five children. Paul and Jan (who became John) were twins, and were 4; Josef was 3, Barbara, 2, and Franc was a year old. It seems that Anna’s husband had a brother in Drumheller, Paul Yopek, and I’m guessing (or assuming) that Josef senior had gone on ahead to make arrangements for them. His name appears in the Alberta Homestead Records for this parcel of land: Section 11, Township 29, Range 20, Meridian 4.

Did he meet them in Saint John when the Mount Temple arrived on March 4? Or did she travel across Canada by train to Drumheller with her five small children? I know that a sixth child was born 9 months after her arrival so things must have gone well, in any case.