Midnight Sweatlodge Update

It’s with great excitement that I can now announce that Midnight Sweatlodge is printed, bound, and available. Theytus Books now has copies for order, and it will start showing up in stores across the country in the coming weeks. If your local store doesn’t have it, ask them to order it! I’m thrilled that you’ll be able to read my debut collection of short stories. One of my life’s goals was always to have fiction published, and now that dream has come true.

I debuted the book’s first story “Dust” at a reading in Winnipeg last week. I was in town to work on CBC’s ReVision Quest, and coincidentally, Midnight Sweatlodge was printed the same week. Kelly Hughes from Aqua Books was kind enough to quickly organize a launch with Rosanna Deerchild and Duncan Mercredi (two of my literary mentors). About 50 people showed up, and I’m truly honoured that I was able to read one of my favourite (and oldest) stories in front of such an amazing crowd. Chi-miigwetch!

Reading at Aqua Books, Winnipeg. Final tally: Applause 5, Boo 4

I was also fortunate to do a bit of press to promote Midnight Sweatlodge while in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Free Press ran a short Q & A with me in their weekend edition prior to the launch. CBC’s Manitoba Scene also posted an interview, along with audio (at the bottom) of a chat I had with CBC Radio’s Weekend Morning Show. APTN National News invited me onto their show for an interview about how the book came about. Chi-miigwetch to everyone for the support! Keep coming to this site for more press and reviews.

We’re now planning launches for Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Parry Sound/Wasauksing (hometown show). We hope to have those confirmed in the coming weeks, and I promise to keep you updated. I’ll also be taking part in this September’s Thin Air festival in Winnipeg, and I hope to make other festival appearances in the next year. This book would not have been possible without the hard work and confidence of the great staff at Theytus and the editorial guidance of the brilliant Jordan Wheeler. Most importantly, it was inspired by young Aboriginal people everywhere – especially in my home community of Wasauksing. Last, but certainly not least, I would have never accomplished this goal without the love and support of the Rice and Shipman families. Chi-miigwetch!


Where the Spirit Lives

The wind struck me like a mild right hook the moment I stepped out of the hotel. It intensified the further I walked out into the street. I was unaware this intersection – Portage and Main – had a notorious reputation of being the “windiest corner in Canada”. I pulled my hat down tight to take a walk and see all that Portage Avenue had to offer. This was my first ever visit to Winnipeg, and I wanted to make the most of it.

It was the winter of 2006 and I had just flown in for a job interview at Canada’s public broadcaster. I was scheduled to leave the next day, hence the eagerness to see as much as possible. I walked westward on Portage, and within minutes saw a bundled-up Aboriginal couple coming my way. I nodded at them in acknowledgement, but they gave me an awkward glance in return. I didn’t think much of it and carried on. Within seconds I noticed another young Aboriginal dude in a leather jacked with long hair. Again, a nod, and no reciprocation. This continued for blocks. I saw Natives, and nodded at them. This is what we did in Toronto, because Aboriginal people rarely crossed paths on those massive streets. Some nodded back, some didn’t. After a few minutes I realized I must have looked like an Ojibway bobblehead. Feeling ridiculous, I stopped.

It took walking just a few blocks along Portage to understand why people call Winnipeg “Capital Rez”. Aboriginal people are an especially visible and increasingly crucial part of the social fabric in the city and across the province of Manitoba. Up to that point, I lived most of my adult life in Toronto, where Aboriginal people are the biggest in numbers compared to other Canadian cities, but largely invisible, diluted across thousands of neighbourhoods. So whenever First Nations people crossed paths on the street, it was a big deal. But experiencing this presence on Winnipeg’s streets was invigorating. I ended up getting the job, and over the next four years I learned why Winnipeg is the most culturally important city in North America.

That large Aboriginal population means many non-Aboriginal people in Winnipeg are more familiar with the culture and background of First Peoples than in other much larger North American cities. The odds are more people have gone to school, worked or at least socialized with someone who’s Cree, Ojibway, Dene, Metis, or Inuit (and et cetera). It’s naive to think all these encounters have been positive. But I’ve come across people in other bigger cities who didn’t know “Indians” even existed. Even just knowing someone different than you is the first step to building a bridge between cultures. Because of all this shoulder-rubbing in Winnipeg, there’s a stronger foundation than anywhere else.

Winnipeg is also one of the most diverse and culturally-rich places in the world. It’s home to the largest concentration of people from the Philippines than anywhere outside of that country. Many neighbourhoods have strong connections to waves of immigration from the Ukraine and other eastern European countries. Subsequent waves from southeast Asia and many African countries have left the city with a colourful face that on the surface, is strikingly beautiful. That diversity is rooted in the positive relationships spawned by the fur trade, resulting in a powerful Francophone community.

However, putting those facts and the rose-coloured glasses aside reveal a city that is struggling with a cultural transition. This is reflected mostly in what we see in the media. Stories of gang warfare on downtown streets, violence against sex trade workers, racially motivated attacks, and random beatings and killings. Sadly, most people immediately assume the characters in these stories are Aborginal. And a lot of the time that’s true. Therefore, stereotypes are still very alive, floating through the air. But on the ground, there’s hope, and it’s pretty easy to find.

I was fortunate enough to have a job that kept me on the ground and introduced me to dozens of people who taught me about that hope. Like a former prominent gang member who learned about his Metis culture and storytelling to escape that life. Like the two teenaged sex trade workers who surprisingly gave us an interview on Manitoba Avenue. Their sole reason was to warn others about the dangers of the life and how they wanted help out of it but worried they were trapped. Like the residential school survivor who told me that despite all of our problems, he’s the most hopeful he’s ever been in his life because now he finally feels at home in Winnipeg among other Anishinaabe people.

I felt immediately at home upon my arrival in Winnipeg. Not only thanks to the diverse and welcoming Aboriginal communities in the city, but also to the innate warmth of everyone else. All those colourful open arms embraced me. I fell in love with the city and the province and I firmly believe nothing can tarnish that. I’m proud to have called it home for four years and I think everyone who lives there should be even prouder of the great things that are coming. Winnipeg will be an example of cultural harmony that other North American cities will follow.

I walked down Yonge Street in Toronto yesterday. It felt like the first time again because it has changed so much. The city is alive, colourful, and vibrant and I will always love that. But I already can’t wait for my next stroll down Portage Avenue. If you see me, just try to nod back.


The day I fell in love with the White Stripes

This week the White Stripes will release Under Great White Northern Lights, the documentary highlighting their ambitious and touching cross-Canada tour in the summer of 2007. They played every province and territory, making community appearances during the day, and rocking arenas and theatres in the evening to support their Icky Thump album. As a fan, it was fun to watch their progress, turning heads at seemingly random points across the country. They captured the hearts of a whole nation one city at a time, building an incredible momentum that totally enamored new and long-time fans.

I bought tickets for the Winnipeg show at MTS Centre right when they went on sale. My fervor paid off – I scored floors. So right away I was counting down the days until the show. When the tour finally kicked off, though, that excitement simmered to a steady boil. The day of their show in Whitehorse, a buddy who lives there texted me to say they played a surprise afternoon show at a downtown park.

Meg and Jack in Whitehorse - photo courtesy Rob Stalkie
Meg and Jack in Whitehorse - photo courtesy Rob Stalkie

That was just the beginning. As they made their way east, they played surprise shows at places like a youth centre in Edmonton and a bowling alley in Saskatoon. The media caught wind, and it became the hottest tour in the country that summer. Fans became enthralled in an intoxicating guessing game, wondering where they’d show up next.

Finally, the day came for their Winnipeg show. It was the holiday Monday after Canada Day. I was lucky enough to have it off, and it was a gorgeous, vibrant sunny afternoon. Everyone knew they were gonna show up somewhere, but I really had no clue where. I was out for coffee with a friend when the phone rang. It was another buddy who heard from someone else that the White Stripes were gonna play an afternoon show, and that if fans wanted to try to catch them, they had to show up at the street corner across from Canwest Park. We rushed down there.

About 30 other fans heard the same buzz. Everyone was milling about, not really sure what to expect or where the band would actually be playing. This was, after all, just a random street corner on the outskirts of downtown Winnipeg. A couple dozen more showed up as text messages starting flying about. There were also three dudes dressed up in black suits with red ties and fedoras just standing on the opposite corner. They were clearly part of the White Stripes’ entourage, but they weren’t offering up any details. Finally, after about half an hour, a bus showed up, and two of them got on. One signaled to the crowd to get on too. However, only about half of the fans were able to, and the bus left. The rest of us stood there, confused. In a few minutes, text messages started coming back to us who missed the bus, saying Jack and Meg got on at the next stop, and played a few songs for the lucky bus riders.

Naturally, we were bummed. But one of the black-clad handlers told us to sit tight. After a few more minutes he told us to follow him, and led us to the end of the Provencher bridge. Again, more waiting, but we were much more optimistic we’d catch one of these rare community shows fans in other cities had been so lucky to experience. Suddenly, we saw two familiar figures emerge from the Salisbury House restaurant that’s on the bridge. Luckily, I remembered my camera.

They stood on the concrete edge of the railing, and serenaded us with three acoustic songs.

It was over in under 15 minutes, but it was one of the greatest little sets of music I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t just the intimacy and calibre of the experience that totally warmed my heart – it was the effort. Not only did this band defy the odds by playing every single corner of this country that summer, they made sure their fans got the most of their visit. There are few other bands who would go out of their way to make a tour such a complete experience for their fans. I was always really into them after they broke out with White Blood Cells, but this firmly established them in the canon of legendary bands for me. The show at MTS Centre later that night was epic as well. Picking up that documentary this week will be a sweet reminder and lifelong souvenir. I’ll always be grateful for being able to spend that day with them.