Three flags whip and crack
over the Ledge like Canada Day celebrations
or hangfire warning shots
It’s Deano’s 52nd
we go to McDonalds after an hour
deliberating where he wouldn’t get kicked out, if alone. We talk
about Willie Nelson. He eats a BigMac,
I finish his fries.
I used to come to the Ledge to rev the engine at rabbits
padding along the asphalt
at things I didn’t really get
Deano and I talk
about finding bikes in dumpsters. Later, alone,
I stop at a grocery store alley
find an unopened pizza and wonder
which of these dumpsters he might’ve been sleeping in
the moment the trash was picked up
and the compactor closed.
One time with a girl
through a crack in the stairs
I saw someone move in the Legislative basement
like a dungeon
keeper of secrets I had yet to learn
bigger than a limestone building
I sit in the cold, consider
what it would feel like to have my body valued
like expired frozen pizza
or my blood used
to restore the big copper dome.
Toes and head numb, I add more wood to the illegal sacred fire
and think about Willie Nelson.
-Regina SK, March 16, 2018
(Justice for Our Stolen Children Camp, Treaty 4)
This poem was first published in Tour Book #2.
Three blocks from the venue, down an industrial street in Denver like that in any North American city that boomed in the 1950s, was a small store inside of repurposed shipping containers that sold US-made backpacks, outerwear, and slacks. The store was clean and simple and catered to the young outdoorsy types who live inside but are able to sleep in tents in exotic locations outside.
“We were one of the first businesses in this part of town,” said the shopkeeper sitting bored behind a handmade counter, hair messily gathered in a bun on the top of her head like she had just crawled out of a tent in the Rockies that surrounded her city. “Since then all sorts of businesses have opened here, which is too bad, it used to be a cheap part of town. Now there’s a luxury hotel going up just up Larimer.” The woman expresses her displeasure just as I would. I agreed as I tried on a pair of outerwear pants behind the changing curtain. Their shop and brand are participating in making the neighbourhood more expensive by selling $150USD pants, but they are at least trying to create a manufacturing industry by making their products in the USA. I left without buying pants, wondering where the nearest goodwill was.
The next day, the venue was plopped in the same part of town, only in a city that was 500 miles away, a state and a half to the east. After load-in and soundcheck, the soundman asked “Where’d you go for food? The burrito place? How was it? I heard it wasn’t that good. Yeah, this was the part of town no one would come, until my boss opened this bar and the other one, we started booking shows here, and then other businesses started coming too. It was kinda the bad part of town, now it’s the up-and-coming part of town.” At the expensive coffee joint across from the bar arcade, next to the burrito place, they were giving out a free, one-page newspaper/zine/leaflet. In it read,
“Most American cities are run by real estate interests… In Omaha, the tactic for encouraging gentrification is Tax Increment Financing or TIF. TIF is a way for cities to return tax money to developers as an incentive to put up projects that the city wants (and the public makes up the difference). Unfortunately, no provision is made for the people who used to live in the cheap housing turned into gentrified apartments. The former residents are simply scattered to the four winds. Surprised by ‘shots fired’ near 108th and Maple? This is your City gentrification policy in action.”
A similar but more developed street newspaper in Seattle uses the G-word, gentrification, describing places like Africatown in Seattle being dismembered, breaking up the “home and haven for Seattle’s Black families and businesses”, and highlighting stories of people failing to maintain housing in a rapid-rehousing program because of the recent inflation in costs of rent. Large newspapers will only use the G-word when describing vandals in Montreal or Vancouver who are terrorizing business owners, as business is the uncriticizable holy grail of progress.
I am fortunate to be able to tour with world-class musicians, but each time I’m on the road I wonder how long such jobs will exist. How long will I be paid to burn fuel and watch music in ‘up-and-coming’ parts of American cities, while around the block, that neighbourhood’s previous inhabitants are clamouring to find shelter under a bridge or in a condemned building. I do it because there’s something in music and creation that is able to be unpolluted by corporate greed, though most times it has already been bought and sold.
When people ask what I got to see this trip, Linh Dinh answers for me in his book, Postcards from the End of America, in which he visits communities across the United States left with little or no economy:
You can’t really see a city or town from a motorized anything, so if you claim to have driven through Los Angeles, for example, you haven’t seen it. The speed and protection of a car prevents you from being anywhere except inside your car, with what’s outside rushing by so fast that each face, tree, and building is rudely dismissed by the next, next and next…Like television, the private automobile was invented to wean us off our own humanity. From each, we’ve learned how to amp up our impatience and indifference towards everything, and with life itself.
After tour ends I fly home to an ailing Saskatchewan. I’d heard of the government cuts while in San Francisco, when a friend texted saying WHAT. THE. FUCK. with a link to an article about the shutting down of the province-owned small town transportation and parcel shipping company. Now home, walking through the downtown, worried citizens are passing colourful clipboards around, asking passers-by to sign one of the multitudes of petitions that are circulating to Save Our Libraries, Save our Bus System, Save our Schools. I sign them all, knowing full well that no petition will be worth the millions of dollars that the government squandered on stadiums and tax cuts on resource extraction companies. The angry protests and province-wide campaigns might get them to preserve something, but the effectiveness of these actions will only go so far if we continue to work within the system that props up corporate interest over that of the public. Though it plays into the hands of the fearmongering government and high income class, one can see why smashing windows in Montreal seems more effective.
Government MLAs show their responsibility, boasting their 3.5% paycuts, which to them means 3.5% less income to spend on boats and cottages and home renos and filet mignon. The paycuts they make to those on social assistance, the paycuts they make to those once employed by the rural transportation system, the cuts they make to the libraries, all mean that thousands of low income individuals won’t have food, shelter, a way to travel for medical treatment, books, and significantly more.
Several years ago, after seeing Chris Hedges speak at the University, I worried that Saskatchewan was the next sacrifice zone—the places that are abandoned by industry, left in disrepair and a humiliating culture of dependency after being used and left behind because of their lack of monetary worth. This could be the beginning of that reality.
It starts with the desperate government selling its struggling assets to the highest bidder, then selling its most profitable assets. They begin begging oil companies to relocate to the province to help the crumbling economy, start giving public land to large corporate bidders. At this point, entire cities and provinces will be bloated with corporate-controlled land and buildings, and towns end up, in a way, like the middle-class urban centres of post-manufacturing North American cities, where no one can afford to pay rent. Eventually, when the government isn’t coddling big business enough, they’ll pack up and move to find a different government who will subsidize their existence. Thirty years later, when our industries have died and all that’s left is cheap bars and empty buildings, businesses that pander to middle class tastes will further move into parts of town with abandoned buildings and cheap rent and begin the process of displacement of those marginalized by the loss of industry, struggling to survive in the older neighbourhoods. We are no better than the economic destruction seen in the United States, we are just a generation behind.
All that will help in the midst of a breakdown of free, communal places of existence and of the breakdown of social programs, is the creation and maintaining of communities that support one another and support the other, the different communities who are similarly affected. I am the middle class that is being pandered to, and while being in these places, eating their burritos, buying their pants, is not inherently bad, it makes it all the more imperative to support and participate in the communities that are contrary to austerity. These communities—social groups, churches, activist collectives, sports teams, artist groups, musicians—must band together to build movements that support the racialized, marginalized, the poor, Indigenous, immigrant communities, who are most harshly affected by public cuts and an economy sucked dry.
Linh Dinh, states the obvious:
For any community to be healthy, local initiatives must be encouraged, nurtured and protected, so let’s reclaim our home turf, reestablish the common, and, in the process, regain our collective sanity and dignity.
There’s this man that sits in the front left seat at the movie theatre and he’s always there. He has with him a copy of the free newspaper or a novel and is only ever there by himself. When something he deems comical happens in the film, he lets out a laugh like you’d hear in a country western movie, a croak of a chuckle. He sits through the credits and probably doesn’t drive home because he wears a scarf to keep him warm when he walks. I leave the theatre and I expect to see him there again when I return, waiting in the front left seat.
My stomach flipped and my feet went numb and I couldn’t stop myself from desperately screaming “Shut up!” at the MC on stage. He wore a pretend cowboy hat and hoodie with an anarchist circle-A on the front. I’m not usually the heckler.
“Did anyone watch the news the last two days?” he asked the audience earlier, just before I shouted him off-stage. “I hear they’ve got a new president down there. It may seem bad, but I guarantee you, because of it, we are going to have four years of the best punk music that you’ve ever heard in your lives!” he said excitedly. Punk music is an industry, apparently, like the weapons industry, agri-business, pharmaceuticals, private prisons–it profits off the misery of others. So I booed him. I fucking booed him and he got off stage to let the band play. Protest works. The opening band got on stage and sang ten songs exclusively about baseball, a man dancing around in a jockstrap, his exposed ass jiggling on-stage.
I gave up. Halfway through the baseball band’s set, I walked to the coat rack next to the arcade game to hang up my jacket. The man from the movies sat at the bar of the music venue reading a book, sipping on a non-alcoholic beverage. He lifted his head once or twice during a song to see what was going on onstage. I don’t see him leave and I don’t see him stay.
He isn’t real. I’m convinced. He appears and disappears like a phantom or a projection or a conscience or a prophecy. A wake-up call that I haven’t yet woke up. Maybe the man on stage wasn’t real either. His hat was far too ridiculous and his hoodie far too ironic and his speech far too annoying to be a real person. Maybe he was a construct of my disillusionment in the so-called progressive, socially-minded left, a culmination of that and the realization that aggressive music rooted in anti-establishment values is long dead. I feel as though I’m dreaming all of the time.
The farm had five kittens. They wrestled, kneaded the dog’s fur, climbed trees, licked hands, did somersaults. Any spare chance between chores or before coming in for lunch, I played with them. I picked one up and held it and pet it until it purred or until it jumped out of my hands onto the gravel driveway. The cats registered in me no joy. I expected to have this feeling where my chest flitted and my body felt light, but that never came, even when they gently chewed on my finger or mewed on my shoulder. Like they were an emotionless dream, a non-reality.
After the week on the farm when I end up in the same, unchanged, cell-like apartment after playing with kittens at sunset on a cattle-ranch in the hills, after travelling the world with a successful musical act, after camping alone in the woods for a week–when I end up lonely with a sore throat in my empty apartment, I can’t help but wonder how those things could possibly have actually happened.
I want to ask friends if we actually went camping in the woods, if we actually kissed, if those kittens were actually purring, but their responses would be unimportant. If you ask someone in a dream if you’re dreaming, they have no existential obligation to say yes.
I woke up in the basement of the farmhouse, maplebugs crawling on the sheets, American flags attached to a latch-hook rug of a First Nations man in a headdress on the wall. This can’t be real either, I figured. I didn’t know what happened the night before. I didn’t know because I went to sleep before Trump’s acceptance speech. That it happened when I was dreaming dystopian post-election dreams didn’t help me when I woke up wondering if it was reality that a man endorsed by the KKK was the ruler of the ‘free world’. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that there were enough people in one country that held his same values, I’ve met enough people in my life to know that it is more than possible. I went upstairs and Fox News confirmed what had happened. I’m still asleep, I figured.
Intellectuals such as Chomsky and Hedges and Nader predicted it five and ten years ago. They saw a population of working class whites abandoned by liberal governments selling their privacy, their healthcare, their jobs to corporations, leaving a political climate ripe for fascist rulers. Prophesy doesn’t help ground me in reality, it simply makes it more dream-like.
As I struggle in my own crisis of absolute reality, women, the LGBTQ community, First Nations, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics shout to me to affirm that it is indeed reality. Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors shout at the world for support. It is their reality. Reality hits; just because it doesn’t affect a person of privilege doesn’t make it not real. The ‘it doesn’t really affect me’ mentality is rooted in privilege and denies humanity to those who it does affect. If this election doesn’t affect you, if this pipeline doesn’t affect you, meet someone that racism does affect in your own community, and then instantly, it does.
The ‘unaffected’ non-American struggling with the facts of our new-found political situation, struggling with the idea of a race war between our next-door-neighbours, need to show support in ways more than just internet solidarity. In ways more than writing blogs, stories, songs, tweets. We can learn if our bank supports and funds oil pipelines and change to a new bank. We can boo Trudeau, the neo-liberal asshole in the ridiculous hat, off the fucking stage. If we sit and let him talk, he’ll be up there for hours, masturbating to the sound of his own voice, until we all realize that we are subject to more than just an unfortunate exchange rate when we want to holiday south, but to the inconceivable reality of facist rule.
The man in the movie theatre isn’t real. He is a delusion caused by stress and anxiety and depression and terrifying elections and the feeling of being completely helpless. Or he is real and he is now sitting at home with purring cats watching the latest election news. I won’t know either way until I go up to him and ask him what he thought of the movie. The MC on the stage isn’t real until he beats the shit out of me for heckling him. The kittens aren’t real until one of them lives in my apartment and scratches my leg. The only way these things become reality is if we allow them into our lives. Oppression isn’t our reality until someone we love has been oppressed. When this happens we can begin to relate with people we have never met who are calling for help to be saved from the hands of those in power.
This becomes our reality when we share in the oppression of our neighbour, and when it becomes our reality, when someone we love is oppressed, we will have no option but to act.