Returning to the Bay
by Harry Giles
The Outriders project culminated in a book and events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017. More information, blogs from the Canada trip, credits, and a free poetry publication are available at harrygiles.org/categories/outriders.
I’m in a cemetery just outside of Mantayo Seepee (Churchill), Manitoba, on the edge of Kîhcikamîy (Hudson Bay), in Ininiwak (Cree) traditional territory. The snow has drifted several feet deep in places, covering many of the stones and wooden crosses, but it’s packed and frozen enough that I can walk across. I try to step lightly. Just north, beyond the fence, across the snow-drifted rocks, are hundreds of miles of frozen ocean. It’s -15 degrees out, minus a few more for wind chill. Every body surface I can cover is covered, most with four layers, and my cheeks are stinging with cold. There’s a track of something leaving over the drifts — maybe an arctic fox, maybe a rabbit or hare. There are bird tracks too: snow bunting, I think, and maybe some from one of the big, human-sounding ravens that’s been flying overhead. I look down at the gravestones: the surnames are Flett, Oman, Sinclair, Spence. Names from home.
I’ve travelled here as part of Outriders, an Edinburgh International Book Festival project, supported by the Scottish Government, which has sent five Scottish writers on journeys across the Americas, partnering with local writers to explore history and present. I’m tracing the role of Orkney-born settlers in Canada, particularly in Manitoba, in the centre of the country. We came over at first largely with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the vast imperial trading organisation whose practices heavily shaped the early years of Canadian colonisation. HBC ships would dock in Stromness, Orkney, as their last port before crossing the Atlantic, and there they took on men (and in the famous case of Isobel Gunn, a woman living as a man) to work the company’s outposts in the Canadian north. Some worked their years and came home to Orkney; some stayed on as English-speaking settlers; and some married with First Nations people, their children becoming First Nations (particularly Cree, but also Dene and Inuit), Métis (the indigenous nation which also shares European ancestry), or British settlers, depending on which communities they lived with.
And so there are Orkney people threaded throughout Manitoba’s settler-colonial history, and our names are everywhere. I read about John Norquay, once Premier of Manitoba, and Métis with an Orcadian grandfather. There was once a Birsay Village outside of Winnipeg, also called Orkneytown, which failed due to famine and was taken over by Francophone Métis who renamed it Saint François Xavier; and there is still a town nearby called Binscarth. In Winnipeg, I found a vegan burger restaurant on Bannatyne St, named after a South Ronaldsay-born Bannatyne who served in Riel’s Provisional Government – in fact, the Red River Resistance, led by the Francophone Métis Louis Riel, a defining political moment in the creation of the Canadian state, had numerous Orkneymen and Métis with Orkney ancestry involved. Most strikingly of all, I learned about a creole called Bungi that was spoken in Manitoba until the mid 20th century. Drawing on Cree, English, Orcadian and Gaelic, it very clearly preserved words and grammatical features that came direct from Orcadian: folk who would “slockit the light”, and who would use “to be” as an auxiliary verb where English would use “to have”. When I learned that Bungi was now extinct my eyes pricked: Orkney words and forms made it all the way to Manitoba, and became part of a distinctive Métis culture, before losing ground to English, just as I’m worried Orcadian could.
So here in Churchill, in the deep cold before spring thaw, I stand, grinning, beneath a street sign reading “Orcade Bay”. We’ve been here for three days, towards the end of the long freeze, well in the off-season, after the best polar bear watching and before the best beluga watching. The national parks are closed, and only a couple of guides are still available. It’s a bad time for tourism and a good time for social history: it’s easier to find folk with time to chat about themselves. We’ve visited the Itsanitaq Museum, which has an extraordinary collection of Inuit art collected by the Catholic church, and the Arctic Trading Company, which still serves as a traditional trading post for furs and artwork, and where we were shown the beadwork, tufting and slipper-making workshop, but which also sells cuddly polar bears and t-shirts. We ate at Gypsy’s, which does pretty spectacular fried chicken and apple fritters. We drove out to the Northern Studies Centre, past shipwreck, plane crash, and abandoned rocket testing site. We visited the oldest prefabricated building in Canada, an Anglican church with ornate stained glass. I rode around the boreal forest, right against the tree line, in a dog sled. We’ve hiked out through the snow to the very point of Cape Merry, where the frozen Churchill River meets the frozen bay, and where we can just see the snowed-in buildings of Prince of Wales Fort across the ice. If we had the energy, the gear and the company, we could walk there straight across the river.
Alongside our historical link, there are many other connections. The arctic terns that come here in the snow-free summer are in Orkney, especially Papa Westray, in spring: at home they are pickiternos, and here one of their names is iniqqutailaq. Both are small communities on the edge of their country; both are now tourism-dominated economies, with the public sector the other major employer, plus folk working in traditional economic activity and a bit of larger industrial work. Both were once a major naval base. Both have a government allowance for distant living. There are only two main roads. Everyone has a car. Folk have multiple jobs: you keep seeing the same faces in different places; some shops and businesses just operate out of people’s homes. There are locally-organised cultural events that bring everyone together
As I think about this, I realise what I’m sounding most like, with my too-big smile and my eagerness to talk about my project: the Americans and Canadians who would visit Westray, where I grew up, to look through the kirkyards and local history archives in search of their ancestors. I’m doing it the wrong way round, but it’s just as strange a pursuit, and my preconceptions are just as misguided. I start to feel embarrassed, and spend more time looking at the snow. And there’s a deeper shame too: my excitement in the connections, close sometimes to pride, is inextricable from the genocide and cultural extermination that is the past and present of settler-colonisation, the extent of which is rarely understood, let alone talked about, in contemporary Scotland. Across the Americas, settler-colonisation is the most extensive genocide in world history, and the land theft, racist inequality, and deprivation of rights is still ongoing, still defended. Every Orcadian place name has taken the place of a name in a local language.
These legacies are also, however, double. As I talk to people in Churchill, a majority indigenous population, about the project, there is interest in history and pride in ancestry. People can face the truths of colonialism and take pride in their present selves. One of the most interesting places I find for conversation is the Churchill Online Bulletin Board, where folk post local events, lost and found items, and general news. At the encouragement of a couple of locals I met, I post there about my project, and soon the comments are filled with people descended from Orkney folk, amused to hear about their namesakes in Scotland. Patricia Sinclair Kandiurin wants her Sinclair castle back and to know what her tartan is; for once, I think, yes, go you, please take the castle, I’ll help.
And, of course, there are stories of agency and resistance through colonialism. Pam Eyland told me about Alexander Kennedy Isbister, currently being celebrated during the 140th anniversary of the University of Manitoba. The Métis son of an Orkneyman, he was born on the Bay, but was sent to Orkney in the 1820s, to the school in St Margaret’s Hope, for a few years of education. He eventually worked for the HBC himself, but ended up quitting due to the racial discrimination he faced. He travelled back to Scotland for study at the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, becoming a very successful lawyer working mostly in England. He was also an outspoken advocate for progressive causes, particularly Métis rights. And the reason for the University’s celebration is that he left a major bequest for scholarships for students that was explicitly regardless of gender, race or creed: an early mission to diversify the student population and make education accessible to all.
The stories, then, are not one-dimensional. Though I’m part of it, how the story continues to be told is mostly not for me to say. Why am I writing, then? I’m well aware that my own project has its own colonial layers: five Scottish writers exploring the Americas and bringing back tales. I have my own issues to work through and my own learning to do, but I don’t want to take up more space that I should. I do think it’s vital for Scottish folk (for all folk from colonising nations) to be free from denial about how they have profited and how they continue to profit from ongoing colonial processes, and that involves doing some of this work. I want Scotland to recognise its part in this, and to know that colonialism is a huge and ongoing process (and one that’s different and more extensive, though related, to what the Gàidhealtachd went through), and to understand the extent of the damage and the necessity of reparation. The settler story should not be central to this, but nor can it be ignored; indigenous voices must be highlighted, and should not be spoken for by others. I want to find a place of acknowledging these connections that recognises my place in them. I’m not trying to hunt out guilt, but I am trying to understand these names and words in a way that – in a term spoken by the poet Layli Long Soldier – is free from denial.↑