Back home after three glorious hours that seemed much longer than they really were. I left shortly after six in the dark with an oversized pot filled with beef stew, my humble attempt at bannock, a pound of butter and a club box of President’s choice chocolate chip cookies. Maybe not breakfast food, but at some point today I imagine there will be a feast. I hope so. I stayed up late last night hoping my vegetarian self would still remember how to cook an Irish stew and worried all night that I might have introduced a burnt taste by cooking the onions in the same pot I used to brown the meat. Oh please let there not be a bitter taste in the mouths of the people who would eat this food. That would be too, too harsh.
It only took a very few minutes to find my way from home to the Booth street bridge and entrance to Victoria Island. Traffic was very light in Ottawa this morning. As I unloaded the car people were coming to Chief Spence’s encampment in twos and threes, quietly. It was my first time to walk through the wooden door, so I stood just beyond the floodlight at the entrance for a few minutes, with my big pot of stew in hand. A man came in behind me a few minutes later saying ‘good morning’ as he passed so I asked him if he could tell me who I could give the stew to. He said he would find someone to help me. He had beautiful deerskin jacket on, and carried a long narrow ceremonial bag. Ahead of me and to the left there was a fire with people sitting quietly on wooden benches in front of it. Further to the left were two octagonal wooden picnic tables. In front of me stood women in twos and threes; women with long skirts on, and snow boots. More people were to my right and ahead but I couldn’t see too well. A white man with long hair and beard passed by and welcomed me. Eventually a very friendly aboriginal man came up and apologized for keeping me waiting so long but I wasn’t worried. I asked if I could join in the ceremony and he said yes, but that as I didn’t have a skirt on, I would have to stay back and to the left, and away from the sacred fire.
I sat down on the edge of one of the picnic tables watching the glimpses of fire between all the coats and backs and fur in front of me. I was very happy. The long haired white man came and sat by me. He said he had arrived last night after driving from Winnipeg and slept in the car along the way. He had stenciled Idle No More for Democracy on his vehicle. I didn’t need to talk, but appreciated his efforts and generosity to include me in what was going on. To my left – east- I could see the lights and strengthening outline of the Library of Parliament and the back of the Parliament buildings in the gradually pink-ening light. The river seemed to be only partially open. Snow and ice shaped the contours of the rocky grey banks of the river in the distance. Away from the fire but under a few pine trees were two sturdy and rectangular white canvas tents. I would imagine that 6-8 people could sleep in each one. Every now and then waves of laughter would erupt from inside the nearest one. I thought of getting my camera from the car but tried to create a picture in my mind instead.
As the light strengthened, I heard a goose honking by the river. It surprised me and I realised that it had been some months since I’d heard a goose call. And then three big Canada geese came walking up towards the encampment. Not a fear in the world. A woman in a long skirt and warm coat came towards them sprinkling bread crumbs to try to lead them away from the people. Two of them followed her. The other one walked right up to us and through the crowd until someone else shooed them back toward the river. A large man also came out with some bread- I think it was pita bread and began tearing them up into pieces and gently tossing them on the ground for the geese. The geese were very much welcomed. I had the sense they were well known to the community living there.
Two coordinators stood over close by the right side of the encampment. They introduced themselves and the man announced that for those who did not know, that this was a place where no photos could be taken during the ceremony. That no one was in any rush and that we were invited to come up and smudge. That this was a place for good thoughts and good intentions, and any political work that was going to be done later today was for outside this space. This wasn’t time to be thinking of Harper or any of that. A soft laugh waved through the crowd which was by this time growing larger. I think he said to make sure to put the tobacco into the fire, but I couldn’t hear perfectly. As I stood to listen to them, I was now facing Chief Spence’s large white tipee. The wind was picking up. The coordinator asked people to stay focussed. That we were going to get cold today. That our feet would be cold. That we needed to think about the ancestors and how hard and cold it must have been for them. To think about our people up north who have plastic bags for windows are who do their best to keep warm. To think about the people here who feel hunger pains and how they are staying focussed too. He said there would be ceremony until 10am and then people would start walking to Parliament Hill where there would be more ceremony and then the meeting.
Women on their moon time were asked by the woman coordinator to please sit by the women’s fire as their power was so strong. I was told there were skirts in a basket for those who didn’t have one. I asked the man who was feeding the smudge bowl with cedar whether I could borrow a skirt. He said yes, but that I would have to get it myself as he couldn’t touch them. Just outside the awning behind the sacred fire there were indeed a few in a Rubbermaid tub. I sorted through them, but they were tiny, tiny. One of the women beside me and laughed at how small they were. I said I didn’t want to rip them. We laughed and I slipped back towards the edge again. My new friend from Winnipeg brought me a blanket from his car and I wrapped it around my waist so that I could go up and participate in the smudge. I was deeply moved by this special moment and place. An unforgettable moment, but I still forgot to wash my hands in the smoke. I asked for good thoughts and words, and blessings by bringing the smoke up over my eyes, and ears, and mouth and heart and brought the smoke up over my head too. I picked up a small bit of tobacco in my left hand, as I had been instructed to do, and walked over to the sacred fire where women were seated working and praying. I noticed rows of little packages with a few blueberries, I think, beside white cloth tiny bundles. I saw some folded cloths.
I walked away from the fire but stayed close by and began to notice the people seated on blankets and sleeping bags in front of Chief Spence’s tipee. There were about 6-8 people with long pipes, puffing carefully and creating smoke towards the four directions, others combining herbs and burning them in large sea shells. Each person had their own ceremonial bags, small quilts, carefully wrapping their pipes and shells up at the end of their prayers. I was surrounded by smoke from the women’s fire, from the tents, from the smudging and from the sacred fire. A man went through the blanket into Chief Spence’s tipee and came out a few minutes later. He shook his head to the man looking after the smudge. The coordinator announced to the drummers that there would be no drumming until Chief Spence woke up.
The coordinator walked to the women’s fire. He invited people to stay by the fire til they were warm and then to let others in. I was happy to have my layers on, especially the wind pants. Another man beside me was sleeping in his car after having driven in from Cold Lake Alberta. I heard another man say he was Dene and came from the middle of the Northwest Territories. Many women came in their regalia, which I could see better now that it was light. Women with their hair pulled back and beaded halr clips, some with a feather. A few women in felted embroidered Arctic coats with peaked hoods lined with fur. A few very under-dressed white graduate students, I assumed. Stylish urban wear. Lots’ of Timmy’s cups of coffee. A young woman poured out some hot chocolate and offered it around the smaller fire.
Eventually, it was time for me to leave to come back home. I didn’t hear the drumming or the singing, but I carried the quietness away with me. I thanked the traveller from Winnipeg for the blanket and wished him well. Outside in the parking lot, I saw that Wab Kinew was just behind me and I turned to let him know that I had begun our “Communities in Crisis” with one of his segments from the Eighth Fire and that I would like to thank him for it. He shook my hand. I thanked the two security men who were now not letting cars into the little parking lot. The one who had taken the stew from me earlier said to come back anytime to pick up the pot. I asked whether they would be there after today and Saturday. He said, ‘Oh yes. We are going to be here for a long time.’ Indeed. A long time. Both of them invited me to check for updates on Facebook. ‘Yes’, said the first one. ‘It is a very special morning. We will remember this as long as we live. It’s once in a lifetime’. I thanked them again before driving out and away from the encampment, filled with awe, impressed by the strength of this movement and the inclusiveness and generosity of the people, and profoundly grateful for having had the chance to share in this moment of strength-gathering.