29. Warren Cariou, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging
I met Warren Cariou once. I was volunteering at a conference on Indigenous performance and ended up driving him to the airport for his flight back to Winnipeg. I suppose that encounter is part of the reason I put his book Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging on my reading list—that, and the fact that it’s a book about the way that stories are how we come to understand both place and identity, in all of their complexity.
The book begins with a question that brings together the complexities and contradictions of identity, origin, and place: “Where do I come from?” (3):
We always have to take someone’s word for it, that mystery of origins. Maybe that’s why I believed I was not so much from a place as from a story—or rather a collection of stories, mutually contradictory and continually evolving in the mouths of my many relatives. (4)
Stories were important in Cariou’s family and in his extended family; they were competitions, “word-wars” (4-5), and entertainment provided by his Cariou uncles and especially by his father, Ray, a monumental figure in Cariou’s life. “Bedtime was in fact renamed storytime,” Cariou recalls (6). There were stories about his mother’s memories of growing up in Ituna, Saskatchewan; stories about Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, where Cariou grew up; animal stories; and stories about characters invented by his father, “Simpleton Simon Sasquatch” and “Rosie Belly” (7-10). “I don’t remember all of Dad’s stories, but what remains in my memory is the magic of lying there in the dark and witnessing the tale as it came into being, out of nothing, at the very moment we heard it,” Cariou recalls. “No two were ever the same, even when we asked for repeat performances” (10).
No wonder Cariou became a writer. In fact, he tried to write down his father’s stories before he could even read: “Many evenings I sat on the couch with a Giant scribbler on my knees, serious as a stenographer, inscribing row after row of curlicues, which represented the collected stories of Simpleton Simon Sasquatch and Rosie Belly and all my aunts and uncles” (11). “And now Dad is gone,” Cariou continues,
and I’m still scribbling. Not only to preserve but also to understand those stories and the people and places that inspired them. And to continue on in Dad’s tradition, turning life into stories and stories into life. Because if they are where I come from, then maybe they can tell me something about where I belong. (11)
The link Cariou sees between identity and place is clear here, but he also understands that our relationship to place can be complex. He writes of the way people move around in the contemporary world, an experience he shares, but he suggests that it’s not necessary “to stay in one place all our lives in order to reconnect with our environments. We need instead to re-examine our stories, to discover a more fluid kind of belonging, one that melds memory and voice and sensation into the complex geometry of our lives” (11). And that is what he sets out to do in this book:
It is a story of belonging, an account of the myriad connections to the place I come from and the family that brought me there. Meadow Lake might be an insignificant place in the eyes of the larger world, but it has been crucially important to me, and I want to explore that personal experience. I suspect that most people have a Meadow Lake of their own, a place they can’t let go of. They need not have been born in that place, or still live there now, but somehow it has taken hold of them and shaped them so irrevocably that they can’t imagine who they would be without it. That’s how it is for me. I have lived away form Meadow Lake for almost half my life, and I will probably never live there again, yet it is still unquestionably the place I mean when I say “home.” (12)
The question of determining one’s origins has turned out to be “one of the most difficult and necessary questions” he has asked himself, “not because origins provide the answers but because origins must be questioned deeply and continually if we are to be at home in the world in a meaningful way” (12). “The closer we look at our stories of origin,” he continues, “the more likely we are to find other and sometimes contradictory stories beneath them. And it can be a lifelong task, to learn the many histories of the place and the family you come from” (12). Cariou’s book examines the contradictory stories he has learned about his own identity and about Meadow Lake, the place he is from; in other words, it presents the complex answers that have resulted from his questioning.
Cariou next turns to Meadow Lake—or at least to the significance of its name, and what that name can tell us. As a child, he was confused about what Meadow Lake was; different people called the town different things, and different neighbourhoods had different names (15). In the past, Métis people had called the place Lac des Prairies, and the Cree had called it paskwâw sâkâhikan, because of the large area of grassland or meadow beside the lake (16). Logging had obliterated the boundaries of the meadow (18), which had been, Cariou writes, a patch of tall-grass prairie:
When I try to picture the meadow now, it’s like imagining an entirely different place, a place I have never been. Based on the photos taken by Frank Crean’s surveying expedition in 1909, I know it was a tall-grass prairie, a rare spot in this northern forest where sunlight could penetrate nearly to the ground. In summer it would have hosted big bluestem grasses and daisies and prairie lilies, and perhaps delicate lady’s slippers. It would have been populated at times by woodland caribou, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, and dozens of smaller animals and birds. The Cree people would have hunted along the perimeter of the meadow, and they would have gathered berries and roots there. (18-19)
That patch of grassland was mostly destroyed when settlers arrived, but Cariou notes that not all of it has been lost: “Almost all the plants and animals that once lived here can still be found in the area,” he writes, although “everything has had to adapt to the changes that deforestation, cultivation, fencing, and road building brought along with them” (19). Many of the species of plants and animals that once lived in the area are now struggling. “Recognizing this is enough to make me lament the coming of the farmers and foresters and community builders who pushed so many things out of the way in order to make a settlement,” he continues. “But this thought puts me in an uncomfortable position. If those people hadn’t come and hadn’t brought those changes, then I could never have called this place home” (19).
The Meadow Lake that Cariou knows is “a sleepy town, a violent town, a town with secrets, a town of simple beauty and brazen ugliness. It resonates with contradictions, like many other communities” (20). One of those contradictions or conflicts is between settlers and the Cree people who live in the area, including the Flying Dust Cree Nation, whose reserve is right next to the town. As a child, Cariou always sensed that the reserve was “somehow off-limits,” a place where he “felt conspicuous, vulnerable. Like a trespasser” (22-23). There are ten First Nations in the Meadow Lake area, along with other Métis and non-status communities, and Cariou notes that it’s possible that Indigenous people now outnumber the whites (23). “The district is far from being a utopia of racial harmonization,” he writes. “Most of the time the tension just simmers, fuelled by racism and inequality and long-held grudges” (23). But the town is also home to new immigrants and their hopes for a safe place where they can start new lives (24-25). “I get the impression that people are flowing like some volatile liquid over the globe, seeking a place to cling onto, a place to belong,” Cariou writes. “A few of them have found that here. They have learned their own ways of coming to terms with the place, making it a home, even if they have other faraway homes too” (25). While many people want to find a home in Meadow Lake, Carious notes that others, especially the young, have “a burning ambition” (25) to leave the town. Others, who want to stay in the community, often cannot: “Jobs and loves and plain old restlessness can take people away, and can make it very difficult to return. I know this from experience. But I still like to think it’s possible to retain that attachment from a distance, to take a place with you when you leave. Stories, after all, are portable” (26). Again we see Cariou’s belief that stories are an essential part of place-making; indeed, stories about a place can even substitute for being present in that place.
As a child Cariou realized that Meadow Lake, like his family, was made of stories. Gossip, he writes, was “the fabric of the community. We gossiped each other into being” (29). Most of the stories that circulated were about illnesses or disasters of various kinds (29), but there were also fish stories (30-31); stories about poaching, racist stories about Indigenous people, and stories about fights and pregnancies (35-37); stories learned from books in the town library (37-38); and stories in other languages, including Cree, Ukrainian, German, Cantonese, and French (38-39). Cariou did not hear all of these stories, and not all of them made sense to him. “But I knew that even the people I did hear and did understand were not telling everything there was to be told,” he writes:
I saw that every story grew on top of another story, covered it up, and telling one thing was always a way of not telling something else. Sometimes I wanted to pry underneath, to dig up those stories that were buried under the layers. But that was for the most part an idle desire. I did little to seek out the hidden stories. I had enough to keep me busy with the ones that were obvious. (40)
Cariou had his own secrets and assumed that other people had theirs as well. “I suppose all of that explains why I grew up in such remarkable ignorance of my hometowns’s past,” he continues. He had been told about Big Bear and Gabriel Dumont and the events of 1885, but those stories didn’t seem real to him (41). What did seem real were stories about homesteading, “the closest thing to our creation myths. I couldn’t imagine what would have existed in Meadow Lake before the homesteaders came and cleared the land, broke the soil, built roads, dug wells” (42). “It was only much later that I realized how much had been left out of this story,” he continues. “No one told me, for instance, that Meadow Lake had been a settlement of sorts for at least a hundred years before the arrival of the first homesteaders” (43). And he didn’t understand that only a few generations earlier, all of the land had belonged to the Cree (43). He didn’t know about the pass system, residential schools, or an attempt to relocate the reserve away from the town. “For years, no one told me any of this,” he writes (43-44).
In the next chapter, “The Height of Land,” Cariou writes about the boundary between the Churchill River watershed and the Saskatchewan River watershed, a boundary visible to the south of Meadow Lake: “These two watersheds are different worlds, with distinct climates, geographies, ecosystems, and cultures” (47). But for Cariou, the Height of Land was “more of a cognitive construct than a geological formation”:
As far back as I can remember, it was the most important defining feature of what was home and what was not. It was the place of transition between our way of life and all the incomprehensible ways of life that I imagined, and sometimes saw, in the outside world. But it was always an elusive boundary, one that slipped away as we approached. (47-48)
Cariou’s father had told him a story about the area around Meadow Lake having once been an inland sea, and for Cariou the existence of muskeg was evidence that story was true. Muskeg, he writes, is “a thin layer of turf floating on the water, an earthy membrane that fuses land and liquid” (49). His fatherused to tell a fishing story about a floating island of muskeg (50). Muskeg defined the country around Meadow Lake; there was no muskeg south of the Height of Land. “There is a corresponding psychological difference between the south and the north too,” Cariou writes. “In the south, facts matter more than stories” (53).
Along with muskeg, the north is defined by wildfire. Every spring, residents of Meadow Lake could smell smoke in the air (59-60). “Smoke was the medium we lived in during fire season, sometimes for weeks at a time,” Cariou writes. “We breathed it. It soaked into our clothes. Usually we couldn’t see it at all, except perhaps as a slight haze in the distance, a blurring of the Height of Land” (60). He recalls the sight of a forest after a fire: “The trees became their own tombstones, standing in craggy reminiscence of themselves” (61). But wildfires were mostly represented in his childhood imagination by the figure of “The Scorcher,” which was painted on a billboard at the Height of Land. “The Scorcher” was
a naked, smirking, red-skinned comic-book devilkin with orange and yellow flames bursting out of his head. The Scorcher’s eyes were the most successful representation of mischief I had ever seen, expressing a combination of askance malevolence and caught-in-the-act startlement. In one hand he clutched a lit match, which he held down toward the lower edge of the billboard, as if to ignite the real forest in the background. (61)
Cariou and his siblings, Glenn and Michelle, “loved the Scorcher even as we scorned him. His defiant flouting of the most sacred rule of our fire-paranoid culture made him attractive, as only a bad-boy rebel can be. He made arson seem almost fun” (61). But more than that, The Scorcher “was the gatekeeper of the north, the usher and gargoyle and menacing giant who signalled to everyone that this was a place where things were different. This was the kingdom of fire” (62). Cariou tells other stories about fire—playing with matches as a child, the racist suspicions that First Nations people set fires in order to get work on fire-fighting crews, and his father’s belief that careless campers were responsible for fires (63-65)—but the most important story he tells is of the Great Fire of 1919 (66-69). This story demonstrates the research he did for the book, travelling in northern Saskatchewan and gathering stories. That fire, he writes, made life easier for the homesteaders who followed it: “In the ashes of the fire the place became a different place, with new inhabitants and new stories and new ways of relating to the land” (69). In the process of settlement, however, the story of that fire was somehow forgotten, and like so many stories about Meadow Lake, Cariou only heard it after he became an adult.
In the next chapter, “The Blood Magnet,” Cariou recalls how, as a boy, he often reflected on the coincidence and improbability of his own existence. After all, if his parents hadn’t met, he wouldn’t have been born (71). That leads to the story of how they met, married, and settled in Meadow Lake (71-75). “But that knowledge didn’t fully answer my questions about where I came from and why,” Cariou recalls. “I wondered what it was that held me to my parents—or to any of my family—and the myriad choices they had made in the past. I wanted to have some say in the matter, to plant my own flag on my chosen place and claim it as my point of origin. But it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t choose my family either” (75-76). One consolation came from the question of family origin—“a question of ethnicity, of blood allegiance” (76)—which led young Cariou to proclaim, “I’m French, German, and Norwegian,” although sometimes he added “English” to the list as well (76). “I knew almost nothing about those European countries that I claimed as ancestral homelands,” he writes, “but nevertheless I understood that it was important to claim them, to have an uncomplicated answer to that question of allegiance that was thrown out at me so often” (76). That purported connection to the places of origin of his grandparents becomes important, even though he wondered what linked the various members of his extended family together:
At weddings and funerals and anniversaries, I surveyed the assembled relatives and wondered what they really had in common, these farmers, oilfield workers, mechanics, carpenters, bank clerks, wheeler-dealers, card sharks, housewives, raconteurs, and retirees. Their hair, their eyes, and even their skin colour were just about everything on the spectrum. And yet there was definitely something that linked them all together, and linked me to them: some magnetism of the blood or some collective delusion of tribal affiliation. But I couldn’t pinpoint it. (78)
Cariou and his cousins were fascinated by the family’s secrets, even though they didn’t know any and ended up relying on innuendoes and outright lies (78-79). They might have been “sensitized” to the existence of such secrets, he writes, because “as recent arrivals in the fold, we knew more clearly than the adults that family was a tenuous arrangement, even an absurd one” (78-79). Cariou recalls that he didn’t really believe the stories he and his cousins shared, but once again he is highlighting the importance of stories, even made-up ones, in the construction of identity.
Cariou then turns to the house in Meadow Lake where he grew up: the yard, the ice rink his father would make every fall and the hockey games he and his friends would play on it, the summer garden and the taste of fresh peas and of carrots stolen from the neighbour’s garden (83-88). The notion of boundaries and trespassing puzzled young Cariou (88). He and his friends idolized criminals, because they seemed to be able to go anywhere they wanted (89). There were other “nomads” in Meadow Lake, though: mentally ill people who walked the streets and were mocked by children and adults alike (89-91). Another nomad was the Rototiller Man, Mr. Fontaine, who travelled the town’s muddy streets every spring, offering to turn over vegetable gardens (91-92). In winter, Cariou and his friends would make tunnels in the snow (93-94); in the summer, they would capture bees in glass jars (94-95). Once he fell face-first into a hornet’s nest, and hornets became an addition to his list of fears: bees, large dogs, horses, bears, hypodermic needles, bombs, and God (99). “There were stories behind each of these terrors,” he recalls (99). For instance, his fear of bombs came from his awareness of the Cold War and the weapons testing that took place at the nearby Cold Lake airforce base (99-102). But he also had a secret fear: “I was afraid of Native people. Not so much the women, and certainly not the girls, but the men and especially the boys” (102). There was a separation in Meadow Lake between the Cree and the settlers, something he took for granted as a kid: “I didn’t wonder where it had come from, how it had developed,” he writes. “It’s clear to me now that there was a vast history to my fear, one that began generations before my birth and that I would not become aware of for many years. It was built on stereotypes of savages and heathens that dated back to a time when Meadow Lake was known only as Paskwâw Sâkâhikan” (103-04).
“I think that simply by being who they were, aboriginals made everyone else question their own belonging, and that questioning tended to raise the most fundamental kinds of fears and insecurities,” Cariou writes. “I absorbed those fears unconsciously and began to enact them, to give them my own personal reality” (104). He had heard, and sometimes repeated, racist stories about Indigenous people, for example (104). In addition, his relations with “the Native boys” were not good: “Everything about my relationship with them was conditioned by the environment at school, where I was often favoured and usually the Native kids were not” (105). Some of the teachers were obviously prejudiced, but the racism was more visible among the school’s children (106). White boys would taunt the Indigenous girls—and, in a different way, the Indigenous boys, who would fight back (106-07). Particular boys—Billy Tootoosis and the Fiddler boys—frightened him, and he was never good at disguising his fright (107-08). Now, though, he doesn’t blame those boys for their hostility. “I had been blessed with all kinds of things that they were excluded from: relative wealth, the respect of teachers, an expectation in the community that I would make something of myself,” Cariou recalls. “And I took it all for granted. I can see how blithely annoying I must have been” (109). The conflicts, he continues, were really about the question of belonging:
In Meadow Lake, belonging was written on our skin. We all shared a knowledge of this difference between brown faces and white, knowledge that came complete with a whole series of lessons in racism: rules about whom we could associate with, where we could feel safe, what we could become when we grew up. Everyone lived by those rules. I knew I belonged in school and in our backyard, whereas theirs was the kingdom of the roadways, the stampede grounds, the reserve. We all patrolled our territories, watching for each other. (109)
The question of belonging was partly territorial, a matter of places, but it was also a matter of stories as well.
Cariou’s family liked to spend weekends exploring the farm and ranch country around Meadow Lake, where the question of belonging was simpler than it was in the town. “Despite the profusion of No Trespassing signs on the road allowances,” Cariou writes, “I felt like a visitor rather than a trespasser whenever we roamed the countryside” (111). They particularly like to walk around on ranches: “Around any corner we might see prairie lilies, lady’s slippers, a deer, a coyote, a family of partridges. It seemed there was little difference between ranchland and wilderness” (111). Much of the family’s wandering took place on a place called Leonard’s Ranch, owned by Leonard Evans, a friend of Cariou’s father, a place “nearly the size of a township: twenty-two quarter sections strewn along the Meadow River north of the river” (111-12). Leonard had a big collection of arrowheads, and Cariou and his siblings became interested in finding some of their own (115-17). Once they found a caribou skull and a stone hammer, and Cariou imagined what life might have been like when that hammer had been made (118-21).
Given their interest in the countryside, it’s not surprising that the family eventually moved to a farm three miles from the edge of Meadow Lake. The farm, Cariou writes, “was a revelation” (127). The farm had 20 acres of bush, and Cariou and his siblings enjoyed walking there. “There was no end to the possibilities for exploration, and we dedicated ourselves to experiencing all of it, in every season,” he recalls. “Over the coming years I came to know that place more intimately than anywhere I have ever been” (127). “It was an elemental life,” he continues. “We learned to appreciate the minutest progress of the seasons by watching the growth and eventual death of the plants, the movements of the sun on the horizon, the smells in the air” (127-28). Cariou would eat snow, and learned that it has different flavours and aromas at different times of the winter (128). “We came to know the place by feeding on it, absorbing it into ourselves,” he writes (128), recalling the profusion of wild fruit that grew on the farm: wild strawberries and raspberries, dewberries, chokecherries, saskatooons, pin cherries, and blueberries: “We foraged all summer long, if not on wild fruit, then on rhubarb pulled from the garden or dried wheat straight from the granary,” or on rosehips in the fall, “the leathery skin with its rich red paste on the underside” (128-29). “To be there was to always have our senses full,” he writes (129), noting that the sky was “more immense and more sharply focused than in town” (129). But the farm was also a place of death: kittens, dogs, an old horse. “On a farm, death can’t be avoided,” Cariou writes. “We had heard the agricultural gothic of Dad’s farm stories for years, and now we saw that it was true” (132). “Death was a constant presence, and I think we were affected by that, by the physicality of it, even the necessity of it,” he continues. “Being at home there meant coming to terms with the omnipresence of mortality, and understanding that we were often responsible for the lives of the creatures that lived there with us” (132).
“We formed a bond with the place almost immediately,” Cariou recalls, “but this was not the same thing as being accepted into the farm community” (132). He was afraid of being proven inept and wimpy and fearful (as town kids were imagined to be, compared to their rural counterparts) (132). He delved into the history of the farm, digging through accumulated garbage like an archaeologist, and looking in the shop and the granaries (133-35). “Whatever their delusions may have been, it was clear that the homesteaders had indeed worked slavishly for most of their lives to make a living here, to make a home,” he notes. “I wondered if that was still the case, if there would be some test of belonging that I might have to endure” (135-36). His parents didn’t have to take such a test; they learned to farm with the help of their neighbours, who welcomed the family “with a hospitality and a generosity that was far beyond what anyone could have expected” (136-37). The neighbours often volunteered to help out with jobs on the farm without any expectation of reciprocation (137). Cariou raised a calf for the 4-H Club, and he bought a dirt bike with the money he made from selling it. That dirt bike, it seems, helped him to disprove the notion that town kids were wimps.
As Cariou and his siblings got older, the family’s weekend rambling became more elaborate; they ranged further afield and explored new places. Each place they passed “was connected to the others through webs of stories,” he recalls (146). His parents often knew farmers or ranchers, but even more, “a place was marked in Dad’s stories by the disasters that had occurred there” (146). Cariou begins to accumulate his own stories: having his boot torn off by the spiked chain that carried bales of hay into the loft of the barn (148-49), or getting lost during a deer hunt (154-59). Some of his father’s stories were connected to his work as a lawyer in Meadow Lake, although it took years before Cariou began to understand what a lawyer actually did for a living. Part of being a small-town lawyer involves making enemies: at the end of every trial, “there would always be at least one person who hated him,” Cariou recalls. “He accepted this with equanimity most of the time, but it must have been difficult, especially in such a small community where everyone knew him, and where certain grudges were passed down through the generations” (165-66). Virtually everyone knew Ray Cariou: “Native and non-Native, young and old, farmers and town dwellers” (166). Cariou’s father “was regularly exposed to the most violent and depraved aspects of our community and yet he still clearly loved the place. Not everyone would have been able to do so” (167). Ray Cariou regularly received threats—some anonymous, some not—and once someone made a threat against Cariou himself just as he was graduating from high school, something he didn’t learn about until years later (167-72). “It makes me wonder,” Cariou writes: “what else do I not know about myself?” (172).
“I think I was always going to leave Meadow Lake, at least from the age of six or seven when I discovered that it was not, after all, the centre of the universe,” Cariou writes. But when he did leave, it didn’t feel like he was leaving, because he was only going away to university and planned to return for the summer:
It’s difficult to mark a time or place or event at which I crossed from Meadow Lake to the outside world. There was no moment when I chose exile, no last look back, no great boat journey to separate me finally from the place. There were no real goodbyes; only see-you-laters. I don’t remember ever surveying the countryside with a sense of loss, of regret. I would always be back soon, and the place would be the same. There was none of the poignancy and drama of a clear break. I simply began to exist in two places: one a real home, and the other temporary, contingent, moveable. I have lived like that ever since. (176)
Nowhere he lived after leaving Meadow Lake—Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto—was home, but at the same time, his feelings of being distant from Meadow Lake gradually increased, even though he still felt that town was where he belonged (176-78). When he returned to Meadow Lake, changes were disconcerting. Sometimes the new buildings or businesses or people in the town would be welcome, but more often “they were disturbances, interruptions in the clean orderliness of my memory. Things were not supposed to change there. Perhaps complete exile from Meadow Lake would have been more comfortable than these repeated returns to a place that was no longer exactly what I remembered” (178-79).
Cariou tells a story about going to the annual Meadow Lake stampede one year, when he was working in Regina:
I was a little big smug then, a little too proud of myself for having made my way past the Height of Land, having “escaped,” as some of my fellow escapees liked to say. I had started to think of Meadow Lake as a quaint but backward place—“a good place to come from,” I told my city friends. (179)
He recalls his childhood visits to the stampede—the games, the rides, the sights and sounds and smells, and notes that after being away for eight or nine years, much of the experience was the same: “The smells of pine chips and cotton candy and cow shit were there as always” (183). He goes to watch the bull riders, and looking up into the stands, he realizes that he has become a stranger to the others watching the event (184-86): “I was no longer one of them; I was an outsider, a city boy. . . . I had become a tourist in my hometown” (187). That feeling intensifies when a group of boys calls him a “fag” and sprays the back of his pants with barbecue sauce (187-88). “I almost had to admire their gleeful, reckless xenophobia,” Cariou recalls. “How many other people in town would think the same thing as these boys, but not express it?” (188).
Up to this point in the memoir, Cariou hasn’t mentioned his Métis heritage, something I was waiting for him to do. He finally does so in a chapter entitled “Blockade.” He is living in Toronto now, going to graduate school, feeling “more and more isolated from Meadow Lake” (191). “Meanwhile,” he writes,
in Meadow Lake, things were happening. A group of Native protestors started a blockade on a logging road adjacent to a large clearcut on the way to Canoe Lake. They objected to clearcutting and refused to allow the forestry company, Mistik Management, to have access to a stockpile of logs that had been cut the previous winter. They vowed to stay there in their roadside encampment until the company changed its policies. (192)
Ray Cariou was the chair of Mistik Management and the local sawmill, which was jointly owned by the mill employees and the tribal council of ten local First Nations. “In a town where the racial divide had often kept people apart, the mill was a monument of community cooperation,” Cariou writes. “But the alliance had never been easy, and now it looked like the whole enterprise might collapse” (192). His father, he continues, “found himself at the nexus of all the major conflicts in the town: racial, economic, environmental, legal” (194). Cariou watches the situation develop on the television news and in the papers. In one report, he reads this about his father: “Cariou himself has recently affirmed his Metis heritage” (196). Cariou describes his response:
This information wasn’t entirely a shock to me, but seeing it there in the newspaper was mystifying. Dad had never “reaffirmed his Metis heritage” to us, at least not in so many words. There had been rumours in the family and comments about the dark features of some of the relatives. But Dad himself had red hair and freckles, and so did Glenn, and so did many of our cousins. The idea of publicly claiming Metis heritage was bizarre. (196-97)
Previously, Ray Cariou had said that one of their ancestors had been a voyageur, a coureur de bois, and that that ancestor, François Beaulieu, had married an Indigenous woman (197-98), but Cariou had assumed that was the end of the story. Cariou leaves that part of his story for a moment, and explains that not long after the RCMP arrested the protestors for trespassing, his father had a heart attack. “The blockade had almost killed my father,” he writes. “That was what I thought and what I knew Mom was thinking” (200).
The next chapter, “Remembering Clayton,” tells the story of Cariou’s relationship with Clayton Matchee, the soldier who participated in the murder of Shidane Arone, a Somali teenager, in 1992 in an event that led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Cariou went to school with Matchee and knew him, although not well, perhaps. But he knew him well enough to offer this analysis: “I can’t help remembering that Clayton had learned all about racism and power during his childhood and youth in Meadow Lake” (206). It is only after this discussion of racism in the town that Cariou returns to the topic of his Métis heritage. One of his aunts tells him that all of his ancestors on his father’s side had been Métis (219). “Where do I come from?” Cariou asks himself. “The story I had been telling myself all of my life was incomplete, incorrect. Norway, France, Germany, my mother’s belly, my hometown, yes. But Indian? How could that be?” (219-20). The silence in his family about their background, he continues, “is not at all surprising, given the prejudices against Native people and against the Metis in particular” (220):
Many Metis were pushed off their lands after the rebellion, by soldiers and then by settlers. After this, most of them had absolutely nothing: no home, no pride, no status in the eyes of the nation. They were at the absolute bottom of the social scale, lower even that the Status Indians, who at least had some land and the dubious honour of treaties. In the great dispersal of Metis people after the rebellion, it was no wonder that many of them chose to suppress their Metis identity when they moved to new places. Passing as white was a survival technique; those who couldn’t do that would often try to pass as Cree. The result was that generations of Metis were born into a vast canyon of forgetting. (221)
Different members of his family responded to having “been shaken into remembering” (221) in different ways. “For me,” Cariou writes,
the knowledge did matter. I started to wonder if I really was the person I had thought I was, if I really belonged where I had assumed I did. I found myself in a between-space, a location that the logic of Meadow Lake didn’t allow. It was impossible to be both a Native Person and a non-Native person; the two notions were mutually exclusive. (222)
Cariou sensed he might not be believed if he told others the story, but the secrecy left him feeing guilty, and while he wondered if it was hypocritical to make a public announcement about his Métis heritage, “to keep that aspect of my family’s past a secret also felt wrong, was a perpetuation of the racial divide that had existed for so long in Meadow Lake and across the continent” (222).
“Once I had mentioned the family secret to a few people,” he recalls, “it began to take on a life of its own, and I started to wish I had kept it to myself” (223). That was particularly true when he became a published writer:
A few years later, when I ended up being called “a Metis writer” in the national media, I realized that I had to think seriously about the ways I would advertize my identity. And the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that I simply don’t feel like I am exclusively an aboriginal person. I have some Metis ancestry, and I have been raised among many Native people, but I didn’t grow up with the sense that I was one, and I have never learned their cultures from the perspective of an insider. I feel closely connected to Native people, and particularly to the Metis, but it doesn’t seem quite right to claim that I am one. I am instead a little of this and a little of that; a child of the heterogenous multitudes. I come from half the globe, and I come from Meadow Lake. (224)
This feeling isn’t unusual, he suggests, since demographers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of Canadians have some Indigenous ancestry but either don’t know it or don’t care to admit to it. Cariou then returns to Clayton Matchee’s story:
I think of this in relation to myself and Clayton Matchee. When we were growing up, people were considered either Native or white, and that distinction went a long way toward deciding what you were going to do in life. Clayton and I had been placed on different sides of the division. But the more I have learned about us, the more I see that the very idea of this division is a falsehood. I have gleaned all the benefits, while Clayton and many others have suffered devastating discrimination. What is the real difference between us? (226)
Then he returns to his Métis grandmother, a powerful presence in his memory:
I wonder if she was consciously keeping her Metis past a secret, or if she had simply moved on to another way of thinking about herself. Perhaps she did still think of herself as Metis all along but saw no need to make an issue of it, to declare it repeatedly and publicly. It’s hard to know whether there was ever really a secret at all. (229)
While Cariou does not know how his grandmother identified herself, he does note that when he went to bingo with her, it was “the one public occasion when I wasn’t afraid of Indians” (238).
In subsequent chapters, Cariou explores his memories of his maternal grandparents; tells the story about how he met Alison, his wife; and tells the story of his father’s death. When he returned to Meadow Lake for the funeral, he experienced an outpouring of support from the town:
I saw something that made me understand why Mom and Dad lived there. The people know each other in small towns, and while that knowledge can be grating at times, at other times it is the basis of a necessary community support. There were friends, relatives, and neighbours with us for days, cooking and cleaning and talking, just working to keep the household going. (297)
After the tears came stories: “we overflowed with stories,” Cariou recalls. “Dad was intensely, palpably present. He had become his stories” (298). He also became the farm itself: “He became this place, too, as the days went on. He had in fact spent his life becoming this place, and it was only now that we really understood it” (298). As the mourners walked around the farm, taking in Ray’s garden and the trees he had planted, they realized that “[t]he whole place was imprinted with him, and as we walked, separately and in groups, we came to understand the geography of mourning” (298-99).
After the funeral, Cariou returned to Vancouver, where he was teaching. “Whenever I got back home I was overwhelmed by the place and the memories that were waiting there for me,” he recalls. “It was no longer just a home; it was also the scene of a vague and inescapable fear” (308). One day he returned to the house in Meadow Lake where the family had lived before moving to the farm. That house, he writes, “had become little more than a symbol of my childhood, an empty structure to be furnished with stories” (312). Something similar is true about the farm: it is now a place of stories as well, not only of the Cariou family but of the people who lived there before as well:
I like to think that the land doesn’t forget, that our stories echo somewhere around our places, and that it only takes an inquisitive soul to come along and listen for them.
Yes: places have voices. I listen more carefully than I used to. I seek them out, especially the ones that might have been forgotten. Last summer I learned about one such place in the heart of my hometown. (313)
That place was the town’s Old Cemetery, part of the original meadow, where the original homesteaders had been buried. “I felt unaccountably like I was visiting the oldest part of my home, the place with the most history, the most voices,” Cariou writes (314). And he ends by thinking of his father walking in that place: “I wondered what stories he told himself about these people and their place. For a moment, I thought I could hear his voice” (315).
Place and identity are complex, in Cariou’s rendering. They are enmeshed, and they exist in story. That is what connects this book to my own research. I’m not planning to return to the place where I grew up, and I’m not sure that my research will enable me to come to know any places as intimately as Cariou knows Meadow Lake or his parents’ farm. And I’m more certain now that spaces become places through repeated encounters, through the existence of multiple narratives, through an investment of time and energy. But surely there are different kinds of places. I’m not sure Cariou is correct when he dismisses other places where he’s lived as non-places in comparison to Meadow Lake. I mean, I’ve lived in Regina for 20 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and I wouldn’t say that this place is unimportant compared to the place where I grew up. Perhaps there are places one knows intimately, the way Cariou knows Meadow Lake, and then there are other places one knows less well. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe, if those places, have voices, they would be able to tell stories about us even if we don’t know them the way Cariou knows his home town. In any case, Lake of the Prairies is a powerful account of the complexities of identity and place and their relation to stories, and it’s given me a lot to consider in relation to these issues.
Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.