Rampant with Memory

Oh! How our dead danced!


“Pleasure canopied in lustful smiles meets and embraces exuberant Joy…the fascination dance goes merrily, and the libidinous waltz with its lascivious entwinements whiles in growing excitement, the swelling bosom and the voluptuous eye tell the story of intemperate revel…”

Thus spake our Canadian ancestors, while Confederation dogged their heels, no doubt tightening entwinements. This ball was described in an east coast newspaper from that time.

I call them dead people because that is what they are but then–oh then!–they were so darned alive.

Yammer about Confederation didn’t arouse interest in the Atlantic provinces, who were minding their own business and doing just fine without it thanks.

(About this purple prose one editor commented: “There are some desperate fellows in the Prince Edward Island press.”)

Yes, these revellers are several generations dead while we, who live, topple on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

I love this quote for many reasons, not least because it was written by a fellow journalist from another world who stood to the side with a notebook in hand.

A pack of lies penned by a sexually frustrated man held back by the perils of conservatism.

Interest in genealogy grows with age and will soon explode with retired baby-boomers clicking madly on ancestry.com and with help from the Mormon stash.

And so, somewhere in this crowd of dead folk dancing, I hope, were our folk. And now these party-goers are several generations dead while we stand on the edge of a century and a half of Canada.

Ah, but most of our folk had yet to arrive to swear allegiance, to stand erect on looted land–right down to the name of our half-baked nation.

But stern and frightened expressions on posing faces back then suggest there wasn’t quite so much jollity. Nursing, not heaving, bosoms with babes-in-arms and bellies lift their skirts and swollen ankles past monster cedar stumps, hoping they, or their small children, won’t die.

Meanwhile, in the comfort of my brick home in Upper Canada, I tap on the doors at ancestry.

Kinesis means movement


I never married but I changed my name nearly 30 years ago. I did this after asking my grandmother how she’d feel about my borrowing her name and she said, yes, she would like that. Her name was Mercedes Shanahan; I took her first name too.

Back then, I became a writer while working for a feminist newspaper called Kinesis; that was where I posted my name change as well as in the B.C. Gazette.

Kinesis: News About Women That’s Not in the Dailies. That was our masthead.

Changing my name from Howes to Shanahan was, I suppose, a feminist gesture and one I never regretted. I killed off my old name because I loved my grandmother and once she died the name would die with her. So I took it–I gave it another life.

The old Howes half of my name will carry on: I have six siblings, most with children named Howes, so it’s safe. I love that name, just as I love them, very much, but Shanahan, now isn’t that better suited for a writer? Doesn’t it sparkle in a byline?

A while back I posted about my spinster great-aunt Mary Shanahan. That was after I visited the family cemetery and noticed that as an unmarried woman her tombstone only included “Mary,” dropping that last identifying name.

Sure it was her father’s name but Mary and Mercedes, and their four siblings, were raised by their widowed mother Sarah.

And I? I am another spinster Shanahan to follow Mary’s footsteps into the 2000s. It’s a tale of women, identity, and independence–spanning three generations.

“Kinesis” means movement. During the 80s and 90s when I wrote for that paper and honed my skills was also a time when the women’s movement thrived.

It was a time when our intrepid journalists exposed issues that are only now hitting the mainstream and raising the public’s consciousness.

We wrote about: PTSD; reproductive rights; sex selection in the Indian community; appropriation of aboriginal children; “comfort” women–who were abducted during the Second World War and systematically raped by servicemen.

We were also the first to report on missing and murdered aboriginal women. In fact, in 1986 I shot the cover photograph of a demonstration organized and led by prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These women lost sisters; they lost mothers and lovers; they feared for their lives. It was a generation before anyone listened to them.

Several of these missing women were slaughtered by Robert Picton. A name we won’t soon forget and wish we never knew.

Stories, stories everywhere



Man it’s hard being told to chop three hundred words off an obituary. I’m writing about Canadian artist, Lawrence Gradus, who died on January 7th in Ottawa. I had begun digging into research when my editor directed me to file the article in under a thousand words. This is significant. It’s like reconfiguring my brain, forcing me to heft off story after story and watch them (so it seems) trail away into loss.

It shows no mercy–not toward me, I’m not what matters here, but rather toward the subject: this man who lived the life I write.

There’s this anecdote:

In 1962, Lawrence Gradus shared the playbill with Marilyn Monroe. He and the other members of Jerome Robbins’s Ballet USA dance troop stood backstage as she crooned the infamous “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”

Perhaps he turned, in that moment, and spotted Ella Fitzgerald, or Maria Callas, standing beside him also preparing to rouse the audience on that warm May evening.

And this anecdote:

Gradus casually taught Barbra Streisand to tap dance once when they were in a Broadway show together. Her mom, (Mrs. Streisand?) later tapped on the stage door delivering Babs chicken soup.

“I was jettisoned by express subway from the Bronx into this more sophisticated world,” wrote Gradus in his autobiography Wings on my FeetA Dancer Remembers, “into a world of European and American artists, novices and stars alike in a dance soup.”

Five Broadway musicals in about six weeks: Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun, Plain & Fancy, South Pacific, and Desert Song.

“Around town, Russians dominated the teaching scene. Almost all were post-revolution and escapees and they were spread out in various ballet schools.” Valentina Pereyaslavec, Vladimir Krasnow–names I could imagine struggling to remember from a Tolstoy novel.

And then there was European touring. He danced his first belly dance at one of the nightspots in Tangiers, where caviar and champagne was served during intermissions. (In the mornings he’d slip by the caterers for a breakfast snack of caviar on thick black bread.)

By the 1970s, Canada had claimed him–not as a dancer but as a choreographer for a small Canadian modern ballet company called Entre-Six, a flexible and accessible crew, and he set off on altogether different kind of touring. To Tuktoyaktuk, for instance, where he and his dancers were met by Inuit snowmobilers pulling a string of sleds.

“To see the aurora borealis properly, all you had to do was drop down on your back and look up.”

In the school where they performed a floor covering was improvised through duct-taping together a collection of rubberized floor mats. Later, the group slept well after a hearty dinner of caribou stew and deer meat.

Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.

That’s kind of  how I feel, in having to write about this man’s life in under a thousand words. But replace “water” with “stories” and you’ll get the point. Coleridge and I, telling ancient stories of journey men. Wishing we had more time to tell them right.

Warm to the touch

This is my family circa 2013

Renaming–the subject of my last post, landing on art, as it did, neglected to add that I also grew a new identity with a new name and it was also in an effort to save my life. Neglected to tell why? Because it was trapped like so much else tends to be, cob-webbed and haunting from the tomb of personal history.

There is a faint, very faint analogy with Norval Morriseau in that the result of my name and identity change was a new “signature” on my art, on my writing. Nothing as dynamic and vibrant as his Copper Thunderbird moniker but Shanahan, Shanahan also bore a story and an important cultural history to me.

My grandmother was Mercedes Shanahan and I loved this woman. She married at 30 because she wanted to forge a career and did so, working in a Sudbury mining office in the early 1920s, the only woman there scattered among young men, competing with them for sales and once beating them out. I remember her telling me that she signed letters using only her first initial to pass herself of as a man.

Yes, she won a $100 prize for the most sales and her boss immediately reduced it to $50 because she wore a vulva into the office and not a penis. So Nana split the fifty dollars into tinier packages and handed it out to the secretaries in the office.

I changed my name to Shanahan when I was 23 and fresh from a stay in a Toronto psych ward after nearly becoming dead. I was let back onto the streets and bought myself a ticket to Vancouver where I stayed for the next decade. I wanted to be alive and it seemed easier under a new name and looking out the window onto a new landscape. I wanted the courage of my grandmother and then I began to write. My father’s name had failed me.

I had forgotten all about this when writing the last post and then it struck me: oh yes, that was my experience too, although no parent slipped me into another woman’s arms and asked her to rename me in order to stave off death. At least not literally. But I bear my grandmother’s name and wear her courage and remain, these many years later, warm to the touch.

My best creation: My family circa 2013

Norval Morrisseau’s renaming and rebirth as Copper Thunderbird



A Toronto all-weather expedition: the Art Gallery of Ontario, meeting a docent in the atrium and strolling a bit among the masters. Yesterday I had her to myself, this lovely Romanian-Canadian woman; she met me at 2:30 p.m. for the special collections tour. Sometimes the title “Docent” has a nose-in-the-air kind of sound to me so I stumble a bit and think “guide, just call yourself a guide. You are my guide.”

But truth be told: I am 54 years old. I love to surround myself with culture. I have held a membership at this august gallery for several years and it is time to embrace the title and thank these knowledgeable volunteers, especially Mariana Miholoche.

“You will be the subject of my next blog,” I told her as we parted, handing her my Rampant with Memories card.

Ojibwaa painter Norval Morriseau, known as “the Picasso of the North,” was one of our unofficial stops on her tour. We stood beside his painting  “Moose Dream Legend” (1962) and Mariana told me a story.

Morriseau  risked death as a young adult, she said, so his mother called the shaman. According to Anishnaabe tradition, assigning a powerful new name to a dying person can suffuse them with energy and save their lives. Morrisseau recovered after such a renaming ceremony and from then on signed his works with his new name: Copper Thunderbird.

The AGO bio of Morriseau reads: “The painter’s focus on traditional iconography – recovered from ancient memory erased by government policies of acculturation – was first met with rebuke by his elders. Over the course of his life and work, in fact, Morrisseau unleashed in a subsequent generation of artists a torrent of possibility, giving them a visual language in which to express their identity, culture and history.”

After savouring the first story of Morriseau’s historic renaming, Mariana told me a second story: She felt psychically connected to this First Nations artist, she said, and always paused by his paintings. Her grandmother, in Romania, had two young daughters who risked death during a yellow fever epidemic. As Romanian custom demanded, she carried her children to the home of a neighbouring woman in the village and symbolically gave them to her.

After receiving the ill children through the window, the woman changed their names then handed them back to their mother to raise.

One of these women was Mariana’s own mother, who initiated passing down this Romanian oral history.

And now it is mine to tell to you.

A final note: please also read my  Globe and Mail story about another one of Canada’s Aboriginal artistic genius: Willie Dunn


Buried on page 11


Now is the name of the Toronto news magazine I chanced upon while riding a crowded city bus the other day; it had been stamped down beneath the hurried feet of commuters. I picked it up.

On page 11 there was this story: “Another suspicious death of an indigenous woman.” Oh? News?  I thought, and commenced filling my mind with something hugely important to the social fabric of our city, our nation, and even to the tiny circumference of said bus rolling along Jones Avenue south to Queen Street on a sweltering late summer’s afternoon.

Knees pressed knees on that bus but none were kneeling, as perhaps (were I a praying woman) I might have suggested we do, after reading this tiny, buried article.

The story was about a young woman named Bella Laboucan-McLean from Sturgeon Lake Cree First Nation who  fell to her death a few days earlier, 31 stories below a condo balcony near Lake Ontario, mere steps from downtown.

The police, the article reported, are slow to investigate.

Bella had been a keen student of fashion design at Humber College’s Fashion arts program. She is one of three native woman in their 20s to die in Toronto during the last two months.

Cheyenne Fox also fell from a high-rise balcony in Don Mills.

Terra Gardner was killed by a freight train near Summerhill. Shortly before her death she  testified in an upcoming murder trial and had complained about death threats.

During this 10 minute bus ride, I learned about these tragic deaths. I also learned about a group called No More Silence  that records the murders and disappearances of Ontario’s indigenous women.

After Bella’s death women from this group returned to the death-scene balcony to lay down tobacco and light candles in a traditional spirit-release ceremony for this young woman.

The article quoted activist Audrey Huntley: “No More Silence has [also] been honouring the women who have passed in Ontario for eight years with a ceremony at Toronto Police headquarters.”

She referred to a UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, who will be sending “rapporteurs” to Canada in the coming months as part of an international intervention long requested by grassroots activists; they will also hear from native women.

We must unbury this kind of reporting and blast it coast to coast to coast.

We must become town criers.



*I wish to credit Now Magazine for my research






Christian Island musings


When I was five my parents bought a cottage on Christian Island, an Ojibwa Indian reservation on Georgian Bay, Ontario. I was terrified. Indian, to me, meant tomahawk-toting murderers, like the hootin’ and hollerin’ ones on Bugs Bunny scalping settlers. And so  I clamped myself to the doorframe, refusing to be fed to such monsters.

At the time, nobody corrected my imaginings. Instead they measured their bulk against my tiny-ness and wrenched me away from the house and into the station wagon with my siblings.

I loved my many, many years at the island, boarding the ferry for the 20 minute ride past Giant’s Tomb, arriving at the other side where the  kids dove for beer bottles off the end of the dock. A handful of  years later, I sometimes joined them there collecting my own. Scratch Bugs, sure thing; scratch playground chants and halloween costumes; scratch dusk games in the alley, most of the neighbourhood boys wanting to be cowboys.

I felt safe and able to be a kid with other kids, albeit mostly with other citified suburban white kids who jabbed marshmallows onto the end of sticks and delicately played with fire.

But death, I was still brutally introduced to death during my Christian Island visits.  Death came as car crashes, drownings, alcohol poisoning, heart attacks. It came from “old age” at 50. It came from  violence in the home or at the taverns in Penetanguishene. But it came not to us, not to the cottagers but to the villagers–to the Indians. That is part of the legacy I was left with from my time with my lily-white family at Christian Island.

We’d arrive after a long winter to count the dead. Men who had maybe helped hammer in nails on our second cabin were disappeared. Women who would awkwardly smile at me during mass–that tiny stone church in the village where I’d play among the tombstones–where had they gone?

I’m returning to Christian Island tomorrow, on my own steam, with (this time) only one sibling in the car with me. We are practically old women now, many winters successfully endured and the old cottage still stands. My seven siblings are still alive and our parents too. My mind, my world, has blistered to bursting as per my understanding of what-means “Indian” — still, it’s a shamefully inadequate distance I’ve travelled.

But death, like the proverbial puffs of smoke, that’s how it seemed. I grew up, I grew each year into maturity, and each year as I returned to the island there would be loss to meet me at the ferry dock. I was the one who survived.


Austin Hunt, Reeve of Billings Township

This is Austin Hunt. Austin sells Hawberry jam on Manitoulin Island. That’s what the sign says on the wall of his store, and so we stopped in Kagawong to buy some. Up the three steps and into his shop I’m immediately transported to another time; it was his father’s, it was his grandfather’s, it was former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson‘s elbows leaning up against the counter, because that’s how old the store is and because Pearson no doubt met with Austin there, back in the 1940s, when Austin was his riding campaign manager, the “eyes and ears” on the ground on Manitoulin Island.

Kagawong means “where mists rise from the falling waters” in the local Ojibwe language. Tucked away from the world between the cliffs surrounding Mudge Bay, things haven’t changed much at the Kagawong general store. Take a look at the shelving, the wooden drawers behind him where his dad kept tack and his grand-dad outfitted horses hooves maybe. My guess, but it probably isn’t too far off.

He’s got his Raid, his motor oil, Old Spice for the fellas, all lined up in twos and threes and covered in dust. Then there’s the “Pay Direct” sign, ever hopeful. We paid direct.

Austin’s store has been in the family for generations and now he and his son live there. His son was upstairs tapping, just as I am now, while Austin tended the cash and shyly told me about his “years off Island,” when he lived in Ottawa and worked for the prime minister.

Here’s a Wikipedian thumb-nail on Pearson:

“During Pearson’s time as Prime Minister, his minority government introduced universal health carestudent loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the current Canadian flag. During his tenure, Prime Minister Pearson also convened the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

With these accomplishments, together with his ground-breaking work at the United Nations and in international diplomacy, Pearson is generally considered among the most influential Canadians of the 20th century.”

Hawberry jam drew me into the store and while there I noticed that he had The Globe and Mail. Austin said it’s trucked in from Toronto hot off the presses around midnight and driven the six or seven hours north to Sudbury. Then they’re carted to the island early the next morning in time for the two or maybe three residents to pick up.

I grabbed the last copy and discovered that my obituary of librarian Basil Stuart-Stubbs, from far away in the mountains of British Columbia, was in that morning.

“I was in the paper once,” said Austin, quietly recalling his notoriety. “I was the youngest pall bearer at Lester B. Pearson’s funeral.”

More on Noah Augustine, Mi’kmaq Chief


As promised, I’m adding a link to the published obituary. It was in the paper on Christmas eve, the “Special Holiday Edition.” Although I was pleased it engendered perhaps a larger reading audience than usual, it saddened me to return again and again to thoughts of the loss–of Noah–to his family and to Canada.

Here’s an email I received from Noah’s sister Patricia.

“I was just speaking to my mother and she wanted to let you know that she loved the obituary you wrote on Noah. We all loved it. My mother spends Christmas with her mother in law in Cape Breton every year. And on Christmas Eve she picked up The Globe and Mail at the Shoppers Drug Mart.

She said she was feeling a little low and when she saw the obituary, she said she couldn’t stop the tears from starting to flow. She said she pulled herself together, because she was still in the store and she bought three copies of the paper. I told her I bought two copies lol. 

We both laughed as we spoke, and I read your email to me to her over the phone. She was so pleased that Noah’s obituary was printed in the paper on its most read day. She liked that a lot.  She wanted to make sure that on behalf of the family, that we thank you so much for writing such a wonderful piece about Noah.  I wish you a Merry Christmas Noreen and a Happy New Year. Take care.”

I’ll leave you now with Patricia’s words and Noah’s story.

AUGUSTINE Noah G&M Dec. 24 10

Internet of old: railway trestle circa 1850

In the highlands of the Kawarthas, Heather and I hiked through the painted autumn woods near Peterborough. Our friends Richard and Jane took us along an abandoned railway trestle built in the early 1850s, a kilometer long path edging their property.

The line was proposed in the 1830s to extend from Cobourg to Peterborough, though plans for construction were constantly put on hold or shelved until 1846, particularly due to the Upper Canada  Rebellion of 1837. The railroad was finally constructed by the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Company. It was 17 km long and reached the shores of Rice Lake, on what is now Hiawartha First Nation land. The railway was often used for delivering lumber from the newly founded town of Peterborough to the port in Cobourg.

The trestle we crossed ran along a steep gully, like a whimsical swath cut back through the decades. Now only ghosts remained. I imagined faces pressed to glass; lunch hampers and worn wellies crowding families as they settled down for their journey. 

View from the the House on the Hill
View from the the House on the Hill

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