When I visited Canada for the first time, in 1980, part of my month-long visit with a friend was attending the Assembly of the Northwest Territories First Nations in Fort Good Hope—Dene Tha’ country. Darlene, the Indigenous girlfriend of an oil patch worker, had invited my friend and me along for the powwow at her grandmother’s village. We packed up a freight canoe and took her, her white man, and their baby to her village downstream from Norman Wells on the mighty Mackenzie River.
We camped out by the river in our brand-new, white canvas tent, purchased at the only store. The CBC radio crew and our group of three were the only non-Indigenous. This town of log homes, a few boxy social housing units, a church, and a school was the Hudson Bay Co. Darlene’s grandmother arrived to get Darlene and kindly invited us to attend the communal meals. Young local activists took time to educate us silly foreigners. I heard about the government’s shocking abductions of children from their families and the complete betrayal of treaty rights. I met some local leaders and will never forget the man named after the great Dutch humanist, Erasmus. The assembly of representatives elected George Erasmus as their new leader.
Over the four days of my stay, I became spellbound by the people, their meetings and praying rituals in the willow-pole enclosure, the lovely communal meals, wild meat roasted over the in-ground pits, and the hand games, the drumming, chanting and dancing at the school gym each night till midnight. I listened to the wolves howl in answer to the sled dogs, tied up by their dens in front of every home.
The events took place in a sober state, as the area was dry, surveillance by the locals. My attachment to Canada’s First Nations was born then and there. I became their advocate in a white world full of Canadian prejudice.
Two years later, I landed as a new immigrant in a small town in central Alberta. I watched CBC’s First Ministers Conference broadcast in 1983, transfixed, full of hope. George Erasmus pleaded eloquently for First Nations’ right to self-government and a place at the table. Yet, Pierre Trudeau didn’t think that making space for the Indigenous in this political forum would benefit the country. With the First Ministers Conferences deleted from the agenda a few years later, the question became moot. The provinces became ever less attached to the idea of unity, preferring to chart their own course.
In 1986, I landed a maternity backfill job as a play therapist for vulnerable children in northern Alberta, an area of remote Indigenous communities and reserves surrounding Slave Lake. The play sessions happened at their homes, so I met up weekly with Indigenous and white families.
One of my clients was preemie Lily with her sweetest family of all. Will was in his early forties, a hunter-trapper and a quiet man, tall and gentle. His wife, Candace, nineteen, was the beautiful and loving mother of their three-year-old, robust son Johnny and their newborn daughter. Lily survived her birth at 28 weeks of gestation with a helicopter ride to the Edmonton hospital and the interventions from technological gadgets in the NICU. She came home at three months old—really her ninth month of gestation. I met her when she was one year old.
This quiet Indigenous family became dear to me during our working together in weekly sessions at their home. Candace was Will’s second wife. Their home was an old log home on the flats by the river with a wood stove for heating. With her sensitive, premature lungs, wood heating was not good for Lily, so the health unit financed the replacement gas heater. They lived a simple and sober life off the land. Fishing, hunting, and trapping, and seasonal berry gathering provided what they needed, with the occasional supplement from the welfare office.
Lily was growing steadily, somewhat hampered by physical immaturity. She didn’t like to stretch tall and showed a marked preference for one side of her body. She had a scar on her tummy from the feeding tube inserted at birth, as she had not matured enough for oral feeds.
That spring, Will gladly took the two black rabbits off my hands—gifts from a neighbour for my preschool daughter. Due to my ignorance, I had lost their first unanticipated litter, born in the depth of winter. I found the naked bodies frozen solid in the bare run and realized only then the bunnies had been buck and doe. From then on, I had kept the lovelorn cottontails inside our shed in separate cages—leftover junk from an abandoned mink farm.
A year after my job finished, Will and Candace visited me unexpectedly with Johnny. After the initial greetings, I immediately asked where Lily was.
“We want to tell you about Lily,” Candace said quietly. Will’s face dropped, and he glanced away into the distance. He looked older and more tired than I remembered. Candace had also lost some of her shine.
“Come, Johnny, we’ll check out the back forty,” Will said. Candace nodded.
“Fiddleheads grow there,” I said. The tall man and his son walked off through the backyard and into the adjacent stand of birches.
“Let’s go in, we’ll have some tea,” I offered. Candace agreed.
Inside, I put the kettle on, and we sat down at the kitchen table. Candace rummaged in her purse; she had something for me and stretched out her hand. I took it. At first glance, I couldn’t identify the print on stiff paper, the size of a recipe card, but then it struck me. I was a diminutive print of a baby’s left foot—Lily’s.
“Oh, no, what happened?” I groaned. “Is this Lily’s?”
Candace nodded. “From when she was born. In case she would die I would have something to remember her by. You can have it. I have another print.”
With few words, she told me in a calm but monotone voice that Lily had been ill, and she took her to the hospital. The child had not wanted to eat that morning, started vomiting, and was unusually quiet the whole day, just lying around on the floor. Then she developed a fever around dinnertime. It was a Friday evening. As she was waiting for her turn, Candace heard a nurse talk to another in the treatment room. She said something like, Oh boy, another mom who wants to go drinking, looking for a babysitter. Then she was called in. The emergency nurse had a look and asked some questions but didn’t ask a doctor to see Lily and sent them home with the conclusion that Lily had the flu and would perk up the next day.
By midnight, Lily was very ill, didn’t move at all, and seemed unconscious. This time, Will came along to the emergency ward and insisted the nurse get a doctor. As soon as the doctor-on-call arrived and saw Lily undressed, he asked questions about her birth. Lily was flown to the Edmonton hospital in the emergency helicopter. Candace was allowed to accompany her, but Will had to drive to Edmonton himself. “When he arrived, Lily had already died from poisoning,” signed Candace. “Her whole body had been infected from a blocked intestine.”
I was devastated, shocked by this terrible callousness, the injustice of it all.
“Candace, how horrible. What a terrible nurse. How could they not believe you when you first came to emergency? You are Lily’s mother, you knew what’s going on. They could have saved Lily.”
She shrugged. “It happens a lot. They think we’re stupid. We don’t drink. Others might, but we’re a sober Native family. Will lost his first family because of alcohol. He learned to be sober.”
Teary-eyed, I hugged her. “I am so sorry this happened to you. It shouldn’t have. That nurse was stupid. What did Angela say?” She was the therapist I backfilled for.
“I didn’t tell her what the nurse said. Angela said it is a common thing with premature babies.” Candace looked so helpless, she broke my heart.
I realized Candace had not wanted to inconvenience her regular worker, but I couldn’t accept that.
“I am sure it is not common the babies die from it. The hospital knew about Lily’s prematurity, her scar, and the direct feeding tube. It’s all in her file. They should’ve known. I bet the nurse didn’t check the records. You can sue them for their negligence. Lily’s death might have been prevented. Do you want me to do something, call Angela, or call a lawyer?” I put my hand on her knee.
This was the old story of racism, the denial that the Indigenous can be capable parents, the prejudice that all Native parents are drunks. Well, the Slave Lake hospital proved that they still were thinking along colonial lines. My anger rising, I was ready to prove them wrong.
Candace looked at me with sad eyes. She shook her head. “Nothing will come of it. It won’t bring Lily back. We just have to accept it and live on with her gone. I’m not angry. Will is, but I’m not. It’s just life.”
“Candace, you are a terrific mom. Look at Johnny, such a stout and strong boy. A premature birth wasn’t your fault and you looked after Lily so well. I wish I had been there for you. Thank you for letting me know about what happened. I’m so sorry.” I was crying by then, of anger, of grief.
We drank our tea in silence as I desperately tried to get hold of myself. I blamed Angela, the play therapist—another white Canadian who failed her client. When will this disaster of prejudice so soaked into the mainstream social fabric finally disappear? Even my own husband, with a crush on Suzi—Indigenous water-hauler at his work—happily made “jokes” with his friends using his imitation Native accent, denying his liberal upbringing. Does one have to be a racist to fit in? Granted, I only was an ignorant new immigrant at that time, but this part I resented wholeheartedly, and still do. It’s unforgivable.
“Will you be all right, Candace? Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head and pushed her hair out of her face. “I will be okay. Johnny misses her. Will is taking him out lots. He likes the beach and all the sand. Me, too, and then I go with them.”
“That’s good.” I was looking for a thing to say that may be useful but didn’t find anything.
We heard the voices of Will and Johnny nearing the open front door. Candace got up. “Thanks for the tea, Johanna,” she said.
“Do you want some vegetables? Come to the garden and see. We have too much anyway.” I put the card with Lily’s footprint on the shelf, out of reach of my toddler, still napping. We met Will and Johnny by the door, and together, we ambled to the garden on the other side of the house.
That spring, I had removed much sod from our vast lawn to enlarge the veggie garden to four times its original size. Everything grew fast with the extended daylight when the sun didn’t go down till eleven. I was proud of my asparagus. After growing crops in central Alberta for a few years, the north astonished me with what survived in winters of 35 below. The bears liked my garden, too, but that’s all right. They were here first.
Indigenous Canadians have that same resilience. Despite settlers and the government trying to wipe them out, they survived for centuries. I loaded Candace and Will up with veggies, feeling vastly inadequate and humbled by their grace.
The name of the preemie condition is necrotizing enterocolitis, but prejudice killed Lily. I will never forget her.
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- Prejudice And Necrotizing Enterocolitis - March 30, 2023