Listen to the story as you follow along …
With a beautiful hippie wife and two little flower children we took the Muskeg Special, a train full of stories, to Churchill, Manitoba in the fall of 1969. It was the quintessential late sixties adventure. A first-time teaching job, first real work team, first time north and first time away from home for our little family … what could go wrong.
Well … lots, but there was plenty of room for what could go right as well.
Churchill was a tough, hard living northern town with a long-time tyrannical school principal, and we were there to replace him with some progressive, peace loving, freaky looking change making teachers. He wanted to beat the bad out of the kids from five cultural groups (Cree, Metis, Dene, Innuit and Caucasian) and we wanted to sing Kumbaya …
It got intense … Perhaps I should not have spent my first few hours in my new school building with a set of wire cutters dismantling the infernal bell ringing system.
“We don’t need no stinkin’ bells.”
Or perhaps I could have cut my hair to a more teacher type length … or perhaps I should not have inhaled, even that one time … or played gutbucket blues in that downtown, smoke filled bar.
There was a little rebelliousness on our part indeed, but the teaching itself … would have blown your socks off. Violent, angry, poverty stricken, abused kids started to take a little notice.
I recall one noon hour when I noticed that my Principal, Garry Wouters, still had a classroom full of students during the usual lunch hour escape time.
No … not in detention.
For the first time in their school history, he had put a poor white kid, a Dene kid, an Inuit kid, a Metis kid and a middle class white kid into some dialogue groups. They were telling history stories about their grandfathers … it was something else. I had the sweathogs and I worked hard to get them back into regular classrooms
In another notorious incident we had a saucy Inuit eighth grader with the temerity to write a thirty-page essay in which she wonderfully eviscerated the great Farley Mowatt.
It was like every week there was another adventure … not all in the school.
The first couple of weeks up there I had no money, so I drove taxi at night to pay some bills. As it turned out, it was like post graduate studies in the secret underbelly of a northern town. “Take me to Sharkey’s.” said the middle-aged wife sneaking out of the house with a case of beer under her arm.
We did not have to teach much polar bear safety that first semester as in the last year, a young student was killed by one near the school grounds.
There was a night when our wives went out for a social evening by holding onto two city blocks of rope because they were heading out in a Whiteout blizzard. That same night, six of us stupid guys went out onto this Englishman’s small back porch to watch the biggest polar bear ever. The bear was in buffet mode on some garbage, maybe less than six yards (not back yards) away. Crazy English does not warn us and sets off a thunder flash causing said bear to turn and charge. I was the first of six hefty, adrenalin drenched dudes through the narrow doorway on my way to the first washroom.
There was the afternoon prank we played on our new friend Peter Mansbridge ,the dulcet toned new CBC guy. He was announcing all the Whiteout cancellations, Girl Guides, Ladies Auxiliary and such. We called and gave the desk the announcement that the Churchill Metaphysical Society was also not meeting and loved his great baritone broadcasting it out into the town.
I loved that we may have contributed to the integration of the local bar. Three of us teachers got a gig playing Creedence songs (I played the notoriously difficult washtub bass.) It took a while, but we soon noticed that the bar floor had a small raised section in the centre, and it was apparent that the white folks sat up there and the indigenous folks sat down there, around the edges. We learned it was called The Racetrack … and it was about race all right. We went on strike for a night, brought our indigenous friends into the centre and started a fuss that ended with the bar finally renovating both the segregated floor and hopefully some attitudes the next summer.
A bad night was a midnight ride into Dene Village where 90% of the folks were in serious breakdown. It started thanks to a government policy of picking them up off the land and relocating them into Churchill next to a graveyard. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. That night, as I dropped off the babysitters, one yelled “hit it” and I hit the gas all the while watching a kid with a rifle drawing a bead on me. The whole area was a history lesson in how we messed up.
A favorite night in Churchill, that I got to share with Peter Gzowski, was the night Garry and I got picked up in a truck at midnight by the Chairman of the School Board. He was an employee of the Rocket Range up there. We ended up on a late-night heist, breaking in through a Rocket Range roof vent and liberating a truck full of shelving. We had enough to fill a small room with books for the school’s first library.
Halloween was unique. We needed a parent on every corner of the town. Polar bears again … not my idea of a good time.
Christmas was a blessing. We could not afford to take the Muskeg Special back south for Christmas. By the way, I still feel I have a few more songs about that train left to write. Anyway, we were destined to spend Christmas in Churchill and it felt a bit bleak. Then one day a gentleman offered us his trapper’s cabin for the Christmas week. We were a bit nervous and a bit thrilled with the phrase “trappers’ cabin on the tundra.”
The four of us hiked in as a Whiteout blizzard threatened. The shack was indeed that … no fancy lake cottage this. Rough built, iron stove, metal bunks and years of tobacco smoke, wood smoke, bacon grease and high hopes staining the walls. We packed in some basic food but no big bird.
Christmas morning, there was a knock on the door. Three of may favorite students from Dene Village, Joe Thorassie and the Bussidore boys, Geoff and Ernie, stood there grinning with rifles in one hand and a brace of snow-white ptarmigans in the other. Our little kids were thrilled with Christmas dinner fresh off the land. I have never forgotten the kindness of those boys and their simple but profound Christmas gift to their teacher.
Those boys would soon lead their people back to the land where their parents and grandparents had been taken from. I believe they still lead their people today.
Then there was the night of the leaving when so many of the kids invited us down to the shore of Hudson Bay for a huge fire and song. We watched the sun go down around one in the morning and come back up around 3:30 in the morning.
The Churchill story has an interesting postscript.
We were indeed a pretty naïve bunch of teachers and the ending wasn’t pretty … We figured all we had to do to earn our pay was to turn kids onto learning. Like I said we were a pretty naïve bunch.
The kids were coming alive. The parents, priests and school board members, not so much. They were certain that their children were being abducted by atheistic, communistic, whole grain weirdos …
Well, actually …
It got pretty nasty near the end and nearly all the staff resigned except for me and a guitar playing science teacher. We were then summarily dismissed … for the heinous crimes of dress and deportment … pretty accurate actually. We looked a bit off.
Then a wonderful thing happened, the kids went on strike. Young people, non any older than fourteen, walked out of school, set themselves down in the town hall and faced the imposing school board directly.
The chairman of the school board squared off against his own son, one of the strike leaders. He was not particularly a man of progressive thought and compassion as he threatened his boy with “we will straighten this out at home.”
I have often wondered what happened to that boy.
It was indeed the sixties, where even young kids felt it was a time for great hope and important to stand up for something.
I never really kept up with any of those students, but my sense was that they would struggle with most conventional definitions of success.
Then came a note … In 2010, I was doing some citizen engagement work in in the small town of Olds Alberta. One of the highlights for me was the unique local high school. It had earned the designation of being named a UNESCO school and that year was hosting an international conference with delegates from UNESCO schools around the globe.
I was impressed.
Then I got an email asking if I was the former teacher from Churchill. I said indeed I was.
It was from Bev Ginn … one of those impudent little strikers who was now the leadership force behind the UNESCO project
We had a lovely reunion and she told me some stories.
Not one of those students from those times graduated, however many of them succeeded in real life. Some like her, went back to school; some became leaders in the community like the three Dene Christmas wise guys.
Bev told me that although our ragtag group of teachers was not traditionally successful, she believes we made a difference in the lives of one small batch of kids scrambling out a life on the shores of Hudson Bay.
Send me packing once again, Churchill, if that is what it takes to get another Beverly …
1969 … you had to be there.