Today I realized, while looking at a poster of the event that hangs on the wall behind me, that exactly twenty years ago I was standing on the steps of Queen’s Park in Toronto, facing a crowd of 1500 concerned citizens. I’d come down to the big city from a remote camp on a lake in the Temagami area of northeastern Ontario. For six weeks I’d been living with a group of activists who were blockading the construction of a logging road. I was a member of the board of the Temagami Wilderness Society who had initiated the blockade. We started off with over two hundred enthusiastic supporters in September, many who were arrested for standing their ground against the big machines, and as the weeks went by we held our position but with less and less visitors. They were either cops or construction workers, Indians from the area, the occasional journalist with a budget to fly-in, or committed souls hardy enough to make the day trip paddle into the camp. Those of us who lived fulltime in the bush throughout the several weeks of the blockade were all folks who thrived in this natural environment, but by the sixth week we were definitely getting kind of bushed.
When a rally was called for October 29, 1989 in Toronto to support the action in the Temagami forest – “Halt the Chainsaw Massacre!” the t-shirts proclaimed – organizers wanted someone to come and describe what was going on up there. So I cleaned up and went south to the city.
I was on the same bill as half a dozen people, including a powerful anti-racist and warrior for aboriginal rights, the late Rodney Bobiwash, as well as Bob Rae. In his finest hour, the year before he became Ontario’s first NDP premier, Bob came and supported our action in the woods, getting taken out in the paddy wagon. He also helped keep the issue in the news and on the government’s agenda. That afternoon on the concrete steps, each of us spoke about the need to protect the old growth pine forests and the integrity of the wilderness surrounding Temagami and search for long term solutions for jobs for people living in the area. We also spoke of the great responsibility the government had to finally settle the local first nation’s land claim that had been steeping in a bowl of tepid tea for years. The Teme-Augama Anishnabai’s struggle for justice was peaking. It was a very powerful time, one of those moments when you think that what you are doing might really make a difference to the future of your community and our planet.
I remember walking up those steps, feeling a little shaky, and turning to face a sea of excited and expectant faces After having lived a very primal existence for weeks, albeit one kept charged by constant intense discussion and political awareness, I felt like a wild beast who’s been invited to the dinner table. I truly don’t remember exactly what I said but I know it was received warmly. I knew that TWS wanted me to explain our present position – that the action was still alive, we were hoping more people would come and stand strong with us against the construction, that we were still in talks behind-the-scenes with the government to get the road stopped. Organizers had told me that people needed to put a human face on activism and so to just speak from my heart (which tends to be the only way I wanna go). Because the blockade was five hours north on the highway and another several hours in by lake, they wanted me to bring the thoughts and feelings of the protestors to supporters in the city who couldn’t take that long trip north.
The fifteen minutes that I spoke flew by in a haze of culture shock that I survived due to my great belief in the cause and my ability to ramble on. I didn’t get to see a recording as this was before everyone carried a cell phone. I only know that it was a powerful hour or so that we spent on the front landing of Queen’s Park. And I came to realize, clearer than ever before, that there is nothing in powerful political action that can substitute for sharing first-hand experience, bringing the issues down to the human level, maintaining open dialogue, and feeling passion for justice.
The other thing I remember about that whirlwind trip to Toronto (I quickly retreated back to the camp the next day) was going to see Bonnie Raitt in concert but ending up falling for Lyle Lovett. One of my buddies in the bush, Eddy, knew that Bonnie was going to be playing and insisted that I buy a ticket for myself with his credit card and enjoy the show for the dozen or so folks left at camp. Her latest album, Nick of Time, was one of the few cassettes that we had with us to listen to at camp on our little battery-run cassette player – it became a big part of the soundtrack of the blockade and we were all huge fans.
With my friend Cocky and a couple of others, we went to see the concert. This guy we had barely heard of shared the bill with Bonnie. By the time Lyle Lovett and his Large Band played their larger-than-life set, we were all blown away by his talent, energy, and the range of his music. We were exhausted by the time Bonnie came out – she was fantastic too, but Lyle had been the bomb.
Yes, October 29, 1989 was an amazing day in my life.
Twenty-years later, I find myself living half of my life in a city (the hard rock Hammer), the other half in Costa Rica (which I barely knew a thing about in 1989), communicating through a thing called a blog, staying in touch by e-mail, and hanging from time to time in a strange community called the Facebook. I’ve written a book about a man, Wolf Guindon, I hadn’t yet met in 89 (but would soon) and loved then lost a few men more. I had cancer but it didn’t kill me. I just spent October 29, 2009 healthy, happy and with pretty much the same political beliefs and value system that sent me from a camp in the bush to the steps of Queen’s Park twenty years ago. And music is still a huge part of what I love about living.
They say as you get older you get more conservative. Fortunately, that particular sickness doesn’t seem to have struck me. I may better understand and anticipate the results of my actions and the risks I’m willing to assume in all matters of life now, but I still believe in working for social justice and that still falls on the left side of the pendulum swing. I believe in the power of the grassroots, that establishing peace is paramount, and that a just world would be a healthier world (and vice versa). Besides that, it’s more complicated than ever, the questions becoming more numerous, the answers always dangling ahead of us like a carrot that baits the rabbit that tempts the dog – in the end no one wins if we don’t hook on to the solution. I try not to lose perspective or hope. I refuse to not feel joy on a daily basis despite all the news that forces a thinking person to the dark side. I continue to retreat to the bush or the jungle or to the base of the nearest tree to regain my balance, renew my passion, and self-medicate myself with nature’s restorative elixirs.
Fortunately, in about three weeks, I have a date with a tropical cure.