A kitbomb is a popular term in the Canadian Armed Forces, referring to the mess that results when a soldier (usually a panicky recruit on basic training) careless rifles through their ruck sack or duffel bag, leaving clothes scattered everywhere and making a bigger problem for themselves then when they started[1].  I’m mentioning this because this whole chapter in Uprising seems to be a case of Bland frantically unpacking one thing after another, without concern for logic or organization.

Needless to say, it’s turning into quite a mess:⁠    

Bill Whitefish sat thinking about the upcoming meeting, one that he was sure would sap him of most of his energy.  And he thought about Molly.  Molly had called the meeting that morning.  She wanted to meet with the Native People’s Council to, as she said privately to Bill, “straighten out some policies and some people.”  Nothing unusual there, Bill thought.  Molly watching everyone and commanded everything.  She relied on a few trusted workers, like Bill, and some others tasked directly by Molly to watch and listen for her.  As the operation began to unfold, Molly’s insiders informed her that several members of the Council were openly questioning her judgement and the whole operation.  Bill knew that Molly intended to confront the doubters before they infected the entire compound.  

Bill expected the next hours would be rough, but he knew Molly and understood who would come out on top.  Yet as he prepared for the meeting he wondered, as he had occasionally, if perhaps Molly’s fierce determination to lead the people, the very thing that held him to her, might not be too determined and too fierce to hold everyone else to her and to the cause.

He had see her magic effect on people before and couldn’t help recalling the time in Winnipeg when he was confused and worried about himself and his people and the aimlessness of most of the talk he heard from the usual aboriginal leaders and chiefs.  It was the accidental collision of that state of mind and his first encounter with Molly Grace that brought him in to the movement some four years ago.

And with those three paragraphs, Bland stomps his foot firmly on the brakes for the plot line.  The next 50+ pages in the novel deal with an extended flash back sequence that Bill Whitefish has about the night he met Molly Grace.  So if you were expecting this “day” to end with a fiery confrontation between the Movement’s leader and its council…well we are going to get that, but first we’re going to have to wade through a chapter’s worth of memories.

Believe it or not, this is the scene I’ve been eagerly waiting for.  In a novel bogged down with repetitive briefings and reports, here’s a chance to see Molly Grace on the ground level, in amongst the people.  Here’s a chance to show what’s really pushing the rebellion forward and why so many thousands of Indigenous People will soon be risking their lives to fight the Canadian government.

We start with Bill Whitefish, who’s been preparing for Molly Grace’s meeting with the Native Peoples Council, pausing to reflect back on a time four years ago to when he first met the Movement’s charismatic leader in Winnipeg.  As a literary device a pause like this can work well as a break from the tension, giving the audience the chance to catch their breath.  For it to work here, there would have to be some tension to break, but still, I’ve been waiting for this for some time now so I’m prepared to cut Bland a little slack.

Bill Whitefish was Cree, born and raised on the Norway House Cree Nation reserve on the Nelson River north of Lake Winnipeg.  Life for the boy, and the young man, had been rough, save for his mother’s warm and protective embrace.  Other families may have suffered from neglect, but Suzy Whitefish was determined to raise her six children right and get them out of the reserve life into a more promising future.  And she did.  

Bill grew up with few belongings except those provided by the vast lake and forest at his door, storehouses few Canadians appreciate.  But he escaped the temptations of mischief and booze that led many of his friends to careen into delinquency, a brush with the law, then a dead end of lost possibilities.  Bill didn’t just finish high school, he did well enough to earn his teachers’ recommendation for university in the south.  When a provincial program for higher education for native people landed on his principal’s desk, Bill was the chosen candidate and was immediately successful.  In September 1995, he took his first flight, in a small, noisy commuter plane up, out, and over the great shining lake.  He never came back.

One thing that jumped out at me as I typed this quote is the fact that there’s no mention of Bill’s father (or other family like aunties or uncles).  Assuming that one man was the father of all six of Suzy Whitefish’s children[2] and is no longer in the picture, the most likely possibility is that he’s dead.  Even so, it’s strange that Bill would not only have no contact with the mother who loved him so, not with any of his siblings (you’d think at least one other brother or sister got out as well).

So we start off with Bill Whitefish’s backstory, which actually makes some sense.  Raised on the Reservation but lucky enough to have a strong, determined mother, he managed to avoid alcohol and violence, graduate High School and get accepted into University (where he studied “politics and commerce”).  Despite a tremendous culture shock Whitefish beat the odds and graduated, discovering his true calling along the way helping at risk Aboriginal youths living on Winnipeg’s streets.

The north Main Street’s drifting “at risk” native kids became Bill’s purpose.  Even before he finished university, he volunteered to work as a part-time counsellor at the First Nations Family Office in the Noquay Community Centre in the South Point Douglas district off Main Street.  After graduate school, Bill had taken a permanent position there and worked with kids and families for several years.  After a while, however, he felt increasingly overwhelmed by he endless flow of broken lives that stepped though [sic] his door every day.

It’s a bit odd to hear Bland describe Whitefish becoming a Social Worker without actually using the term.  That is what Bill has become, even though he doesn’t have the educational background for it and Bland doesn’t seem to know what a Social Worker does.  While anyone can volunteer to lend a hand, formal Social Work usually requires a mixture of counselling, sociology, public administration and law.  Jumping into the deep end like this with a Masters in…politics and commerce (???) would have been like a second culture shock for him.

There’s no mention of what organization Bill’s working for.  If they have full-time employees then presumably it’s a fairly big one with a stable source of funding.  Provincial government perhaps? Or maybe something supported by the local chiefs and their reserves?  This would make sense, except that an organization like this should have some clout in terms of helping their clients, and presumably some senior members who could mentor this young, idealistic politics & commerce student from Norway House.

The way Bland describes, it almost sounds like Bill Whitefish is working freelance as an independent.  When we join him, the young man is having a rough night.  He just spent the afternoon fighting to keep a young Indigenous kid from being thrown into jail only to watch the young man walk straight out the door of the police precinct into the car of a waiting gang leader (yes, it’s that blatant).  Now he’s feeling down:

One day had been more frustrating and depressing than usual.  He had just spent another long, difficult afternoon arguing with some local cops at the King Street and James Avenue station about a young delinquent Bill wanted to send home to the Sandy Hook First Nation.  The beat cops wanted to throw the kid into the system.  Finally, around 4:00 p.m. the boy was released into his care and custody.  But as soon as they stepped out of the police station, the boy promptly ran off with a gang leader who had been waiting for him most of the afternoon.  Bill stood in the street humiliated and defeated before the cynical cops he’d just convinced to let the boy go.  Dejected, he scolded himself, “Why even try to help these kids?  I’m just wasting my time.  I’m getting nowhere and neither are they.”

This would be where an older mentor would be vital to shore up the faith of a young idealist.  A seasoned social worker would hardly be surprised by something like this.  Nor would they be writing this kid off as a total loss.  Battered wives return to their husbands, homeless youth will return to their gangs.  Getting free is a process, not an event, and it’s going to involve a lot of setbacks and delays.  The fact that he went straight back to the gang  certainly not a reason to give up[3].

If you’re thinking that Bill’s emotional musings above sound a bit like the expository text of a right wing white guy, consider the following exchange when his colleague Alan Lathlin shows up.

Alan Lathlin was Cree too, born on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, a thriving, well-managed reserve just north of The Pas.  He worked for a downtown law office where he specialized in matters dealing with aboriginal people and the law.  He and Bill had cooperated occasionally on juvenile cases that had gone off the rails.  “Out of the office early aren’t you, pal?”

“Bad day, Al.  You know, another kid gone over to the gangs.  Thought I had him in hand, but what do I know, really?”

“That bad, eh?  So what now?”

“I don’t know actually.  Don’t even know if we’re on the right track at all.  You know how it is.  The kids come in or are picked up, then they’re counselled and returned to the street only to continue their descent into hell.  It’s always the same: crappy, low-paying jobs, or aimlessness, unemployment, petty crime, prostitution, booze and drugs.  

‘The gangs’ huh?

Their conversation goes on for a while, with each person speaking in pundit talking points.  I don’t necessarily hate expository dialogue, Aaron Sorkin basically writes in essays, and I’m a huge fan of the Newsroom.  But Sorkin offsets his essay-like monologues by making them funny or passionate, and uses them to reveal more about the characters making the speech.

Bland…well, he’s definitely revealing something:

“You’re right, Al.  Countless native kids have tried to follow the ‘just go to a city and get a job’ idea but the transition is way too difficult.  And after they fail in the cities, they go to jail or drift back to the reserves stripped of any sense of worth they might have had before they left.  Back home, the grievances multiply as the road to the future narrows to a dirt trail then peters out entirely.  These ruined kids become bad examples – complaining about governments and the whites and on and on – all the unfairness cause by everyone but themselves and their native leaders.  Their bad-mouthing contaminates the next generation.”

Wow.  Just…wow.  Bland really went there.  Halfway through this last paragraph I was almost agreeing with him:  Culture shock coupled with a lack of formal education or preparation set up young people for failure, right from the get go.  Couple this with a city full of crime and violence ready to take advantage and a criminal justice system that often dismisses them as criminals in training, and you got yourself some pretty bleak prospects. Even the ones that escape back to their homes only serve to bring back a sense of defeat and hopelessness…

…And with the last two sentences Bland turns it into an ugly bit of victim blaming.

If Bland was more clever as a writer, I’d wonder if Bill Whitefish was meant to be an unreliable narrator.  His embittered victim-blaming comes just pages after the description of how he only got his education through the support of a government program designed to help Indigenous youth.   There’s a serious sense of ‘I got mine fuck you’ going on here that could make Bill a genuinely loathsome in a better-written novel.  Sadly, I think the more likely answer is that he and Bland forgot about the good fortune in his background as soon as the words appeared on the page.

However, there’s the hint of something actually insightful towards the end of this conversation: Al invites Whitefish to a meeting where Molly Grace will be speaking.  Bill is reluctant but Al convinces him:

Bill stood up to walk on.  Al held him by the sleeve of his coat and motioned for him to sit down again. 

“Actually Bill, she’s here; your native ideologue.  Tonight, at the United Church hall on Westminster.  I’ve seen her before, spoken with her, in fact.”

“Who is she?  A local politician, I suppose?”

“No she’s from out of town […] But Molly Grace is the real thing, Bill.  I do some work for her and her groups out here.  Pro bono, of course.  Let her use my offices for meetings with the local chiefs and manage some of her, ah, well, her files and deals with the government here in Winnipeg and in Ottawa.  Nothing big, really.”

“I recall the name now, Al.  Heard of her a couple of times when I was working with community groups over in the Douglas Point area.  Saw her [on] the television too.  Some of the young people there are all charged up about this person, though no one had ever met her.  Just another fiery radical as I see it.  Out to excite the crowds and make some money, I suppose.”

“Not at all, Bill.  Not at all.  Molly Grace has a message, a very real message.  Why don’t you join me?  That’s why I’m out of the office early.  Come on along.”

Okay two quick points before we move on:

  1. This passage confirms that Molly Grace has had official dealings with different levels of the Canadian government.  This is relevant because earlier passages treated her like a myth and later on government leaders in Ottawa will act as though they had never heard of her before.
  2. It’s a hell of a thing for somebody who grew up in the 90s, studied politics and physically lives in Winnipeg to be so derisive about Indigenous politicians.  Never mind the fact that this conversation is taking place in the shadow of the statue of Louis Riel, Bill Whitefish was coming of age at the time when one of these local politicians – a Cree member of the Provincial Assembly named Elijah Harper – stopped the Meech Lake Accord in its tracks.  Yes, the Federal government’s last major attempt to revise the Canadian constitution was brought to a screeching halt by some local politician[4].

Now, all of that aside, this part of the conversation does actually flow better than the rest.  The language here is not unlike that of a religious proselletizing.  I don’t have the answers, but I know who does.  His Her name is Jesus!  Molly Grace! I’m not sure if this was meant to be intentional, but this kind of predatory recruiting pitch using the language of evangelical witnessing is one of the few things so far in this book that rings true.

So Bill Whitefish is a kid who beat the odds, only to find the world full of injustice that his best efforts couldn’t resolve.  Now, at a particularly low moment he is approached by a man who offers him answers and comfort, and he will be drawn into the web of a dangerous Native Radical.  This actually sounds plausible.

Now let’s see how Molly Grace lives up to her hype.

 

***Today’s featured image is of Elijah Harper, the ‘local politician’ who (according to Bland) couldn’t possibly hope to make a difference.  In this image (a still frame from news footage at the time) he is casting his vote against the Meech Lake Accord.  Single-handedly making a difference.***

anImage_1.tiff

[1] When I first joined up in 2001, there was also the word ‘jabokney’ [sic?] which basically meant the same thing.  It isn’t used much any more, and I still don’t know where the term came from, but it was a awesomely unsettling word to hear your Sgt spit out (like he was clearing his throat) during an inspection.

[2] I’m going to assume there was only one father, mainly because a woman tough enough to raise six children singlehandedly doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who’d get knocked up by multiple men who all leave her.

[3] An older mentor could also maybe chastise him if Bill’s intervention was badly planned.  Sure, he got the kid out of jail, but did he have a place for him to stay?  A plane/bus ticket back to his reserve?  Did the kid have friends of family in the city who could have lent support to counter-balance the draw of the gang?  You gotta plan these things out!

[4] Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that, but he did take a stand on his own (and against his party’s wishes) and he did become a living folk hero because of it.  Also, while Elijah Harper was born in Red Sucker Lake reserve, he went to school in…Norway House!  We’ll talk more about him later.

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