I left home nearly 30 years ago and swore I'd never be back. Now I'm here for a week long visit with my family, and all I want to do is stop time and be here forever.
I left home when I was 19. I would have left earlier, but I did my OACs (remember grade 13 in Ontario?!?), and I still hadn’t sorted out if I’d be taking a scholarship to school or if I was going to school or if I was just going to buy work boots and work in the mill where most of my friends ended up.
I was in a rush to leave my parents’ house, I was in a rush to leave Fort Frances, and I was definitely in a rush to leave Northwestern Ontario. Not because I hated it here (insert cheese ball teen movie cliche, but also, I kinda hated it here), but because I felt like I had so much other shit I wanted to do in my life. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I went to college in Minnesota, where I played hockey and did a theatre degree. While at school, all I could think about was all the other shit I wanted to do in my life. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I finished school in 1999 and moved to Toronto to chase my dreams.
I found an affordable place to live in the city and enrolled at the Centre For Indigenous Theatre to continue my training. While there I met peers and mentors that would forever change my life, Lee Maracle, Herbie Barnes, Columpa Bobb, Drew Hayden Taylor, Nick Johne, Ian Ferguson, and Other People’s Kids (Athena, Vern, and Greg), to name a few. At that time, CIT was magical.
Things were always hard, and I was always broke, but somehow shit seemed to work out for me. My elders tell me that was my spirit helpers intervening - as a borderline Anishinaabe atheist, I’m not so sure. Still, if an eagle, bear, or beaver wants to help with my mortgage payment at the end of this month, that’d be greatly appreciated.
Anyway. Toronto. 1999.
After being there only a few days, it finally felt like I had arrived somewhere.
I was 21 years old and had no idea what the fuck I was doing with my life.
The corner of Dundas and River was where I caught my streetcar. Sometimes I’d get out in Cabbagetown, walk around, and eat cheap pizza by the slice. Victorian Gothic-styled homes sat in rows. I walked in awe of the two and three-story wonders that littered the streets.
Across from these homes sat Regent Park, then one of the poorest neighbourhoods in all of Canada. I walked in awe of it too. I cut across Regent Park all the time; my naivety put me in spots I shouldn’t have been - where were my spirit helpers then? Not that I needed them there. I was friendly with a few folks in Regent Park, and I was never bothered when I walked through there. I did walk in on a few situations I shouldn’t have in the middle of the park while trying to take a shortcut up to Queen Street, but I was just told to turn the fuck around and not come back. I never took that shortcut again.
I was always struck with Toronto's juxtapositions - yuppies in Volvo’s on one side of the street, predominantly black youth in city-made ghettos on the other. The collision between people and culture is something I discovered in those earliest days in Toronto, inspiring me to this day, the collision between people and culture.
Other times, when I didn’t get off the streetcar, I ventured further down Dundas Street; the CIT training centre was at Dundas/Dufferin back then. Most weekdays, training started at 9 AM. That meant I’d have to be on the streetcar around 7:30 AM to get there in time. The streetcar rides were often sleepy, smelly, and crowded, miserable by all measures. But they were so important.
Neighbourhoods passed by the streetcar window. Regent Park. Cabbagetown. Yonge/Dundas. Chinatown. Kensington Market. Little Italy. In my earliest days in Toronto, I stumbled into the heart of the place without even knowing it.
On the streetcar, I’d stare out the window and see remnants of small storefronts with timeworn and sun-damaged signs that let people know you could make photocopies or send faxes for $0.05 a copy. My mind would wander to the families that once owned these places - what happened to them? Where did their hopes and dreams go - or was this storefront their hopes and dreams? Was offering faxes and photocopies an intentional hallelujah to try to save the business? How hard did they fight to make it here? Why did their shop fail?
Weirdly, getting lost in the imagined stories of people I never knew and never would meet inspired me to work harder and find my hopes and dreams, even if I didn’t know what those were yet.
Every day in the city, I got closer to who I wanted to become as a young man. I was never overwhelmed by the city, I always wanted more.
I learned that I liked walking into small art galleries to look at art I didn’t understand.
I learned that sitting in Futures Bakery on Bloor Street meant I would discover I, too, could write bad poetry no one would ever read.
I learned that guardian angels could come in the form of a Vietnamese lady who would sell me a foot-long Bahn-mi for a dollar every day, keeping me alive when I had absolutely nothing when my career first started. Her name was Carol.
I learned that roaming around the city alone was my favourite. These were the days before the internet and social media or cell phones - so my daily finds of a good book or an excellent coffee or a CD that I’d always hoped to find were just for me.
Exploring the city without a plan was a way that I was beginning to explore myself. I was free. Being alone in Toronto meant being free.
I think this was the most important time in my life.
Around 2000/2001, I threw myself into the life of an artist.
I worked on my craft every day.
I’d see plays. I went to open mics. I wrote. Every day I did something to get closer to wherever it was I thought I was going. Most nights, I’d go to three, four, or five different rooms to see shows and to watch people do work. I took night classes. I jammed with my improv troupe, Other People’s Kids. Eventually, I’d start getting up in dark rooms in front of strangers to try characters and bits of writing that I thought was funny. I failed every night I did this.
It was glorious.
I didn’t have a backup plan, which was all there was - being on stage, creating.
Some people have their degrees to fall back in if shit doesn’t work out; my degree was in theatre. I never bothered creating a safety net for myself; what the fuck for?
I was free to create the life I always thought I wanted. I was DOING the thing.
I was free to roam, perform, and write whenever I wanted. I was free to drink and eat, and eat and drink, whatever and however, I wanted. And I did that. There was a lot of drinking. It was one of the things I was good at, I had lots of practice in Minnesota.
This was fun for a while, or I should say, while it lasted. I mean, I think it was fun. I was one of those annoying dinks with too many opinions about a world I knew very little about. I thought I was interesting because I hung out in bookstores and coffee shops, and “creating was my thing.” How fucking exhausting.
I guess I thought I was growing up. And I can look back and give myself a bit of a break, I was growing up. I just wasn’t being honest about it. I convinced myself I was flourishing, growing into someone I’d always wanted to be. In some ways, I was, but in other ways, I was running away from who I actually was.
Being away from home and the town I grew up in meant I felt like I could leave behind the things that hurt me while there. Turns out that’s not how it works. In Toronto, I first flashed back to my childhood and the multiple sexual abuses I’d survived.
I was fucked up, and I knew it.
It was around this time that I dabbled with therapy and sobriety. I made my rounds to Anishinaabe Health, the Native Canadian Centre, Council Fire, Na Me Res. I wanted help, I didn’t know how to ask for it. Instead, I started singing powwow and thought the culture would save me. It didn’t, but it opened doors to people I would have never met otherwise.
I met an old man named Roger Jones from Shawanaga First Nation. He brought me to his reserve, threw me in the bush for four days, and put me out for my first fast. He saved my life by doing this.
While fasting, I went face to face with my ego and everything that haunted me. These were the longest four days of my life. I’m going to write about this fast in an upcoming post.
Once without water and food and alone in the bush, eventually, all you focus on is you. You’re alone. It feels unsafe. The mind is a hell of a deceiver. Every sound you hear becomes the big scary monster that has come to kill you. Little did I know there were no monsters out there aiming to kill me - I had begun doing that myself with booze and a fuck it attitude.
Fasting without food and water was the first time I actually learned who I was.
In the bush, I couldn’t be the kid in the bookstore looking at texts I couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t be the kid that roamed around the city alternating between slices of dollar pizza and pints of bar piss. In the bush, I was a pitiful, scared, and hurt young man.
Roger Jones saved my life.
He told me I’d be okay. He let me know there was a place in the circle for me even though I was fucked up. He told me I had work to do. This was 25 years ago.
As a young man, I believed being out in the world doing whatever the fuck I wanted meant I’d have the life I wanted. Maybe for some, that works; it didn’t work for me.
Roger put me on a path and told me that healing was a lifelong journey. He wisely told me not to take shortcuts with anything I did. There is no fast-forwarding through the hard shit, he’d say. He was right.
Life hasn’t been horrible for me, but it has been hard. I’ve been through it, for real. And given where I’ve come from, I’ve done alright. I’m not done. I’m doing alright.
I’m at my mom’s house this week with my family. My daughters are here. Madeline and her boys are here. Our baby boy Sam is running around morning and night. It’s perfect.
This morning, it feels like I’m where I’m supposed to be.
What a long fucking road to travel just to get to where you feel like you’re meant to be. I learned not to take the shortcut across Regent Park over to Queen Street, but I sure as fuck would have appreciated a shortcut to where I am now.
Being back here in my mom’s house brings back memories, most of them good. It has changed here; Mom has more knick-knacks, built a garage in the yard, and has big fluffy furniture. My siblings and I are older and wiser, and we don’t argue about politics or existential bullshit the way we used to.
I love it here.
Maybe thirty years ago, when I first left, my problem wasn’t with Fort Frances, my Mom’s house, or Northwestern Ontario.
Maybe I was the problem.
Maybe I was just uncomfortable being who I was then.
Maybe I love being back here now because I’m finally beginning to love who I am now.