By Dawn Natelle, edited by Eric
Thanks to Eric for getting this turned around so fast. The delay was all on my side. I hope to keep the schedule to a week for the next chapter (this was eight days): Dawn
Chapter 38 – Moving On
So far: River gets some great news from the river on her birthday, and then sees her small celebration grow and grow and grow. Finally, Mark brings back a historic Ojibwe celebration with Longest Night to celebrate the solstice.
Winter in northern Ontario can be bleak. Snow, cold, short days, long nights and bad tempers for most people. But along the river the last one didn’t occur this year. In February River promoted a winter festival, with all the people in the community coming together for a multi-cultural celebration. Almost everyone on the reserve brought their gas barbecues to the site of the future Ginny’s Place II. The hunters who had been successful in the deer season brought part of their haul, and there were moose and bear burgers as well. Mark had a group of his friends go ice fishing the day before, and there was a good catch of fish to grill too.
River led a team of elders in judging the ice sculptures. These were not by the professionals who go from festival to festival to compete, but eight band teams and two from the town that got together and put out some incredible sculptures. Judging was hard, but Rod’s team eventually won with their larger-than-life sculpture of Jerome, the wolf that had been shot by Moonie in the summer.
There were cross country ski races, as well as snowshoe races. Mark won the latter, in the adult class. He decided that he wouldn’t participate in the middle school class, nor the high school class. He was also on the winning team of the lacrosse game that was played on a snowy field that was soon trampled down to near ice by the players, resulting in a version of lacrosse that mimicked hockey in many ways, with the players able to slide along the icy ground as if on skates.
There was both curling and hockey played on the river, with games running all day long. The hot chocolate provided by Carla’s Spirit Squad from the high school warmed the spectators. Liesl was a competitor in a Bake Queen competition, and took a third place for her biscuits and a second for her cherry pie. She was named Junior Bake Queen for participating at such a young age, while the Bake Queen competition was bitterly fought out by several of the elders who had been baking their entire lives, along with three women from the town who also vied for the title. All the baking was sold after judging, resulting in visitors to the celebrations munching on brownies or cookies as they watched the events.
The three-day event attracted pretty much everyone from the band, and most of the people of the town. There was also a good participation from Terrace Bay, and parents and family of the students attending the high school came in from the area reserves. Proceeds from the event were earmarked for Rod’s mission.
Now that Marilyn, Nick and Luv were living in their house, the mission was using the RV that they had been living in. This allowed them to go out to distant reserves and sleep in the RV rather than having to find other accommodation. The team, including therapy wolf Silver, went out about once a week, spending three to five days on the road and visiting two or three reserves. Results were generally positive. It depended on how serious the situation was at the various reserves, but several times there were children or youth at the edge of suicide, and in all cases they could be pulled back one way or another. Silver was important in several cases, and River began to notice when the RV returned that if the wolf leapt out with a certain swagger she would later hear that the wolf had again saved a child.
Carl Bluelake had painted “Ojibwe Pride Mission” on the sides of the RV, and it began to be a noticed sight in the north.
In the store, Connie was totaling up the day’s receipts. She was starting to show her baby bulge, with her child due in early May. This meant that an assistant manager had to be found for the store, and four of the part-time clerks were vying for the position. River and Connie had already decided that all four would be moved into full-time staff positions in May, with the winner of the competition getting a slightly higher salary. Summer traffic on the highway would make the store busier during that time.
Up until Christmas the store had mainly run on volunteer labor, with bonus money from the profits allocated to the volunteers. As sales increased around Christmas, the entire store moved to paid hours, although all were part time except Connie. When sales fell back after Christmas, the hours in the store were reduced to just the four part-timers.
Most of the others moved into the back of the shop, where sales over the Internet continued to grow. In January and February there were occasional days when the store had no sales at all, but every morning the Internet staff found an inbox full of orders and enquiries, and there were sufficient hours packaging and shipping out the goods to keep several people busy all day long.
Colin RedHawk continued to be in charge of the computer operations, but now that he was in school, he was strictly management, receiving a salary for training staff and ensuring that the system was working correctly. His salary was the second highest in the store, after only Connie, even though he technically worked part-time hours. In fact, River had noticed that at school he often had the store website up on his laptop in class. It didn’t seem to hurt his marks. Colin was one of the top students in the class.
As River had predicted, the girls in the class were now chasing Colin. The ones that called him pizza-face last year before the river had cleared his acne were now plainly flirting with them. He dated many of the girls in the class, and had gone out with Carla Summerstorm several times, Galena Snowbear twice, and her sister Wendy Jean once, to her amazement.
Dating in the town was not easy, as the Rube machine was covered in tarps in late November, to the chagrin of the high school students. Plans were to unwrap it again in late March when spring was rumored to come. That was still a rumor in the north, for the snows would always last into April.
That left drives to scenic lookouts for the older students, where several lookouts had gotten a reputation as “make out spots.” For the student who couldn’t drive yet, the main date night had traditionally been pizza at the hotel. One of the two rooms was not licensed to serve alcohol, and young people often filled the place on Friday and Saturday nights, either dating or just meeting up in groups.
Acting on a suggestion from River, Carla had led the Spirit Squad to start movie nights at the high school every Thursday night. They showed CDs of old romantic movies, starting with Casablanca and then working through Breakfast at Tiffany’s, West Side Story, and Sound of Music prior to the Christmas break. Mr. George, the Ojibwe teacher, of all people, was the staff advisor and chaperone for the event. His only rule was that no westerns would be shown, since most patronized the native Americans. Each week a different club in the school would man the kitchen and serve up pizza and pop before or after the event, earning funds for their group.
The events were well attended, with almost all the students coming. Those dating would sit together at the back, of course, while other groups of friends scattered throughout the gym. There was a $2 fee to see the movie, so the kids could each enjoy a night out for under $10, if they bought a pop and pizza as well.
Rod expressed great interest in the film nights, and attended several to see how they ran. One of his biggest problems in visiting rural reserves was that the kids had nothing to do. In those places the students were all pre-high school, but by suggesting weekly film nights in the local elementary schools, the students would have something to look forward to each week, and the depression and isolation they felt would be lessened. Almost every reserve jumped at the idea, with parents and teachers saying that they planned to offer such events.
One of the benefits of being on the Spirit Squad was an exemption from attending gym class. Apparently it was considered a sports team, even though it never became a full cheerleader program. Carla didn’t mind. She was not a fan of sports anyway, with her memories of being chosen last for teams when she was down south, and then picked on in the games by the bigger and stronger boys.
Now she used her gym period to do Spirit Squad work, and one day in late February she managed to get River and Galena Snowbear out of class to “help” her hang posters for the upcoming winter carnival events. The girls walked the halls of the small school, posting notices and decorating them to draw attention. And gossiping. Mostly gossiping.
“How is your sister doing?” River asked Galena. Wendy Jean was also exempt from gym, since she was wheelchair bound. Instead she spent her gym period in the library, tutoring students in math and science, two subjects that she really enjoyed.
“She is so much better,” Galena said. “I mean, I love her and all. She is my sister. But to tell you the truth, she used to be hard to deal with sometimes. Always moping and complaining, trying to bring everyone else down. But since you took her into the river last summer, she is totally different. Now she is upbeat and fun to be with. Thank you for that, River.”
“Thank the river,” she replied. “I just help it. I thought that it would cure her … make it so she could walk again. But instead it just showed her a different way of living.”
“It worked so well, too,” Galena said. “She is happy, and doesn’t consider that she is handicapped. She started wearing makeup and nicer clothes, and has really made a slew of friends in the school.”
“She helped me with my math a couple times,” Carla mentioned. “River usually does that, but sometimes she is too busy. Wendy Jean never seems to be too busy. I know all the kids she helps just love her.”
“She wants to be a teacher now,” Galena said. “She says it is so rewarding when you can help someone to ‘get it’ with something. I’m jealous of that. I don’t know what I want to do when I get out of school.”
River laughed. “We are still young. You have years to figure things out. You would make a good nurse, you know. Your marks are good enough, and there is always a demand for nurses in the reserves.”
“Yeah, that would be cool. I really like to help people. I guess I’m like Wendy Jean like that.”
“Or you could just find a rich man and marry him,” Carla said. “You are pretty enough.”
Galena laughed. Unfortunately your brother Nick is about the only rich man on the reserve, and he is taken. Thanks for the compliment, though.”
The girls went into the library to post a few more notices, and had to stop talking. They saw Wendy Jean in the corner with three different boys surrounding her wheelchair getting math help. She waved and smiled at her sister and friends, who waved back, trying hard to be quiet. The librarian stared at them the entire time they were in the room, so they had no choice.
George Audette finally picked up her welding torch, and let out a sigh of relief. It was 2 p.m. and this was the first chance she had to do any welding. The shop she and Kyle operated was becoming more and more like a factory. There were now nine people working there besides them, and George had gotten most of the management duties. Kyle was an ideas kind of guy, and it was up to her to put his ideas into practice.
It had started with two young workers to build swings and lawn ornaments out of the old tires they were getting in. Once these went onto the Internet they were an instant hit, and demand kept growing. Now there were four men and a woman making them. Another man was a full-time welder now, and two others were trainees, with George spending a lot of her time training them. The other employee was a woman working in the office, an old school bus just outside the barn. Until she had taken over the paperwork in October, George had been working herself towards a nervous breakdown. But she had to be trained, and all the others.
“I never get to just weld anymore,” the native woman moaned as she started a bead on a sheet of steel. “That’s what I love, and now it seems I’m just a boss.” Then she shook her head and concentrated on her work. After all, she had no chance of going back to the old days again. She and Kyle were making money hand over fist, and if they stopped tomorrow they would be fine for years. But it wasn’t that easy. There were nine employees to think about. She couldn’t just let them all go back onto welfare. Some of them had families, and Martin, one of the trainee welders, was planning to marry his girlfriend in June. Kyle was already designing a small Rube for the wedding reception. She would love to go back to the old days, but she had too many people depending on her.
After a half hour of just welding, her mood was better. Then one of the trainees ran up to her. “You better come quick. We have a problem.”
Mark was gone from Friday afternoon until Monday morning one day in early March. Tall John George had formed a group of ten boys from the reserve called the Young Warriors and they were doing a winter camp. Mark had even gotten his friend from school, Chester Mims to join in. Chester was a year younger than Mark, but several years younger than all the other Young Warriors, and smaller than all of them.
But the problem getting Chester permission hadn’t been on that end at all. It was his mother. She was the overprotective type, and really didn’t understand First Nations culture. She was baffled by the idea that anyone would voluntarily head out into the wilderness in winter with next to no food. But Chester whined, and Mrs. Mims knew and trusted Mark and knew that he wouldn’t let Chester get hurt. She finally agreed, but as reluctantly as possible. She knew that one day she would need to let go of the apron strings, but she didn’t expect it would happen when her son was in Grade Six.
She dropped Chester off at Mark’s home, marveling at the elaborate house he now lived in. She embarrassed her son badly hugging and kissing him as if she would never see him again. Luckily it was only Mark there. Once Mrs. Mims was gone, the boys packed up and started hiking off to the place where they would meet the others.
The camp went well. Chester found it cold, especially at night in the small structures that the boys had built, four to a lodge. Soon after he fell asleep he warmed up though, and it was only in early morning when he discovered why.
“Mark? Mark, are you awake?”
“Yeah Chester,” Mark answered groggily.
“Mark. There is something laying on my legs that wasn’t there before.”
Mark propped himself up, and looked over at the smaller boy. “That’s Night. He won’t hurt you. You’re lucky. He must have kept you warm last night.”
“He’s as big as a wolf,” Chester said timidly.
“He is a wolf,” Mark said. Just then Night stood up, giving the boys a disgusted look that seemed to say ‘how’s a guy going to sleep with all this chatter going on?’, and crept out of the lodge.
“A w-w-wolf? Let’s not tell Mom about this one.”
The boys then got up and went to do their business, and Mark introduced Night to Chester, and the other way around. The wolf slept with Chester for the rest of the camping trip, keeping him warm, and also was close at hand during the days, when the boys learned archery, tracking, and trapping, finally getting enough prey to make a good stew for their dinner. Chester was less impressed by Tall John’s lessons in skinning the rabbits and possum they caught, but did admit that the food they ate that night was tasty. Young Warriors don’t take canned or packaged food on their camps. If they don’t catch anything, they go home hungry. Luckily on this trip the traditional traps worked, and they ate well each night.
At the end of the trip, Tall John allocated the furs to the boys and gave Chester a bloody possum pelt. Mark took charge of it when Chester noted that his mother would have no idea what to do with it. Mark had four rabbit pelts, since his traps had been the most productive, and he hoped that the pelts would freeze until River could take them into the river to cure them.
It turned out that he didn’t need to bother River with them. All winter Marilyn had been teaching four separate groups of girls about First Nations life, with different groups coming each night, Monday to Thursday. Each group was seven or eight girls, and Luv was the center of the focus of the group as they tended the young baby and watched her develop from week to week while learning parenting skills.
But Marilyn had them doing more than that. The girls also learned about domestic tasks, such as cooking and making bread (both traditional and wheat loaves). There was sewing, with each of the older girls making a pow-wow skirt or dress, while the younger groups just did embroidery on one of their existing garments. Marilyn also taught traditional dance and singing to her charges.
When Marilyn learned that Mark had five raw hides, she volunteered her girls with them, teaching them how to properly tan a hide in the traditional manner, with all natural materials. The girls flinched a bit, especially with the rabbit hides, since it was still clear what they had been. But they were for Mark, who all the younger girls, and many of the older ones, had a crush on. Eventually each group was able to finish one hide, with Marilyn doing most of Chester’s possum hide in demonstrating for the girls. After several weeks she returned Chester’s hide to him, which he kept as a souvenir of his camp.
Mark let Marilyn keep his four rabbit hides, which soon decorated several of the garments that the girls were sewing.
Nick was also busy through the winter. In November five First Nations men approached him, and said that they had been let go by the mill, some of them after as many as 25 years working there. None had received anything more than two weeks severance pay, and Nick quickly went after the company to get the full severance pay owed, up to the 23 additional weeks for the longest serving worker. Checks came just in time for the five families to have a small Christmas instead of none.
Nick continued to work on the case even after the checks came for the five. He found that another eight First Nations men had been let go since the prior March, and there were only two others still working at the plant. The men told stories of discrimination and abuse by the manager of the plant that had started at that time, who clearly was racist and anti-native. Two remaining First Nations workers were in charge of maintenance of the mill power plant. No one else seemed capable of keeping the machine running.
Sid Oldman, the new manager, had reassigned the two to general maintenance – basically sweeping floors – for several weeks prior to laying them off. Two days into their first notice week the power plant died, and the mill had to run off expensive power from the grid. The men were quickly sent back to maintaining it, and had it running on partial power after two days, and full power a week later. The layoff notices were rescinded, although they noticed that the manager scowled at them every time they met in the plant.
Three times over the subsequent months the men were ordered to train a white person how to do their jobs, and each time after a few days or a week that person was pulled back to work on the line. Apparently the plant was running on minimal staff, with little or no health and safety officer nor any maintenance done on equipment until the last minute.
The workers said the prior manager, who had retired, had three or four new machines ordered, including a new power plant, but all new equipment had been cancelled and the workers left at the plant were being worked ragged trying to compensate for the 13 First Nations men who had been let go.
Nick wondered if it might be smart for the plant to unionize. He spoke to a few of the white workers, who were all terrified of being found out by the manager, and learned that he had told them that any steps towards unionization would mean the plant would instantly close, as so many others across the province had recently. The men were paid well, for northern Ontario rural jobs, and none wanted to risk their employment, as bad as it was getting.
In the end, Nick decided against pushing the union issue, but continued to work towards a civil rights case against the plant.
Sid Oldman slammed the phone down in his office at the paper mill. It felt good. That was the big problem with cell phones … you just can’t slam one. The old office phone provided a good way to express the anger Sid was feeling.
The party at the other end of the line had been the manager of Shield Disposal Corp. A month ago the mill’s rep there had sent a letter announcing a 25% increase in disposal rates for the toxic chemicals the mill generated. The cost was already $2000 per trip, every two weeks, not to mention the cost of two men to drive down to Sault and back with a truckload. Another $500 per trip was totally unreasonable, Sid thought. He decided to use bargaining techniques that his young, female rep wouldn’t know hit her.
So Sid told the rep the increase was unacceptable, and unless they could come up with something better, then the mill would have to find another supplier for the service. The girl told him that the rate was not flexible, and she was sorry to be losing them as a customer.
That had been a week ago. Sid had scouted around, and found there were no other suppliers. Shield was storing the dangerous chemicals in an old steel mill in Sault, and space was filling up. The next nearest supplier was in Montreal, 15 hours away. Today Sid had called Shield back, ready to eat crow. And then that young girl had claimed that their slot had been filled, and there was no space available. The sales manager backed her up, and even when Sid escalated the call to the general manager he was told that there was no space available at any price. The mill had given up its slot, and other users had gobbled it up. That led to a few choice words, and the phone being slammed into the receiver.
Sid was irate. His cost cutting, which had gone so well over the past few months, had bitten him again. Last time it had just been a few days of expensive power until those Indians got the generator working again. This time he would come up with something as well. He always did. The chemicals could be stored in barrels at the mill until they could be disposed of. They certainly wouldn’t be making a trip to Montreal every other week. More like every other month, in a bigger truck, although Sid really didn’t want to have to buy a bigger truck this year. Maybe a lease.
He would sleep on it and make a decision in the morning.
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