This is what empire looks like.
On Friday we headed out to a First Nations Community with a cheesecake, a book, and cases of bottled water.
Brandon Doxtator meets us outside of the Oneida Community Centre. He's proud of the impressive building and its solar panels. They cost millions, but the panels, which supply about half of the energy, will pay off in a couple of decades. They're moving, he says, towards "self-determination, energy sovereignty and building a net-zero nation." Nation. Remember that word.
Other matters have taken decades to resolve. Others will take longer still. In the twenty-first century, in one of world's wealthiest countries, in the Great Lakes Basin, where driving in virtually any direction will take you to more fresh water than many people see in a lifetime, the Oneida community has been under a boil-water advisory since 2019.
The money's finally coming, but at least nine First Nations communities in Ontario have water issues, and he's keen to make people outside of those communities aware. Walkerton, Ontario, had contaminated water in May of 2000. It became a national scandal, was quickly addressed, led to people being charged, and contributed to the ousting of the provincial government in the next election. When it happens to the First Nations, they have to make a little noise to get attention.
Brandon's a big man, passionate and compassionate.
Nancy and I first met in another century at a performance of The Rez Sisters. We attended another production, years later, enacted by FN youth. Thompson Highway, the playwright, was in the house for that one, and we got to meet him. He was tickled that his work brought together a couple who were now married. A younger Brandon played Nanabush, the only male role. I can still see a bit of that character in him now, champion and trickster and builder. He later taught me a few words in Oneida, a language fighting to re-establish itself.
We lost contact until he started turning up on the news. My wife, Nancy, organized a speaking engagement which sold out and gave him another opportunity to be an ambassador to, in this particular instance, church folk seeking the way forward after finally absorbing that many of the institutions which they attend had once played a pivotal role in cultural genocide.
The event started late, and the illustrious speaker had to forego dessert to start his presentation. Nancy promised him she'd bring him a fresh cheesecake. He knew that I'd written books, and was interested in Live Nude Aliens and Other Stories She said I'd bring a copy. Three weeks later we drove out. We brought the bottled water at his request; the community centre distributes these, and visitors are encouraged to donate.
The road there winds, but you know you're going in the right direction when you come to Littlewood on the Friday night of a long weekend. A line of cars heads Oneida way. The road on the outskirts of the community boasts at least four gas stations selling cheaper gas, stores selling inexpensive smokes, and a few places advertising inexpensive bud and 'shrooms. A community of a little over 2000 people does not need that many, say, gas stations. They're selling to the surrounding towns and cities. It's good business for the... I almost wrote, rez.
But they are a nation. They are strong on that point. This group bought the land in 1840. Between the community centre and the baseball diamond, young children frolic in a well-kept playground. Old trees shade houses.
We packed the cheesecake with icepacks. Nancy recommends that Brandon refrigerate it. "It won't last that long," he says.
The gas station we use, after our visit, seems like any number of rural places where I've filled up over the years. A large, friendly dog greets us at the door. He needs a bath but, given the current issues, that's no surprise. Some local women talk in the store. And yeah, there's a guy outside drinking from a tallboy.
But you'll see that where we live, too. Within walking distance of our house, the high school custodians have hired a night-time security guard, because they're sick of picking up things dropped by the homeless and halfway-homeless, needles and faeces.
Two weeks ago we attended a play in that high school auditorium, one assembled from different parts than The Rez Sisters. It takes place at the turn of the millennium, but hearkens back to the music of the 1970s. Not punk or funk or art rock or disco, but whatever ABBA recorded.
I never disliked Abba. Their music was omnipresent during my early adolescence, and I found it pleasant enough, catchy jingles reminiscent of old show tunes. It wasn't my thing, though. I never bought any of their records. By the time I was a high school kid working operator for a DJ service, they had passed their prime. We still played hits like "Dancing Queen," though.
Then the Jukebox Musicals conquered the West End and Broadway. Mamma Mia! became a hit and Hollywood made a movie. A niece received that version one Christmas, and insisted we watch it that evening. I, turkey-stuffed, fell asleep after the opening and woke up during the finale. I figured I’d escaped something.
Later, my wife and I caught a professional production. Mamma Mia! does a decent job of creating a coherent tale that the songs never intended to tell. It's clever premise holds greater dramatic and comic potential than the writers cared to address. It develops a few of the characters and then revels in the songs. When I want to revel in songs, I would prefer a concert. But we enjoyed it. It was a professional production, slickly done.
And then we forgot about it.
Until the high school announced as their first live show, post-pandemic. We attended closing night-- the energy levels were high, and I asked the director how much of the budget had gone to cocaine. In reality, young people have seemingly infinite energy, in this case directed at two eras they'd never experienced. Whether they did better than the professionals is a matter of debate. I would argue, however, that the kids delivered a more entertaining take on the sparkly, spangly show. The performers playing Donna and Sophie had talent to spare, excellent singing voices (the opinion not just of a casual listener such as myself, but of my soprano wife). They also captured the chemistry of mother and daughter, despite being only seventeen. Dancing was above-average for high school. Feel that beat on the tambourine.
The mildly risqué humour felt, coming from kids, uncorrupted.
And ye gods, the energy!
But youth will give way to old age.
The next day, we drove an hour to a restaurant on the shores of Lake Huron. We had to get through an unexpected Sikh parade, lots of colour that redirected traffic, but the delay was brief.
Laurel's birthday dinner took place near Zurich, Ontario– curiously, the town on which I mapped the one in my mock-Lovecraftian tale, "The Shade at Aseneith." The actual, brick-building community, to my knowledge, lacks eldritch horrors. Its biggest oddity is the decision by two different Christian denominations, in a town with fewer than 1000 inhabitants, to give their churches the same name. In any case, Laurel was turning 95. Although no shortage of descendants attended– grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews– it's fair to say a lot of the people in the room were markedly older. A woman sat beside Laurel, a charming, smiling woman with a dowager's hump. They met as adults, and have known each other longer than I've been alive.
Speeches, a buffet, cake, and conversation.
A week after that, we met our new great-niece for the first time.
Age and youth, right? She'll get there.
High school in another, what? Fourteen years?
So what, exactly, is an alt-prom?. There appears to be no exactly. Okay, sure, it's a prom where everyone's welcome. Regular prom is for seniors (of the academic teen, not the old-aged, variety) and people dating seniors. This one allows everyone in, though I'm not entirely certain what makes it a prom, instead of a dance.
More prominently, however, we see in line the kids who might feel less welcome at a traditional prom. Yes, at this school queer couples can turn up at prom prom with comparatively little worry. Still, it's not all sunshine and rainbows, and there's no missing that the "Alt" attendees trended towards kids who identify somewhere on the LGBTQ2S+.
I was there to be an adult presence while they set up. I had a few tasks: liaised with the custodial staff and oversaw the pre-dance search of the washrooms for hidden contraband. None turned up, so this group was either cleaner or more cunning than most.
The school's charge custodian used to do a fair bit of freelance writing, back in the day. I brought him a slick, short-lived magazine from twenty-something years ago, with an article by his younger self. Other people I know are in that one. One has become a successful writer of local history and True Crime. Another has since died. Thumbnail photos accompany the written pieces. The custodian had the beard then, too. It's grey now. He smiled, but later complained to me that they never did pay him for the article.
I left once the dancing started. I heard that all went well, and everyone had a great time.
This weekend ends with Victoria Day. Whether celebrating colonialism and empire remains viable is an open question, but no one wants to lose the long weekend.
Those FN-run shops also do a brisk trade in fireworks.