The old ways come in right handy when the new stuff fails you


Cathy Elliott on the plane homeward boundATTAWPISKAT – 12:30pm: I’m on the plane heading south. There was about two inches of snow on the tarmak. Just said good-bye for now to Wayne Potts the Vice Principal of the school. He came to the Inn to exchange files and arrange a ride for me to the airport. Good thing I answered the phone in my room. We had to scramble because of the snow. Thunder Air called and asked me to come early. They had a freight plane heading straight to Timmins and I was ready. Yup, I had already packed and had my salami and cheese sandwich in my hand when I got into the random truck that Wayne flagged down on the street.

God. I love this place.

The driver is a hip-hop artist working in Att hauling gravel for the new school. I don’t have his name, but I’ll get it from Wayne. He was at our concert last night. I’d like him to be involved somehow at our next song writing clinic. Maybe with the high school students.

The lady at the hotel, who was always fighting a losing battle with the mud and the people who burned their steaks in her good frying pan and left dirty dishes in the sink- chatted with me before I left. I had played for her one of the new songs that we wrote. (I hope my singing and playing didn’t drive people nuts! I could hear people sneezing down the hall. Thanks, folks for your patience with me.) She asked me if I’m Native and I told her yes. Mi’kamq. She said, “Oh! That’s why you have such a big voice.” I laughed and said, yeah. I come from a long line of loud people. Laurence said that I’m a “Windy”. (Born in June) A story teller. A trickster. I guess that’s true.

Attawapiskat StudentsIf anyone from communities like Attawapiskat is reading this, please note: We always look for artists from the communities we visit. Sometimes news doesn’t get word out to those artists, and we’ll try our best to make sure that that news gets out better. There’s a reason that I’m meeting the local talent on my way out. It means that we’ll have a talent bank from which to draw for the next visit. And there will be a next visit. (Funding willing!)

Now it’s time for the next step in this workshop: Finesse the songs for Youtube. I’ve heard that the wonderful teacher Rhonda will work with the teachers and students on a booklet with their songs and names in it, to preserve for posterity. I hope they do some pictures and photos to illustrate their ideas and the narrative of these songs. That would be an amazing book! They also want to practice the songs and do their own versions of the songs, with them singing. I hope they do. That would be an amazing gift for me, personally. I’d love that. For them to sustain the pride they had last night at the concert.

1:15pm: I’m high above the clouds, and Attawapiskat is already too distant. I’m glad I have more work to do in my little apartment in Toronto. The video and images and songs and random recordings will take me back. It’ll probably be full-on summer in Toronto. I’ll feel like a time traveler. I always do, on these trips. Down below these clouds is a completely different world. A different country. Next time you ask yourself, why do they stay there if it’s so hard to live there?

The simple answer is, it’s their home.

They love their home. They’re as rooted to that land as you are to your family.

The Big Picture: I wasn’t sure what I was going to see before I came here. At the beginning of this blog series, I hoped that I would see a better picture than the ones I saw in the news. The town of Attawapiskat made a decision last fall to tell the world that they were in peril of a terribly deadly winter, to the detriment of their community’s image. Chief Spence had a hard winter. When she put out the SOS she knew she was in for a cold reception. I don’t think she was prepared for the good wishes and prayers her community got from sympathetic people around the world.

Theresa Spence is a mom. She’s also the Chief and a pretty cool lady at that. No, not cool. Warm. Her laughter is right there. Her good humour and strong spirit is self-evident. People talk about her with respect and love. This is a different picture that I saw, the one of a beleaguered woman defending her decision to call a state of Emergency. The pinched features of a stressed woman standing up to criticism from all directions. My admiration is so much stronger. She really is a hero. Attawapiskat, you have a winner there.

When I walked around town, I saw the pictures from the papers for real, in the spring sunlight. I saw the new houses being readied for people to move in. Some how the people survived the winter by the grace of the Red Cross (who’s presence wasn’t seen by me while I was here) and their own ingenuity. It’s funny. One guy told me, the old folks shake their heads at the tents and say, “We lived like that all the time. What’s the big deal?” I guess the big deal is that this is a different world from those times. And that times dictate change.

But I realized that the more we venture into a new world,- all of us, the more we need to listen to those old folks. The old ways come in right handy when the new stuff fails you. Things like community spirit. Respect for Elders and Children. Love of the Land. Empathy and communication.

That lovely lady at the Inn said two things that stopped me in my tracks. She didn’t know what she looked like in 1969. She was at a reunion recently and the School Supervisor of the school was there. She was shown a picture of herself. She didn’t recognize the little girl. She didn’t know she could smile. There was one give away: she recognized the bed.

The bed.

She said, she didn’t know how to sing. When the teachers in her Residential school in Moosonee raised her hands to count in the singers in the choir, she thought she was raising her hands to hit her. 1969. Not so long ago.

What does that do to your sense of self? Well, she grew up. She made some big changes in her life. I could see that this woman is strong. A fighter. I hope to see you again.

Thank you for reading this blog about Attawapiskat. I hope you enjoyed this journey with me. You probably didn’t read anything earth-shaking here. Nothing huge. Just small things. Little steps. Snow melting into water. The Winter Road melting into a new spring.

Attawapiskat Spring.

Cathy Elliott

Cathy Elliott will be sharing her stories and thoughts from Attawapiskat as she spends a week in Attawapiskat with DAREarts.

About Cathy: Cathy Elliott is an Actor, Writer, Visual Artist, Composer/Lyricist. Non-linear creation is my thing. Aboriginal, Acadian, Irish. In love with life. Daughter, sister, friend and playmate. I’d love to learn to speak Mi’Kmaq. I’m learning a lot about my Mi’Kmaq heritage, and I’ll be tackling the Acadian and Irish in the next twenty years.

But for now, just create. Because Art Is.

Cathy Elliott CBC Music


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Cathy Elliott is a multi-disciplined Mi’kmaq artist and a proud member of the Indian Brook, Shubenacadie Band. Her screenplay for the documentary “Fill My Hollow Bones” was narrated by her hero, Graham Green. She wrote and directed The Talking Stick, the first all-aboriginal musical in the 47-year history of the Charlottetown Festival. The finale of The Talking Stick was featured at Will and Kate’s Royal Visit to PEI in 2011. A concert version of The Talking Stick was presented at the TRC Halifax. In 2012, She was the Aboriginal Liaison for New World Theatre Project’s The Tempest in Cupids, Newfoundland. She portrayed Ariel as a Beothuk Grandmother, and translated portions of the script into Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. “Fireweeds” her Yukon musical premiered at the Red Barn Theatre and had several productions. Moving Day, her one woman musical, premiered at Talk is Free Theatre and had productions in the inaugural Next Stage Festival, Halifax and Orillia. She is now the Director of Communications for DAREarts, a children's arts organization and the head of their Aboriginal Program.