Personal Essay

How pickin' cans with my dad shaped my view of Canada

An education on racism, Indigenous identity and the quiet dignity of collecting cans by the side of the road.

An education on racism, Indigenous identity and the quiet dignity of collecting cans by the side of the road

"I am a white-passing Indigenous person. I do not look like my father. My mother is of Scottish and German ancestry, and because of that I am able to 'fit in.'" (Arlana Bennett)

You see them, but you look away. They're on sidewalks, rummaging through garbage cans and peering into dumpsters. They carry bags full of cans, bottles and juice containers.

At any point in the day, you can walk down a street in this country and see someone sifting through garbage for recyclables. Old people, young people, Indigenous people, people from different races, countries and cultures.

Everyone has their reason for doing it; extra cash, a quick buck. Maybe to get enough change for a sandwich or a coffee. But sometimes, and not very often, you come across someone picking cans who looks just a little out of place.

At any point in the day, you can walk down a street in this country and see someone sifting through garbage for recyclables.

In the summer of 2014, a young man and his very young daughter were picking through a garbage can on a street corner in Calgary. Slung over the father's shoulder was a bag of recyclables. The girl stood by his side.

That morning, I drove past them with three co-workers, getting ready to start a day of landscaping. One of my colleagues scoffed, remarking at how offensive they thought the whole scene was. How could this guy be so irresponsible?

"It's disgusting," another said.

My heart sank. I stayed quiet.

On the hunt

In the summer of 1990, 24 years earlier, my father and I started a new family tradition. Life at that time wasn't easy.

My father, Ernest Bennett, could no longer afford the maintenance costs and insurance for his taxi, and he certainly didn't appreciate the onslaught of discrimination and threats he experienced while driving people around. So he quit his job.

Arlana, 9, and her father walk around Barriere, B.C., where her dad lived for a few years. His cab is parked in the background. (Beverly Bennett)

Money was short and we needed to buy food, so we started picking cans and bottles on the side of the road. As an energetic and constantly hungry eight-year-old, I was invited along.

At first I was a little reluctant. What if someone from school saw me? But apprehension quickly changed to joy as I realized that I would get to spend quality time with my father, even if we were searching for cans in the ditch. We were on a hunt.

"Oh! That one's worth 10 cents!" I would cry when we came across a beer can. Ten cents closer to a dollar. "It's free money," my father would tell me, so why not?

Apprehension quickly changed to joy as I realized that I would get to spend quality time with my father, even if we were searching for cans in the ditch.

Our walks mostly took place along Tranquille Rd. in Kamloops, B.C. At that time the area was mostly undeveloped grassland and semi-arid desert. During the summer you could hear rattle snakes in the dry grass, and see bright yellow and orange cactus blossoms peeking out from the low brush.

At the end of Tranquille was a beach, a kind of party spot for teenagers and kids in their early twenties. That stretch of road seemed to have a never-ending supply of recyclables.

My father and I would spend hours walking up and down that road, searching for cans and items of use. We talked to one another about things that all eight-year-olds and their fathers talk about.

Why do they look away?

Even at eight years old, I could recognize that my father was treated differently, that he was an "Indian," and that meant I would be different, in some way.

Arlana and her beloved pooch Ralph get a big squeeze from dad. (Beverly Bennett)

I always knew we were poor, and that's why we had to pick cans for food money; though poverty was never something I could fully accept. As a child, with wide-eyed wonder at the world and an insatiable need to have, see and do things, I could never understand our financial limitations.

What I understood less was the public judgement I felt at times when my parents and I would go out. When we would stand in grocery lines and my father would crack jokes with people around him, I never understood why they would sneer or look away from us. Or how their disapproval of my father contributed to my complicated feelings of cultural shame.

"We're Anishinaabe," he would say, and I would glow with wonder about what that word meant.

My father didn't remember much about his childhood. His time at St. Mary's Residential School in Kenora, Ont. was a sore and hazy memory. He remembered little of his language but during our walks he told me what he could remember. When he could, he would tell me about "the way of the Anishinaabe."

"We're Anishinaabe," he would say, and I would glow with wonder about what that word meant.

It wouldn't be until my final three years of university in Calgary that I would learn about racial discrimination, and the legacy of systemic issues that emerged from institutions like residential schools. These, and many other issues had kept my father from having a "normal" life, and I internalized these struggles by association.

Quiet dignity

What I've learned from these experiences is that the surface of a situation is never the complete truth. How we appear, and how people understand our appearance, is not who we are.

Arlana and her dad enjoy the summer sun on Tranquille Road in Kamloops. Her father still lives in B.C. (Beverly Bennett)

I am a white-passing Indigenous person. I do not look like my father. My mother is of Scottish and German ancestry, and because of that I am able to "fit in." A lot of my perspective and experience with racism in Canada comes vicariously through my father; from watching how he has been treated in waiting lines, to witnessing his hellish struggle to survive the trauma of residential schools.

As we continue to open the dialogue around reconciliation in this country, I hope more people take the time to question their first impressions of us. We are not a single story.

What I've learned from these experiences is that the surface of a situation is never the complete truth. How we appear, and how people understand our appearance, is not who we are.

My father is 62 now, and lives in Sicamous, B.C. He still collects cans. It's a necessity to supplement a meager income, but I'm no longer embarrassed about it.

These days I can't drive or walk by a can on the side of the road anymore without wondering if I should pick it up.

When I was back home for Christmas, I saw six cans by the side of the road. All in a row. Excited, I wanted to call my father to tell him about it, and so he could go and get them — but I didn't.

He's been doing it so long now, I think everyone knows those cans are for him. I knew that he would get to them eventually.

So that's where they sit until he, with quiet dignity, picks them up.

About the Author

Arlana Bennett

Arlana Bennett is a graduate student at the University of Alberta, in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. She lives in Edmonton with her partner Eldon and their one-year-old daughter Zelda.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.