Christmas Hills to Banff
In July 2017 I took a flight halfway around the world with my partner, Sara, on my way to a new country, where I’d been invited to write about a place I’d left behind. I arrived in Vancouver, Canada, or Turtle Island as it’s known to First Nations people, after a 15-hour flight from Sydney. I was on my way to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for a two-week residency. I research climate change and Indigenous knowledge and would be joining a program on environmental reportage. I would also be meeting with the activist and writer Naomi Klein to discuss issues of climate justice raised in This Changes Everything, her important work on the subject.
The long trip had exhausted us and we had time to spend at Vancouver airport before our next flight, to Calgary. I bought a weekend newspaper and sat down with a strong cup of coffee. I’d arrived in the country in the week following Canada Day (1 July). It was the 150th anniversary of the birth of the colonial nation and the paper provided a commentary on First Nations protests that had taken place on the day of national commemoration. A widely reported action was the erection of a tepee in front of the national parliament in Ottawa. The organisers of the demonstration explained to the gathered media that the event would be the first day of a ‘reoccupation’ ceremony to ‘counter Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations on the basis that First Nations people have little reason to celebrate colonisation’. I was struck by comparisons to the Tent Embassy protest in Australia’s national capital, Canberra, that commenced in late 1972, followed by several like-minded occupations over following decades, including the Camp Sovereignty Commonwealth Games protest of 2006 in Melbourne, which I had been involved in and had written about.
A second article in the newspaper that morning examined the death of a First Nations teenager following a drug overdose in a shabby tent on the side of the highway on the edge of a city in British Columbia. The girl had spent years in foster care before being put on the street, reclassified an ‘adult’ at the age of 18. The girl was left to fend for herself without financial or welfare support. She was one of thousands of First Nations teenagers and children who continue to be removed from their families and communities, despite the terrible legacy of incarcerating First Nations children during the 150 years of colonial nationhood. Again, I could not avoid the connection to the historical and contemporary situation in Australia; a realisation reinforced a few days later, after my arrival at the Banff Centre, where I spent time in the library and spoke to people about the history of removals of First Nations children from their families.
Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008. Its final report, released in 2015, concluded that 150,000 First Nations children had been removed from their families during the life of the nation. A thousand children for every year, most incarcerated in the notorious residential school system where many of them were physically and sexually abused. The number of deaths within the system is estimated at around 6000. Many families were never notified that their child had died, and it was not uncommon for the body of a child not to be returned home and provided a proper spiritual burial. And why was such brutality practised for over a century? The Canadian writer Curtis Gillespie, who has researched this history, concludes that ‘residential schools were used by the Canadian government as one tool among many to eradicate Indigenous culture, ceremony and identity’.
Gillespie’s words rang so familiar to me. From an Australian perspective, they were haunting. They nudged me to reflect, many thousands of kilometres from home, on the history of the stolen generations of Indigenous children in Australia. It has been 20 years since the release in 1997 of the Bringing Them Home report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, documenting stories of the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had provided evidence to the inquiry during hearings held across the country. After giving their harrowing evidence of torture and abuse the same people were subsequently harangued by the then prime minister, John Howard, who hyperventilated and snarled at a gathering of Stolen Generations members who confronted him at a commemoration gathering in Melbourne later that year. While I had been excited about my trip to Banff and would subsequently be affected by the experience in many positive ways, my memories of 1997, triggered by events in both Australia and Canada in 2017, deflated a feeling of real optimism that I had been carrying since attending an event outside Melbourne in the weeks prior to my overseas visit.
From the outside the building resembled a glorified tin shed. I was surprised to see so many people milling about. Inside the hall I was warmly greeted by one of the organisers, who escorted me into a second, larger space where we writers were to ‘perform’ for the day. The room was crowded and the overflowing audience were chatting and laughing together like old friends, which many of them were. A window on one side of the room looked out across a luscious green valley to lightly treed hills in the distance. The morning sun rested against the expansive windows. Every available seat in the hall had been taken and more audience members were seated on a scruffy carpet in front of the stage. Still more people crammed in doorways and stood along the back wall. One of the organisers of the event would tell me later that the committee had initially catered for 75 people, hoping 50 might buy a ticket. As the publicity for the day spread, the catering numbers were increased to 100 and then 150. In the end more than 200 people turned up and the kitchen ran out of baked scones.
The room was charged with energy. It sparked and crackled. It felt magical. I’d been invited to the Christmas Hills Books and Writing Festival months earlier and accepted the invitation with little thought for my hectic schedule. The week prior to the festival was madness. I had given two public lectures on climate change, led a community writing workshop, and was dealing with a mild family drama at home, not unusual for a parent of five children and a member of an extended family that would require an annual census for numbers to be accurately documented. My lack of enthusiasm for the looming festival was driven by general weariness and, more drastically, a realisation that the day would clash with an important football game that my team, Carlton, were playing in at the MCG that afternoon. I thought about pulling out of the event. Faking an injury, so to speak. Until Sara, sitting across the kitchen table, berated me, reminding me that I had made a commitment to people. She is the most ethical and honest person I know, at times uncompromisingly so.
‘It’s important that you keep your promise,’ she said, raising an eyebrow. ‘You’re going. And you’ll enjoy it.’
‘Okay,’ I nodded, like a petulant child.
‘So, can you drive me, then?’
‘No. I can’t,’ she smiled. ‘I’ve had a busy week and need the rest.’
The drive from my home to Christmas Hills takes around an hour. Unfortunately I don’t have a drivers licence and ‘the Hills’ cannot be easily accessed by public transport. I thought about a second approach to my wife, begging to be chauffeured. And then I remembered that a former writing student of mine, Alice, had put a note on Facebook that she’d be heading to the festival. She had grown up in Christmas Hills and was excited about a writers festival coming to her home town. I opened my computer and sent her a message, asking for a lift. She responded within minutes and collected me from my front gate early the following morning.
Alice had been a wonderful student, typical of the better writers in my classes. She was generally quiet in seminars but produced great work. I was aware that she had continued writing after leaving university and was beginning to publish short stories and essays. During the drive we talked mostly about writing, until I asked her about growing up so far away from the city. Towards the end of the conversation she told me that her childhood home had been burnt down ‘in the fires’. The family could have lost their own lives, Alice said, commenting that it had been a difficult decision for her father to evacuate the home rather than stay behind and try to protect it.
The Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009, to the north of the city of Melbourne, destroyed more than 2000 homes, and 173 people died. The fires occurred towards the end of a very dry summer. In the week leading up to the disaster the temperature reached the low forties over several consecutive days and on the day fires began the temperature hit 46 degrees. So ferocious was the heat that self-combusting fire balls exploded in the sky and homes rated ‘fire safe’ were destroyed within minutes. Many families remained homeless months after Black Saturday and years later the deep trauma suffered by thousands of people remains, often as scars of anguish on the faces of those who lost loved ones, their homes and possessions.
Close friends of ours lost their homes. Chris, a builder–philosopher, had gathered a remarkable library of books over the years, some of them rare items. He’d read them all, as I would often discover whenever he worked on my house. While laying tiles or hanging plaster board he’d tutor me on subjects as diverse as Roman history and human anatomy. His home was at Flowerdale, a small village that would become the epicentre of the fires. The home ignited as Chris was escaping the carnage, racing along a country laneway in his work van. His wife, seated next to him, nursed their newborn daughter, Indigo. Chris would tell me later, still in shock, that all he could see out of the car windscreen were exploding eucalypt trees.
A week after the fire I drove with Chris along a ridge, heading towards whatever might remain of his home. It was a clear and cool morning. Everything around us had been reduced to stumps of charcoal or the skeletal remains of houses, trees, farm sheds and machinery. The still-smouldering ground was littered with the blackened and bloated bodies of farm animals. We turned into his street and searched for his house. It had disappeared along with every object it held: furniture, paintings, keepsakes and his precious books. The lasting image I have of that morning is of my dear friend kneeling in the earth sifting delicate wisps of paper, the remains of his library, through his fingers.
Another friend of ours who lost his home in the fires was Patrick Wolfe, the internationally renowned historian of colonialism. Wolfe was something of an outsider, a great intellect and a bit of a rogue. His defining statement, colonialism is a structure not an event, has been etched into the minds of scholars around the world. He was a generous soul. Each time I published a book of fiction he would send me an appreciative email, followed by a celebratory lunch. In late 2015 we had talked about my most recent novel, Ghost River, and the following week we each gave academic papers at an anthropology conference at Melbourne University. Two months later Patrick was dead, as a result of unforeseen complications after a short illness. Six months further on, at Christmas Hills, not far from the new house Patrick had built on the same land that had taken his old home, I would smell wood smoke in my nostrils and think of him again.
An evening with Naomi Klein
The packed theatre at the Banff Centre buzzed with excitement. We’d come to hear Naomi Klein talk about her most recent book, No Is Not Enough, written at frantic pace in response to the global menace we know as President Donald Trump. I’d met her two days earlier to discuss my climate change research. We had a half-hour together. She was generous with her time and provided me with valuable strategies on how to approach my writing. Her public lecture was engaging, thoughtful and occasionally challenging. No more so than when Klein said that we, herself included, harboured our own ‘inner Trump’: a sense of selfishness and at times a harsh judgement of others that we needed first to own and then rid ourselves of. In the darkness of the theatre I momentarily revisited the original Alien film, looked down at my waist and imagined myself exorcising my inner Trump from somewhere around the gut region; an unpleasant image if there ever was one.
There was a lot of goodwill in the theatre that night, all of it directed towards Naomi Klein. We were a room of true believers, the converted, occupying a ‘culturally safe space’ as we say these days. And yet I noticed as I had previously done while observing Klein when listening to her talk, in person or on the screen, that she appeared guarded, a little wary of the world.
On the morning after the lecture a few of us had breakfast with Naomi Klein. We talked, perhaps masochistically, a little more about Donald Trump and the dismal state of politics globally and in Australia. I told her that while, as global citizens, we fixated on Trump’s crude public antics, the dull political ‘leadership’ in Australia, including that of both major parties, at a fundamental and ideological level, behaved as badly as or worse than Trump. In Australia we had enacted legislation incarcerating refugees in off-shore concentration camps without the need for a physical wall. In Australia, politicians bickered and fiddled as parts of the country occasionally burnt and our Great Barrier Reef heated.
We also spoke about the place of First Nations people involved in environmental protection actions in Canada, in particular the water and land protectors fighting against sand tar mining in the province of Alberta, where we were located. We also discussed what was required of us as environmental activists and writers. Klein was warm, humble, relaxed and ordinary in the best way possible. As she spoke I thought about why her public persona may appear guarded. I believe she is a dangerous woman. She is a serious thinker who has the intellect and energy to engage, to excite people to fight for human rights and social change, young people in particular. She is a thinker driven by a belief in the principle of universal human rights. Conservatives don’t like her, while some on the left believe she needs to be more ideologically ‘pure’. Some would prefer that she stop writing and shut up.
Naomi Klein is also acutely aware of the impact of climate change on ecologies in Australia, having previously written about coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. She is deeply concerned with the threats to country and life that the continuation of fossil fuel mining poses to Indigenous people in Australia and has connections with Mob here. After breakfast we exchanged goodbyes. As she was about to leave I commented, almost involuntarily, ‘You take care, they’ll be after you.’ And they will. In the age of Donald Trump, ‘alt-facts’, out-and-out lies and the trashing of our rights, Naomi Klein is the truth-teller we need and an enemy of a deeply corrupted world able to reach across the globe and infect democratic principles in our own back yard.
Welcome to country
Many who had gathered for the Christmas Hills festival that morning shared with my friends Chris and Patrick, and Alice’s family, great losses in the Black Saturday fires. Some had lost parents, others children and their loved pets. The organisers of the festival felt that a day bringing writers and readers together would help them recover from the pain they’d experienced. They had chosen to be with the world through stories, and had invited a contingent of Aboriginal storytellers and writers, believing we possess vital insights into loss, love of family and country, and a deep sense of mourning and recovery. I was there along with Alexis Wright, who won the Miles Franklin Award for Carpentaria, and Bruce Pascoe, whose book on Aboriginal agriculture, Dark Emu, has impacted on how we consider care of country in the era of climate change and ecological degradation.
Christmas Hills is close to the historic site of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, which opened in the 1860s. At the time Melbourne was a burgeoning city, growing rapidly rich on the back of the Victorian gold rush that began around 1850. Many Aboriginal clans had been decimated by colonial violence and land theft. Coranderrk was to become a site of incarceration for a supposedly ‘dying race’. It was at Coranderrk that Aboriginal children in the Victorian colony were first separated from family, where they were catalogued, photographed and introduced to a system of basic education, Christianity and the Protestant work ethic.
The festival began with a ‘welcome to country’ ceremony. The writers were called to the stage to join David Wandin, a local Wurundjeri man. The Wandin name is famous in the wider Aboriginal community of Victoria. It carries a history of activism, creativity and intellect. We were in revered company, and along with my fellow writers and audience, I turned my attention to David. His talk was remarkable. While he presented a customary address in recognising his ancestors and country, David also went on to speak in terms both generous and courageous. He talked not only about his knowledge of country and a desire to share it with others, but also about the loss of Aboriginal knowledge resulting, first, from the dispossession of his people and the subsequent attempts to destroy them.
David closed by inviting the audience, predominantly non-Aboriginal people, to share stories with him and with each other in order that we might protect and care for country together. He was followed onto the stage by another Wandin: Brooke. She was equally inspiring, and as inviting and honest as her cousin had been. Brooke spoke about the difficulties she faced while growing up, defending her identity with great tenacity against those who would question her legitimacy as an Aboriginal woman. She expressed no bitterness nor anger, telling her story in a way that also encouraged others to share, to communicate and begin to learn from each other. The impact of the Wandin family on what followed that day was profound. There was no longer a need for any of us to ‘perform the writer’, although a cultural expectation of reciprocity was both acutely felt and warmly welcomed.
My friend Alice was staying at Christmas Hills for the night and I needed a lift to the nearest railway station, a 20-minute drive away. She arranged for her dad to give me a ride. We were introduced to each other and shook hands. He had an inviting, weather-worn face. On the drive to the railway station we talked about the festival and what a success it had been. We talked about a shared love of exercise and its impact on our ageing bodies. And we spoke about our children, our love for them and concerns for their future. He complimented me on the comments I’d made about climate change and my call to bring people together to tackle the issue. I listened intently to his warm voice and followed his hands resting on the steering wheel. I thought about how remarkable it is that people who have lost almost everything, be they the victims of a bushfire or Aboriginal people defending country their whole lives, find ways to recover. And more than recover, they are able to extend generosity and support to others.
By the time I arrived at the railway station I was overcome with a sense of optimism, an emotional state I’m not so familiar with. I had a real sense that the people I’d spent the day with were those who could truly work for change in Australia, whether it be in protecting country or nurturing each other. The day had been deeply emotional. People had revisited traumatic pasts and had shared remarkable stories of resilience. I had felt an immediate connection with Alice’s father but realised I would most likely never see him again. He was a man I’d shared no more than 30 minutes of my day with, and yet he was also someone I would not forget. Such is the potential of human connection.
When I arrived home Sara asked me, ‘So, how did it go at the festival?’ I was so excited I could not stop talking, as I watched her warm face gently reminding me, I told you so. I was also happy that my football team had unexpectedly beaten last year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Swans. Later that night I sent a Facebook message to Alice. I thanked her for collecting me that morning and commented on what a great day it had been. I also wrote a few words about her father and ended the message with the comment, ‘and I bet he’s a wonderful dad’. I lay in bed late that night wondering if such microcosms of value, of generosity, that I’d experienced at Christmas Hills could survive the external barrage of anger and disconnection. I didn’t know the answer, and more to the point I didn’t want to know, lest my gratitude for the day be crushed.
For weeks after the Christmas Hills festival I returned to memories of the day, imagining it as a microcosm of hope, surrounded by my disappointment about the atmosphere of banality and populism that dominates Australian political life, a dullness masking a history of colonial violence against people and country. Hope, a hackneyed word, for sure, but one holding the potential of reclamation. I carried the idea of hope with me to Canada, where it would be both reinforced and battered. A few days into our stay in Banff, Sara and I drove through the Rocky Mountains. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for a newcomer staring upwards at snowcapped mountains disappearing into clouds. The day was unusually hazy due to widespread forest fires that were burning out of control throughout British Columbia and parts of Alberta. Canada, a country possessing year-round snowcapped mountains, was experiencing a relatively hot and dry summer, and the countryside was responding.
As we drove the outside temperature dropped from 16 degrees to two degrees within minutes. It began raining heavily. Passing through the mountains the car radio began to fail and the reception was reduced to hisses and warbled sounds. I hit a couple of buttons and remarkably stumbled on the clear voice of CBC radio and a documentary covering the current Royal Commission into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. Many of the hundreds of murders remain unsolved and the families of the deceased carry unresolvable grief. Sev-eral commissioners have resigned from the inquiry, dissatisfied with its lack of direction or presence of cultural protocols.
Experts involved in the radio program spoke about why they felt the commission was failing, but generally agreed that it should continue and produce a final report. A senior criminologist was interviewed. She spoke strongly, perhaps too strongly for the interviewer. We again began to lose radio reception, but not before the criminologist commented that no inquiry was necessary to understand why so many women and girls had been killed. Since the arrival of colonialism on First Nations territories, she argued, Indigenous women had been reduced to little more than objects for rape, slavery and the general gratification of colonial ‘masters’. Outside the car the wind swirled, the dark silhouette of a bird flashed across the windscreen and the radio died.
I returned to Banff that night, needing to clear my head and try to make sense of what I’d read and heard in my first week on Turtle Island. I went for a walk along a track beside the wide Bow River. I stopped and again craned my neck to a mountain peak beyond the far bank and realised that I needed to know whose country I was on, not which country I was in.
The next morning Sara and I took another drive and arrived at the village below the tourist attraction Lake Louise. It was a warm Saturday morning, which meant traffic jams, RVs, SUVs and a bigger crowd than a football final. We drove four kilometres up a steep road to the lake itself only to be sent back down the hill because the car park and ‘spill-overs’ were full. Back in the village we joined the line for a shuttle bus, which turned out to be one of those ubiquitous yellow school buses, just like I’d seen in the movies many times, often filled with screaming children experiencing a near-apocalyptic disaster.
Back at the lake we manoeuvred through massive crowds of ice-cream eaters and selfie obsessives and headed on a mountain trek towards a glacier that had been gradually receding for decades due to the ravages of global warming. It wasn’t the longest walk I’d been on—an uphill climb of about seven kilometres to the edge of the glacier and another seven to return to the lake. It was a steeper climb than we’d expected and it was tough going. The track was also busier that I want on a hike. I’m almost as solitary with my walking as I am with my running. People greeted each other along the walk, with the downhill trekkers encouraging the uphill strugglers. I began enjoying the generosity and banter, exchanged with a smile in several languages.
A little over a kilometre from the glacier is a teahouse serving lemonade, soup, fresh sandwiches, chocolate cake and tea, of course. The building, a lodge built in the 1920s, has no electricity, telephone or internet connection; a twenty-first-century horror story for some. I was worn out, a little sunburnt, thirsty and hungry. The only seating left at the inn was at a shared table. We sat down alongside a group of young people from the United States. They were quietly suffering the indignity of overhearing a group of smug Australians at the next table exchange complaints with a Canadian couple about how awful Americans were. I felt sorry for my table companions and struck up a conversation. Julia was a school teacher from San Francisco; her female friend from New York, whose exotic name I have forgotten, was a dancer, writer and performance artist, naturally. Seated alongside me was the third member of the group, Harper. He told me that he is enrolled in a PhD at Stanford University, researching the teaching of colonial history in schools.
We began talking about influential scholars in the field. At one point, on a hunch, I asked, ‘Have you read any work by the historian Patrick Wolfe?’ Colonialism is a structure not an event. Harper’s eyes lit up. Yes, his own research was influenced by Wolfe’s work, most of which he’d read. I told him that Patrick was a close friend of mine and that he had recently died. Harper appeared genuinely affected by the revelation. He was a thoughtful and intelligent kid, as were his friends. Looking across at the Australian–Canadian alliance at the next table I reflected that a country that can elect an ogre such as Donald Trump also produces people of goodwill who should not have their sense of decency shackled by those who would prefer the country be run by a cultural phenomenon resembling a mutation of The Jerry Springer Show and The Apprentice. Nor should they suffer the shallow views of those surrounding them who could spend their time better thinking more critically about the colonial history of their own countries than waving the flag.
I gave Harper my email address and told him I would send him some articles that might be of help to his research. We said goodbye and went our separate ways. Or so I thought. As Sara and I were walking the final kilometre to the glacier, I spotted the ‘young Americans’ up ahead on the trail. I slowed a little, lest they thought they were being stalked by a crazy Australian. The sky above us was as big and blue as I’d ever seen and pack ice balanced precariously from cliff ledges. It was in that moment I realised that what had begun as a most casual conversation now felt truly majestic. I’d travelled halfway around the world, walked up a mountain and sat next to a young man who told me how influential my friend had been on his own thinking. Sara and I reached the edge of the glacier. I spotted Harper standing alongside his friends taking photographs. I suddenly didn’t care how crazy they might think I was. I was too excited and hopeful to care. I told Harper how wonderful it had been to hear Patrick’s name spoken and his intellectual legacy recognised in a teahouse above Lake Louise. (I didn’t say it quite like that.) Again we said goodbye and Sara and I made our way back down the mountain.
Later that night, sitting on a landing at another lodge, at Lake Emerald, about 30 kilometres along the highway from the Lake Louise village, I stumbled across a quote from the Nigerian Ben Okri, a writer who knew something of the ravages of colonialism. Okri tells us ‘we live by stories, we also live in them’, and that ‘we live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness’. I sat sat back and reflected on the concept of chance. Like Okri I also believe stories are perpetually performed in place, sometimes complete stories, sometimes snippets or beginnings, each an opportunity for connection. I felt satisfied with myself at the end of that long day, accepting that it is more valuable to trust in a conversation with strangers at a shared table than to remove oneself from the world.
I knew that leaving Banff would be difficult for me. I was saying goodbye to wonderful people, each working on projects driven by a commitment to living with a more equitable and healthy planet. I’d met a woman writing eloquently about a community living with a legacy of nuclear waste poisoning their homes. Another was a poet and activist, built like a sparrow but possessing a big heart she takes with her into the Amazonian rain-forests of Brazil where Indigenous people are killed so land can be cleared unabated. I’d had long conversations with a writer, musician and busy parent from Chicago, an artist invested in a love of marine ecologies. She is a remarkable woman who just happens to be living with a genetic illness that has claimed the lives of members of her family far too early. At the Banff Centre I had met many people passionate in their belief that we are in a fight for the planet and for each other from which we cannot withdraw. People who carry the struggle forwards with creativity and political commitment. People who I believe will put their bodies on the line when the time comes to fight for country.
The last piece of news I received from Australia before preparing to leave for home was about the fallout resulting from a criminal trial in Kalgoolie, Western Australia. A young teenager, an Aboriginal boy riding a dirt bike, had been rundown and killed by a man who claimed the bike had been stolen from him. A photograph accompanying the article, taken at the crime scene, was of a patch of dirty oil staining red earth. The accused man was found not guilty of manslaughter and convicted of a lesser charge. The response from Aboriginal people across the country was immediate, consumed with sadness and anger. My work, my primary interest at present, is concerned with negotiating avenues that might bring otherwise conflicted communities together to work hand-in-hand to protect country. The goal will remain elusive while the lives of Aboriginal people are treated with such brutality and distain.
And so I began my long return home sitting on an empty bus looking out at country both staggeringly beautiful and, like landscapes of home, a place masking its secrecy. For two weeks I’d been a guest on country belonging to the Treaty Seven First Nations groups. In 1877 the nations negotiated a treaty with the Canadian government, which wanted the land cleared in the interest of private railway companies, opening that land with a wound. The sovereign rights to country have been eroded ever since. The Treaty Seven groups have lost access to much of their land. Their children have been stolen and their loved ones have been murdered. But they continue the fight, as we must fight. Leaving town that afternoon, the scent of smoke from the recent fires remained in the air. We passed a sign, ‘Welcome to Banff’. But I was headed in the opposite direction and had a long way to travel. •