A paper for those of us a little older…
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Full Circle by Gail Linklater

June 2017

I went North at the beginning of my first career as a teacher in 1970. Forty years later I returned as a social worker at the end of my second career.
People often ask when I retired. My usual response is, ‘I haven’t retired.’ But, in a way I have! When you love what you’re doing, it is not work. Without a doubt I love what I’m doing!
I started providing mental health crisis support on Northern Reserves in 2011 at an age many of my colleagues were retiring.
Sometimes I glibly respond, ‘I can’t afford to retire. I worked for non-profits and have no pension!’ Or, ‘I can’t afford to retire, I have too many cats to feed!’ Both of these circumstances are true; however, neither is the real reason why I can’t afford to retire.
Drumroll please! The real reason I can’t afford to retire is heart based not financial! I could probably make it without the income. But I don’t know how I would get along without the level of intense human engagement, the growth, the curiosity and the learning! In both my Northern careers I have been educated and entertained; enlightened and emotionally gratified.
I sometimes see my return to the North as an opportunity to redeem myself for my youthful ignorance and naivety. I regret not knowing what I hadn’t yet the opportunity to learn. I regret some of the sharp edges of my personality not yet smoothed down by life and experience. Unrealistic regrets but real regrets nonetheless.
Now that I am older, I listen better. I let go of the need to be right with some tact. I have no need to judge or criticize.
Of course, those lessons came from living 40 years on and off reserve. The lessons came from making mistakes and fessing up. The lessons came from futile arguments and feuds; from witnessing births and deaths; from struggling with destructive habits and from losses and victories. In other words, the lessons came from my lived experience as a fallible, fragile human being. And, from the ultimate acceptance of my human being-ness! I’m not a god or goddess! Although I am unique; I am not special. Or no more special than anyone else.
From the position of a 67 year old human being living in the bush, on a lake, with a house full of cats and a yard full of wind chimes I travel to the North open to the experiences awaiting me.
More recently I see my return to the North as the means to experience life on life’s terms. Often in Northern Ontario life’s terms are harsh, cruel and insensible. How can so many young people kill themselves before their lives have even begun? How can families live in conditions where even the most basic human needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met? How can communities address rampant substance use?
At the same time, in Northern Ontario life’s terms include: fishing, cookouts, feasts, jamborees and sweat lodges. Family and communities gathering to celebrate or to mourn!
I am not in charge. So unlike the young teacher with scripted lesson plans I go to the North ready to embrace and honour whatever experiences await. And I am never disappointed.
My goal is to not disappoint in return.

May 2017
I often think of a Buffy Ste. Marie song of the late 60’s: “little wheel spin and spin; big wheel turn around and round.” I know she meant it as a statement against the immutability of the systems in the world; however, for me, the line reminds me of how patterns spin and spin in my life while the big wheel of my existence turns around and around. The daily, weekly, monthly, yearly patterns and repetitions within the context of my existence.
Sometimes I stop and question the reliability of the spin and spin. Why am I doing this? What is the meaning? And sometimes the spin and spin takes place at a deeper unknowing level until after years of spin and spin there is a niggling deep inside me letting me know something is going on and needs attention.
I often think of a big lifestyle design that I recently resurrected. In 1970 in my first profession I went to work on First Nation Northern reserves as a teacher. I spent 3 ½ school years on isolated and semi-isolated reserves teaching. What a trip… as we used to say!
I was introduced to a lifestyle foreign to my own, both in terms of culture and social and physical isolation. In those days there was only a radio phone for communication and the whole north could listen in on the call. And did! There were no airports. The planes landed on the water in the summer and on the frozen lakes and rivers in the winter. In between, during freeze up and break up there were no planes. There was no television, radio and no newspapers. There was a small Hudson’s Bay store and a couple of entrepreneurial spots to buy pop and chips after hours of the Hudson’s Bay Store.
There were still a number of families visiting trap lines for months on end. We would watch them return with their canoes loaded down with furs and tired people coming home with stories and adventures to share.
There were community feasts accompanying weddings and celebrations. There was movie night hosted by the priest. He would rent movies and show them in a large room. We would pay a dollar each to cover the cost of the rental. One time during freeze up that lasted 5 or 6 weeks we watched the same John Wayne movie 4 times: Rio Grande, I believe it was called. By the fourth time we were yelling out the lines and groaning during certain sections. But you know what? I’m sure if the priest had shown it a fifth time we would have all been there. It was a grand social time.
Speaking of social the best was the square dances. And I use the term ‘square’ very loosely. There would be a huge circle of 20 to 30 couples just ‘a la manding’ left and ‘a la manding’ right. The musicians were awesome: self-taught, fiddle and guitar players, along with a self- taught dance caller.
And there were stories of windigoes and ferocious lone wolves that would come in and kill the dogs at night leaving behind the empty chain that had kept the dog home. I learned a lot about the North.
Sometimes the loneliness of living so far from my family and my known existence left me crying. And sometimes the joy of rushing to a plane as the call went out “pemesaywiin!” There were no schedules in those days, planes came when they could, if they could. The first people to hear the drone of the engine would yell, “pemesaywin” and we would all rush to the landing dock to see who and what had arrived.
Back to Buffy Ste. Marie, 40 years later I returned to the north. This time I came as a social worker providing mental health and crisis support. After my adult years in the city it was time for me to return to the place where I grew up – Northern Ontario. I knew why I had to return.
In some ways I felt like I was seeking redemption for the innocence of my early 20’s. Redemption for not seeing the things I didn’t see as a school teacher fresh out of Teachers College. Having gained a social work perspective I felt guilty at times for not knowing what I didn’t know and not recognizing what I couldn’t recognize.
The North held no grudges. And it soothes my heart to be greeted as an old friend. And it fills me with a sense of privilege to meet and know and work with people of the North once again.
It seems I got carried away in reminiscing and ran out of space to draw the comparison my limited human mind wanted to draw. Later I will tell you more about how this ‘spin and spin’ of returning to the north as my professional swan song has illuminated and healed the big wheel of my existence that turns ‘around and round.’ But for now my life has come full circle.

Feb. 2017

By way of introduction let me say, I’m that crazy old lady who lives in the bush with 7 cats and 2 dogs. I talk to the birds, have over 20 wind chimes and have become proficient with a slingshot.
I wasn’t always a crazy old lady. I wasn’t always old and often I wasn’t a lady. But, crazy, most of my life I have considered myself crazy. Most of my life people have tried to convince me see things differently than I do.
For years I worried about my sanity. I worried that others would find out and lock me away. I became very adept at passing for sane. The truth is I have seldom seen the world and people the way others describe them. Delusional? Paranoid?
I don’t want to be a ‘mom basher’ but it really is my mother’s fault. She taught me to think for myself: ‘If everyone else jumped out a window would you jump out, too?” She taught me to treat everyone kindly and not to judge others. She taught me to look for similarities with others and not for differences. She said I didn’t have to like everyone but I had to treat everyone with kindness. Of course, she also said, that I was never to hit anyone unless they hit me first then I better darned well hit last.
So you see, it was mom’s fault! I grew up abhorring bullies. What can I say? I hated the haters! I bullied the bullies! It didn’t matter who you were, adult or child, if you hit someone in my presence, I hit last. And that is where I learned to be sneaky. In order to get in the last hit with someone with more power, you have to be sneaky. And I felt justified!
With some maturity, I recognized my twisted justifications for ill actions towards bullies and came to believe that even bullies deserved kindness. More importantly, I deserved the personal well-being and peace of mind that comes with doing no harm.
My mother gave me the passion and the skills for being a strong advocate. Being an advocate, I developed a degree of tenacity and a certain desire to understand. For both my mother’s and my sake, let me add here and now, I only use these skills for the power of good! I became a social worker!!!
Years later I went to university and became a social worker. Then years later, with awareness gained through living life, meeting like-minded people who appeared pretty sane, and through suffering and learning I became an even better social worker.
Having had 2 careers in the north: the first as a teacher in the early 70’s and more recently as a social worker providing crisis response to northern Nishinawbek communities I want to use my white middleclass privilege to shed light on northern issues.
I helped detour traffic from the corner of Memorial and Harbour Expressway December 5 in support of the Dakotas pipeline protest. One of the key themes throughout this protest has been “water is life.” Yet most of the northern Reserves do not have drinkable water. Even following the boil water advisory, the water is discoloured and has a taste. Last week, while up north I bought water: 2 litres for $9.15. On a 6 day visit I went through 4 jugs of water. Not affordable for families of local people.
Water is life. Water is a human right. Yet many people in Canada do not have potable water. Where are the media? Where are the protests?
Elders with limited mobility live in old wooden houses heated by wood stoves. They know, and they say they know, if there is ever a fire, they will not get out alive. Where are the media? Where are the protests?
Recently, I was in a northern community for a funeral of a very young girl. Four chiefs were in the room. Three Nishinawbek ministers were in the room. Three crisis teams were in the community providing on-site practical support. And visitors from many communities were in the room. That is northern reality. When there is a crisis, when there is a tragedy, people come to love and support. They bring money and food.
I hope to use this column as the means to inform others about the northern realities; the daily realities; the big and the small realities; the happy and the sad realities. Just be aware that these realities are filtered through the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual eyes of a crazy old white woman who lives in the bush with 7 cats and 2 dogs and talks to birds.