Books·Borders

Spanning Borders by Darrel J. McLeod

Darrel J. McLeod won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for his memoir Mamaskatch.

An essay from the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winner for nonfiction

Spanning Borders is an essay by Darrel J. McLeod. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

When you're the result — the flesh and blood result — of a fusion of two worlds, you spend your life in the margins. You don't quite belong in one camp, nor in the other, so you struggle to make sense of the situation. Accept kindness, affection and generosity wherever you find them, and just hope that combined, these three ingredients provide the medicine to heal and compensate for the trauma of situations where you encounter their extreme opposites.

Mother started it all. Even though she was deeply loyal to our family and immersed in our culture she was intrigued by 'the other.' From an old Ukrainian woman, she learned to make mouth-watering cabbage rolls. From Jack Mah, she learned to make moose chop suey and rabbit fried rice. She loved to listen to the stories Burt Curruthers told of his family's migration from the American south to Amber Valley, Alta to escape brutal persecution. And she charmed and married my father, a Mé​tis man, of French, Scottish and Cree heritage. Her best friend was Sybil O'Neil a first generation Italian-Canadian who had married an Irishman. With all of these people, she was clear about who she was — a proud and strong Nehiyasquieu. And she lectured us to always be proud too.

His mother accused me of theft. I was so hurt.- Darrel J. McLeod

So, I came by it naturally — my curiosity about others. In elementary school, I was thrilled when occasionally a white kid would take an interest in me — seek out my friendship, even though I only ever got to visit the house of one of them — and it didn't go well. His mother accused me of theft. I was so hurt. Mother had instilled in us strong values — to steal was bad, from anyone, but from friends or family was anathema.

A white boy gave me my first homoerotic experience — kissing my cheek and rubbing his penis against mine. A white girl's left cheek burned my lips when I planted my first precocious kiss on it — Teresa. I still remember her delicate fragrance and smooth skin. Physical passion and sexual attraction — one great social leveler, caught up with me at age 10 and good thing Teresa liked me. There were no Indigenous people in Canmore when we lived there. How strange, I thought, there had to be Indian reserves nearby, and sure enough, the Lakota people were very close by, but I didn't ever see them in town.

My innocent overtures to the tallest and fairest kid from my grade five class in Canmore, Harry, were met with a strong rebuke — don't talk to me chimp, or is it chink. I'm not Chinese, I'm Indian — Nehiyaw, I yelled back. Outside after school Chink. I'll be waiting. I lunged at him — knocking him to the ground — then punched his face, grabbed his blond hair and pounded his head on the cement. Where did this rage come from? Harry whimpered over to his younger brother who had admonished him not to bully me. I got invited to Lori's birthday party the next week, with all the cool kids in our class — all white. I was in. Thank you, Harry.

A quick scan of the room — not one face flinched. Did they hear him?-  Darrel J. McLeod

I only needed the four fingers of one hand to count the number of brown faces, or should I say coloured faces in the crowd. At 44, I was an executive in the federal government. I thought I had arrived, but the rude awakening came at my first executive retreat in Ottawa. I was invisible. Well, almost. Somehow the one Black person in the crowd of 500 or so, the two middle-eastern looking people, the one woman of colour and I had gravitated to each other and were sitting together at a table with five empty chairs, in a packed room. Huddling like penguins to avoid the chill. A speaker from the Bush administration — a PhD level expert on germ warfare: it's not new you know — germ warfare. It was used strategically by the colonial powers, the British, Spanish and French in the late 18th and 19th centuries, against Indigenous peoples. Oh my god, does he know what he's saying? A quick scan of the room — not one face flinched. Did they hear him?

He threw the newspaper onto the table. George Watts, Chief Negotiator for the Nuu-chah-nulth. So, tell us Darrel, about the private eye who's been poking around questioning former students of the Port Alberni Indian Residential School. What private eye — there's been no private eye — they would've told me. We're not making this up Darrel. Threats to walk from the table. A call to a senior lawyer in the Department of Justice confirmed what I had vehemently denied — yes, they had hired a private eye to build the government's defence case in the Blackwater trial — so I was guilty, vicariously, of breathing new life into the trauma that resulted from a residential school system that a supreme court judge called a form of institutionalized pedophilia — but the Nuu-chah-nulth forgave me, allowed me to continue my work.

The interviewer's voice was full of caring and empathy as she asked, Darrel, how did you survive such intense personal trauma in your childhood and youth — and still stay optimistic and happy? Fighting back tears I answered her, Angels, I said. I've had many angels in my life, starting with the white angel on our Christmas tree when I was little. Early in life, I learned that angels could be white.


Darrel J. McLeod accepts the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award from Governor General Julie Payette. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

About Darrel J. McLeod

Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Mamaskatch, the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award-winning memoir about his chaotic childhood, raised primarily by his mother, a residential school survivor.

About the series Borders

CBC Books asked each of the Governor General's Literary Award winners to contribute an original piece on the theme Borders: lines that, when crossed, mark a change. Spanning Borders is McLeod's contribution to the series. He also appeared on a special episode of CBC Radio's Ideas. Listen to the audio below.

Winners of the 2018 Governor General's Literary Awards address our challenge to create an original piece of writing on the theme of borders. In forms ranging from poetry to fiction and personal essay, they reflect on the idea of divisions, and on the other side, reconciliations. They'll talk about their work, read from it, and give their views on the way borders, boundaries and limits - real and imagined, psychological and political - are at work in our world and lives now. Presented by IDEAS and CBC Books, with the Canada Council for the Arts. 53:59

Read the rest of the series:

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