The weather was that of early spring – a day grey and overcast, later filling with snow flurries, then shifting to bright sunlight among clouds as I drove south from Peace River, Alberta. I was taking time … to look around, to explore, to learn more about a region I drive through regularly but through decades had not yet investigated.
Back in December 2022, interested in the terrain of the Peace River’s river valley, I asked a farmer from the region about possible vantage points for viewing the river. The river that is from one kilometre to a kilometre and a half wide as it moves through a region I teach in has intrigued me since my wife, and I flew into a fly-in teaching community three decades ago. Two locations were recommended to look over the town of Peace River and along the river valley. The Twelve Foot Davis gravesite was high above the town on its east side. The second recommendation caught my attention – the Sagitowa Friendship lookout point had been described as being along the road to Judah, the hamlet of Judah … perhaps forty minutes south and west of Peace River along a road that follows the southern river bank. This lookout point allows the eye to travel west and south following the river; it allows for a look down and north to the town of Peace River’s south end, up to its north end; it allows, for a look across the river to the Shaftesbury Estates, the West Peace area, Saddleback Ridge and the Pines.
I was at the Sagitowa lookout working with my camera. After several shots, it began to snow. I packed up and began a drive toward Judah. In the early afternoon, the sun came out, somewhat harsh in terms of the contrast of light and shadows. Within the hamlet of Judah, I found treasure – this homestead.
Quotes to Inspire – two quotes have found me this week; both have value for a photographer. First, ‘We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are (Anais Nin).’ The second is one that seems related, ‘People only see what they are prepared to see (Ralph Waldo Emerson).’ This quote highlights a photographer’s readiness to see a given subject and perhaps maturation in terms of seeing that subject. It attaches to a follow-up statement, ‘If you look for what is good and what you can be grateful for, you will find it everywhere.’ So, perhaps Emerson’s quote is a nudge out-of-context but still has import as we use it.
Listening to: Motorhead’s version of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes,’ Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Can’t Dance,’ Pickin’ On U2 – A Bluegrass Tribute’s version of ‘One,’ and Bono’s ‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ audiobook reading.
On the final day of 2022, I drove from Lethbridge in southern Alberta to High Level in northern Alberta, a long fourteen- to fifteen-hour journey. As a return drive, I had started early, reached Edmonton just after noon, and continued northward through the day. In that time, I concluded my listening to an intriguing audiobook, ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson, about Winston Churchill written recently and with access to documentation from previously unavailable sources; the book compiles memoirs and correspondences into a more intimate view of Winston’s world – Britain and its people, colleagues, family, friends, brokered loyalties, royalty – all at a time of war, World War II.
Close to 9:00 p.m., my drive brought me to Manning, Alberta, where I fueled my Corolla, got snacks and began the last leg of my journey home. Northward, cresting the hill leading out of Manning, clouds in the night sky reflected bright, red-orange light. As I drove toward the Manning airport (ahead, on my left), flames reached high into the sky.
A building was burning, not at the airport, but at a farm on land immediately preceding the airport. The building was one I had considered photographing through the years. But it had been dressed down. While the overall shape and architectural style held interest, the building’s windows were boarded up, and the structure had been painted a dark chocolate brown. It was more a dark brown brick than architectural interest worthy of a photograph.
I pulled into a service road connecting the farm and the airport. I photographed this blaze from my vehicle. Looking at this image now, the fire’s light reflects on people’s faces, the fire holds the gaze of people who have come to witness this spectacle, and people chat and are at ease with each other. It was New Year’s Eve, a night to say goodbye to 2022, a night to say goodbye to this old farm building.
A week later, driving south, the building was absent. Nothing remained. The area where the building had stood was flat, cleared of debris and now offered a clear, unimpeded view from the farm home out to the service road and highway. Winter likely had been the safest time to burn this farm building, and burning the structure may have been the most efficient way to remove it.
Listened to: Erik Larson’s ‘The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.’
Quotes to Inspire (1) ‘I walk, I look, I see, I stop, I photograph (Leon Levinstein).’ (2) ‘Photography must be integrated with the story (James Wong Howe).’
In my free time, I looked back through my Lightroom catalogue this past summer. I took the opportunity to view images I had taken a while ago. The intent was, in some ways, a historical look back. In another way, it became an opportunity to edit images I like using my present workflow. This dandelion image became a series of different edits – these edits. Looking back, I was surprised that this is a photo from October 2016 and that I had taken the image with my Olympus E-M5 Mark II. Pocketable and light, this camera was easy to use, rendered good images and was a camera I enjoyed using.
Quote to Inspire – “If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them. But if you argue for your possibilities, you get to create them!” ― Kelly Lee Phipps.
Listening to: Spencer Elliott’s ‘Torque,’ Charl du Plessis’ ‘Ode to Peace,’ Pat Green’s take on U2’s ‘Trip Through Your Wires,’ Birdy’s ‘Quietly Yours’ from the ‘Persuasion’ soundtrack, and 100 Mile House and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning.’
Beaverlodge was the place. On an Alberta February afternoon, I had traveled west from Grande Prairie with my camera – to Hythe, back up to the McNaughton homestead, and then to the Halcourt Church. The sun had been out for most of the afternoon. Towards the supper hour, clouds began to drown out sunlight, the sky becoming grey-white, then overcast, and then darkening. The shots I had taken were of the prairie landscape, often old farmsteads, often derelict buildings no longer used yet still holding the memory of Lives lived by farming families. Often, through the years I would notice that a farmer had cleared buildings from the land. Nostalgic views would disappear.
Light waning, I drove back through Beaverlodge, eastward intending to begin my return drive north. I took a chance and turned left (north). I drove up a hill on a Beaverlodge street that would become a highway. On the other side of this hill, I found the Beaverlodge experimental farm. On the east side of this road before the next highway junction, I gathered these images – a lone house alongside a living snow fence – a row of trees to prevent blowing snow; they are set upon the ark of a horizon line.
Listening to – Of Mice and Men’s ‘Dirty Paws,’ Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘What’ve I done to help?’ and ‘Be Afraid,’ and Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Strange Waters.’
Quote to Inspire – ‘The pictures are there, and you just need to take them.’ – Robert Capa
Above, you’ll find a reworking of images that can be found within this website. It was good to find the time to add a different visual take on these vehicles – the trucks are those that were at one time part of the construction of the Mackenzie highway.
Listening to – Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ and ‘Berlin,’ Kathleen Edwards’ ‘Take It With You When You Go,’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Ghosts.’
Quote to Inspire – “Photography has no rules, it is not a sport. It is the result which counts, no matter how it is achieved.” – Bill Brandt
This image is a reworking of a summer photograph from a few years back. I’m liking where the image got to in terms of edits. About the day – I remember the camaraderie of other photographers chatting with me, from other parts of the world sharing chatter about their images, and showing the image captured on the back of their camera’s screens. On the right of this image – a group of fool-hardy photographers has stepped out beyond the fence above the gorge that drops perhaps 10-15 metres. I’m glad they got to go home safely.
Listening to – the Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony,’ Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ live take on ‘Bartender,’ Ryan Adams’ ‘Wonderwall,’ and Martyn Joseph’s ‘Arizona Dreams.’
Quote to Inspire – “A photograph is like a recipe – memory the finished dish.” – Carrie Latet
One of my summer reads has been Thomas King’s ‘Indians on Vacation.’ It’s my second time through. I’m seeing more of the dynamic of a close-to-retirement husband and wife on vacation, away from the norms of their day-to-day Life, in the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague. Bird Mavrias and Mimi Bullshield are indigenous (Mimi – Blackfoot, Bird Cherokee, and Greek). They live in Toronto. In one sense, the vacation draws them away from the norms of their everyday lives, lives in which their indigeneity and that of indigenous persons within Canada are at issue. As well, it draws them out from their daily lives in Toronto.
While the proposed purpose of their trip is to search for evidence of Mimi’s Uncle Leroy and his European travels as part of an ‘Old West’ show and the medicine/memory bundle he would have carried, Mimi and Bird explore Prague – museums, walkabouts, the Charles bridge and more. While each is present to each site they investigate, each point of interest, as touchstone, leverages memory, the residue of significant happenings in their Lives – narratives of things done, not done, incomplete, and yet to complete. Each memory becomes a current stepping stone for what has brought them to Prague, each spilling out in response to what they encounter, and each often associates to unfinished/incomplete works in their lives.
Mimi and Bird move through Prague as ‘near-to-be’ retirees. They observe, they chat, they chuckle … they pull each other along, they love each other. Mimi has a moment in one of the museums, where she recalls a by-the-way kind of fact, ‘you know, they did that [ … ] at residential schools.’ The statement comes across with sober, unflinching anger. It is one inconceivable act (a haunting, repulsive consideration in this read) among the many that surfaced in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. ‘So, we’re in Prague …’ begins most chapters. In structure, it’s a re-orienting phrase that allows Bird to recap and move forward in his telling of what’s next. Occasionally, perhaps often, the statement is a way for Bird to step into his day. It often comes across as resignation – a way of saying, yes this all happened. But, it comes across with resolve too – I still choose to move forward.
Prague’s Charles Bridge seems significant. It is a medieval, sandstone structure and along either side of the bridge are statues of saints, the Madonna, the crucifix, and Calvary – there are thirty-one statues they encounter strolling from one side to the other. In one sense, the statues may act as the grandfathers do in terms of Tipi poles – anchoring points for wisdom to be lived out in action. Perhaps the intention is to contrast the saints encountered in Prague with those encountered at residential schools.
In my grappling with what residential schools were and all I am coming to know about their history and Canada’s history, I note that ten years ago the dominant word used would have been colonization and reference would have been made to colonizers. Now, ten years on, we seem to be in a time acknowledging the guilt of wrongdoing by the government and those running residential schools. Now there are Calls to Action that follow from the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One action taken as a step forward occurred this past summer. Pope Francis came to Canada and Maskwacis in Alberta and apologized to residential school survivors for how members of the Catholic Church co-operated in the cultural destruction of Indigenous Life.
My learning about residential schools came about as an educator beginning my teaching career at a school, on-reserve within a fly-in community. In the early nineteen nineties, my wife and I taught at a First Nation school in northern Alberta. As we began our first teaching year, there, an addition was being built onto the school. Students and staff weathered the inconveniences of learning and teaching in a school while a part of it was under construction. We completed our year well.
As we returned to school in the following year, the school’s renovation was complete. Classrooms would make do with existing furniture until new desks, chairs, and tables would arrive once the ice bridge allowed transport trucks across the river to the community. In that last week of August before the start of school in our renovated school, there was an occurrence. Staff were at the school into the evening with their work, readying the school and classrooms for learning, assembling the year’s plans for teaching. It might have been 8:00 p.m. and staff that had been at school began to leave for home, their teacherages.
One of our educational assistants, indigenous and fluent in his Cree language and culture, walked past one of the new classrooms, one that would be used for a kindergarten class, a class meant to acquaint students with the routines of school and to help them work in a bilingual Cree and English learning environment. No one was in this classroom as our educational assistant walked by. School corridor lights were starting to be turned off. The classroom’s lights had been shut off. As our educational assistant walked past, the classroom door opened … on its own. This event was significant and troubled the educational assistant. He took the information to community elders. We, as a staff, heard about the event days later.
Elders were concerned and did not want to send children to school. One of the elders asserted that the incident had to do with the souls of students who have died. A Jesuit priest who served the community was called upon and asked to perform an exorcism of the school using the burning of sweetgrass and holy water. We did begin the school year, but it took six weeks to gather most students into a regular pattern of daily attendance. All that happened in the fall of 1992, in a new school within a First Nation in its first years of self-government.
There is a learning point for me, here, though – something I had not grasped until 29 May 2021. From the time of the door opening in our new school and the community’s response to it, I grew to understand more and more about the residential school survivor experience. Through time survivors and counselors who worked with survivors would tell me little bits of what had gone on with residential schools and about impacts. As a teacher, attention would be drawn to the matter of taking children away from their parents and being without parent examples through their time at residential school as a dynamic impacting the parenting choices of residential school survivors – a void of parenting knowledge. My understanding began to grow about something called ‘Residential school syndrome,’ something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, the First Nation we worked with, back then, is to be commended for one of the primary goals they asserted for their teachers – in all that teachers did and would undertake in their teaching, teachers were to work from a stance of ‘good understanding’ when working with students and their parents.
But, there was more. A newer revelation came my way. I had not yet grasped this other potentiality for First Nation parents and families. On 29 May 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia disclosed that the remains of approximately two-hundred children were found buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In hearing this news, I understood something significantly more disturbing than what had been my understanding about survivors and their families. While Indigenous children were taken from their families to school, it sometimes was the case that children did not return home. In the case of the Kamloops residential school, these two-hundred children are now considered missing children because their deaths are undocumented.
Michelle Good’s novel, ‘Five Little Indians,’ opens out the experience(s) of residential school survivors. What is more, though, parts of the novel have the reader consider that it was sometimes the case that a child’s parents were never informed of their child’s death. Children did not always return home to their parents and family from residential school.
In northern Alberta, at the school we taught at all those years ago, the kindergarten door opening in front of our educational assistant at a newly built school now had a deeper significance. At that time, the elders had considered that the souls of children who had not returned home from residential school were responsible for the classroom door opening. In May 2021, with the Kamloops residential school disclosure of graves surrounding the school, I was now able to understand more of the reality behind the elders’ concerns in sending students, their children to school.
Listening to: Bob Dylan’s ‘Dignity,’ John Prine’s ‘Summer’s End,’ Bruce Springsteen’s ‘One Step Up,’ and Blue Rodeo’s ‘Hasn’t Hit Me Yet;’ also a good listen to Gord Downie’s ‘Secret Path for Chanie Wenjack.’ Listening as well to Northern Cree’s ‘Straight Song,’ ‘A Song for TJ,’ and ‘Wah-Yo, Always Pray It Will Take You a Long Way.’
Quotes to Consider – “The residential school experience is one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history.” — Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission chairman, in his final remarks on the report.
Three weeks back, in the midst of mileage and a COVID pivot, on a road west in Southern Alberta I was able to stop, get out of my truck, frame this image and two others, return to my truck and motor on. Many elements make this image come together, not the least of which is the encounter of colour within what is largely a monochromatic image. Liking it.
Quote to Consider / Inspire – “One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” – Minor White, Frames Magazine, February 2021.
Listening to – Kathleen Edwards’ ‘Take It With You When You Go’ and Appalachian Road Show’s ‘Don’t Want to Die in the Storm.’
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