My Season in Haida Gwaii

By Ingrid Olson

Years ago I moved to a very remote part of Canada. At a moment’s notice I had left my world.

I knew what I had to do. It was about getting reacquainted with that warrior spirit that lives within all of us and I had stumbled on the place to do it.

Haida Gwaii is a land of mists, eagles and lush rainforests; a land of magic and mystery.

As the ferry pulled into the Haida village of Skid gate, a journey that had taken one and a half days up the inland passage of British Columbia, the beating of drums over the water welcomed me. Shivering with the beauty of that moment I knew my healing had begun.

I have a story to tell of a beautiful Tshimsian woman who became my friend. Her name is Sherry.

Soon after my arrival I had rented a small one-room cabin from her. Other than not having any facilities, it was perfect! We got to know each other in her kitchen where I had to go to make tea and meals.

It was a careful relationship; on my part especially. Too many times I had seen the truth in the old saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’

In the 16 months I was there, our visits were half-hour sessions in her kitchen. We would catch up on news in the town and of course the current shenanigans complicating her love life.

We were both careful not to intrude in each other’s space.

Sherry was a person of paradox. Within her, she had to have been at war with the repercussions of murder, alcoholism and sexual abuse that had coloured her world as a child. Multiple tragedies….too many to name here.

These demons seldom extradite themselves from the fabric of our lives on their own. As a Tshimsian living among the Haida, she also knew the sting of not belonging. In her heart she carried the hope of being loved enough to be adopted among the Haida.

Many times she had witnessed white people moving to her island home of 17 years and being welcomed into their world. No such honour for her or her five children. But this is not what this story is about. This tale is about how a tradition of kindness, compassion, understanding and respect still thrives among those who have been the most wounded. And how laughter heals some of our human follies.

Laughter heals
I remember that night like it was yesterday…it was raining so hard. Sherry had decided to go to the community dance and had told me earlier that Johnny was driving her. I knew that Johnny had a ‘thing’ for Sherry; I also knew he didn’t have a prayer in that department.

That night I went into the house around 2 a.m. to make some tea. Two rooms from the kitchen I heard some very colourful language screaming from Sherry’s mouth and the sound of a man whimpering.

I stood there transfixed, not knowing what to do. Did someone need help? Should I offer or would I be intruding? In seconds I was laughing to myself. Johnny must of got out of line.

My friend Sherry grew up a street-fighting girl on the streets of Prince Rupert; she was brought up in the house of bootleggers mixing drinks as a child and dodging drunks from the time she was 7. Sherry had a side to her you didn’t want to mess with. Whatever was going on clearly Sherry was in no danger. I left closing the back door to the pitiful blubbering’s of some poor man. As always, the tale would get told the next day.

Morning finally came and with great anticipation I went to the house to make tea. I glanced at the dining room – pages and pages of foolscap with large black scrawls littered the floor and table. Sherry came through the door wearing a huge grin. As I looked at the dining room and then at her with eyebrows raised we both started to chuckle.

“Was that Johnny you were screaming at last night?” I asked, figuring Johnny had finally pushed his luck.

After a rather expensive and unsuccessful venture into the world of Asian mail-order brides, Johnny had set his sights on Sherry some time ago. If nothing else it was very brave of him. None too few white men in that furthest outpost of Canada had deemed western women suitable wives. Something to do with our lack of compliance. Either Asian women were a quick study or their legendary subservience was a myth.

Several months after this story took place ,when Johnny’s vision of l’amour with Sherry petered into home alone the fallout from his inability to handle rejection required an “intervention.” Johnny had concluded -around town- that Sherry was suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. He couldn’t fathom her lack of interest in scooping his sorry-ass up any other way. Ego! The ship that keeps even idiots afloat ! And idiots intervening! Yes….moi. Let me continue!

To my question Sherry replied, “No….no. I was yelling at Tommy. I ended up home from the dance around 1am, curled up on the couch in my pajamas, and woke up to Tommy glued to my boob.”

I stood there staring at her…not knowing what to say or think. Who the hell was Tommy? Lightening struck and the visuals got the best of me.

Peeping Tom
Up in the Charlottes most people don’t bother to lock their doors. It’s a small community where eventually everybody gets to know who’s who. Sherry used to walk down the main street and have her hand up the whole time waving to people. Like the pope on tour. She didn’t even have curtains on her front window and in poor Tommy’s defence, Sherry’s PJs were a sexy black negligee.

A bonanza for a peeping Tom passing by looking for a place and persons to peep.

Although I didn’t know it at the time Tommy had been the Skidegate peeper in residence for years.

Sherry continued, her voice a few octaves higher, body language registering cooking.

“I woke up and there he was buck naked sucking away. I jumped up…grabbed him…and hauled him over to the table screaming.. ‘What the #*@# do you think you’re doing want to end up in jail…’ …and he starts crying on me! So I shove him into a chair thinking, ‘By Golly! I have to teach this bastard a lesson…he needs help!’ So I go him a beer……”

My lips mouthed the words “you got him a beer.” It was starting to make sense. Get your molester a beer, get him nice and comfy…then soc it to him. Yep , the islands were working their magic on me.

Before Sherry got back to her story I interrupted her so we could co-elaborate on other ways we could have made that poor distraught lost man so comfy he ‘d be thinking his inner child had returned.

It turned into an episode of ‘Springer’ with Oprah awakenings. I know interrupting is somewhat of a trademark of white-folk. Annoying habit. Eventually curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask “What’s with all the foolscap?”

“As I’m freaking out at him and he’s bawling and blubbering at me, I realize I’m not getting through to this guy,” Sherry says, shaking her head. Sherry had forgotten and I was to learn that the reason Tommy wasn’t getting the picture was because Tommy’s a deaf mute. Enter pen and paper.

“He can read ….right! So I start talking that way… ‘You want to go to prison? Stop being a goof!’ And I rip off a page and hold it to his face ’til it gets read.”

Exhausted, Sherry falls silent. I can see it all plain as day. Sheet after sheet, rip after rip. And Sherry loves to talk. Remembering his whimpering the night before I know now that Tommy was traumatized. If I’d been there and had boobs I’d have given him one, I’m feeling so bad for Tom.

Sherry goes on to tell me she had him get dressed, finish his beer and leave. Tommy goes off into the rainy night. Well actually he had to come back to see if Sherry would call him a taxi. But of course!

My friend sending Tommy off in a cab so he wouldn’t catch cold, was the last straw for me. Doubled over and choking with glee, I had a profound realization.

“Sherry, my friend….life is such crap for us women sometimes. How often do we catch a man red-handed….where he knows he’s wrong, you know he’s wrong and he knows you know he’s wrong. It really bites when you’ve got some sorry-ass cornered who’s waiting to take it….and by God is going to get it…and the son of a bitch can’t hear a word your saying.”

Probably as a result of the storyteller’s big mouth Tommy’s antics eventually reached the ears of the local law. I’m not apologizing….it would have killed me not to have it go unsaid.

Justice our way
The R.C.M.P. arrived at Sherry’s doorstep a few weeks later, wanting to know if she wanted to press charges. After all, a series of offences had occurred and retribution was in order. Had they been there, I mused, they would have understood that being around Sherry when she’s pissed and on a roll was Tommy’s punishment. He certainly never returned.

Sherry had no intention of taking this out of her community. Jail would not fix Tommy’s propensity for peeping. We didn’t know for sure what would. But we knew that many of her people languished in jails with no hope for healing the wounds that ultimately sent them there.

Maybe you had to have been there. Maybe you have to see that most of what we do and the importance we attach to our judgments is our folly. Or just maybe this whole story is just a reflection of the compassion, honesty and humour that me and my friend Sherry walked for a time together on that path of heart.