Halfway up the hill I sensed something was terribly wrong. Nearing the hundred-year-old building that housed the Children’s Peace Theatre, I heard shouts and panicked bilingual conversation. Parents called out kid names. “Paloma!” “Felipe!” “Nando!” “Vente!”
As I approached, the words “Hurry” and “Viene la migra” hit my ears. I cursed my arthritic knees that kept me from running. When I finally arrived, there was a flurry of activity around the house, the gardens, and the greenhouse. Bronze-skinned moms scooped up toddlers and dashed off on footpaths leading deeper into Taylor Creek Park. Their male counterparts hoisted pre-packed sports bags, grabbed kid hands and tread after the women. Every one of the “guests”, as we referred to them, scurried with purpose, seizing their belongings and children and disappearing into the bush. I marvelled at how fast they could move on this oppressively hot spring day.
Mere moments after the last of them had fled, I heard the roar of gas-fuelled vehicles racing up the driveway from Dawes Road. Five Hummers trundled through a corner of the garden, crushing seedlings in their wake, and screeched to a halt in front of the main entrance. An armoured bus careened to block the drive. Canadian Border Services. My heart sank. Clearly the children’s singing circle I had come to lead was cancelled. The plants would have to wait to be serenaded. Assuming they survived this day.
Thandie Williams, CPT’s Artistic Director, was striking, a lithe forty-something woman with long dreadlocks and skin the colour of half-past midnight. She stepped forward from a gaggle of angry staff, shocked performance artists, fearful parents, and a wide-eyed handful of eight- to twelve-year-olds who had come to sing with me.
Cops in SWAT gear poured out of their vehicles, weapons drawn. We froze. The kids looked to me, their teacher. “It’ll be okay.” I wasn’t convincing.
CBS agents swarmed the property, some charging along various footpaths, others kicking in unlocked doors to the house and shouting “hands up” or “on the floor.” Thumps, crashes, and protesting voices sounded.
Thandie shouted at some bulky dude with reflective sunglasses who swaggered like he was in charge. “Are you aware this is City of Toronto property? You’d better have a warrant.”
He ignored her and ordered us to stand together, hands on heads, at the far end of the parking lot. A couple of agents — one man, one woman — worked their way through our ranks scanning faces with a phone app. The seven staff and volunteers inside were eventually marched out to join us and, before being ordered to “shut up,” told us they had all been similarly processed. I felt useless standing among them. As the oldest I should have had the life experience to say something calming or encouraging. Nothing occurred.
The twenty-something agent who scanned me looked remarkably like my cousin from back in Guatemala. But it wasn’t Cheo, who had been shot in the head at the age of fifteen by a paramilitary and left on the church floor to bleed out. The nineteen-year-old shooter had been rewarded in cash by a Canadian company who wanted to punish Cheo’s mother, my tía, for leading protests against the mining of our lands.
The agent looked disappointed with my scan results. I was relieved. Those facial ID apps were notoriously inaccurate when it came to dark-skinned folks. Unfortunately for him, mine indicated I was “legal.” My family had arrived in Canada decades ago, well before the latest crackdown.
The kids were eventually allowed to sit in the shade. I was surprised that none seemed scared and a few even served up attitude with remarks like, “Is your mom proud of you?” “Your job is bullshit.” “No one is illegal.”
When told to shut up, eleven-year old Paula started to sing the Men’s Healing Song. I was proud to have taught her. The other kids chimed in, even the boys. I was afraid for them, but the cops only laughed.
The agent-in-charge finally showed Thandie the warrant on his phone. There was a perfunctory interrogation when he asked what we did here, who was involved and did we know whether any of the children in our programs were illegal. Thandie gave him correct (if not truthful) answers and, after three hours of searching the building and grounds, during which they showed little concern for the soles of our shoes melting into the asphalt, the CBS agents eventually and begrudgingly left empty-handed.
As we cleaned up the house and garden in their wake, Thandie apologized for not cautioning me ahead of time about the raid. A friend who worked at Parks and Rec had given her a twenty-minute phone warning. This was the second raid this month. The previous time Thandie’s friend had given us a day’s notice. “We should lay low for a bit,” she muttered.
I was happy to later learn that every one of the guests we had harboured for the past week had escaped. They had met their guide at Woodbine Station and been taken to their next stop on Turtle Island’s Underground Railroad. The network of sympathizers ferried migrants from Central America to remote northern First Nations communities happy to have extra skills and labour to rebuild in the wake of being hit hard over the years by epidemics and climate change.
For some of our Indigenous friends, accepting people into their communities was about survival, for others a matter of responsibility and honour. “These colonial borders have been nothing but trouble for our peoples,” Janet Green, a Six-Nations Elder on the CPT’s Advisory Council, was fond of saying.
Janet’s normally sun-kissed skin looked pale as she lay propped up in bed by a menagerie of pillows. We were in her modest rez house on Six Nations, kept in good repair by her daughter’s wife.
“About time you paid me a visit, Ketzal.” Janet smiled.
We kissed cheeks. “Shouldn’t you be in hospital?”
“I want to be with family.” She vaped homemade cannabis oil from an e-cig I’d gifted her last year. From the kitchen cooking sounds came from Lydia, the daughter, as she prepared lunch. “I heard about the raid.”
“Everyone made it out. This time.”
“Of course they did. My protection ceremonies never fail.”
I smiled at her bravado. “Thandie thinks one of our neighbours is a snitch.”
Janet nodded. “Kyle Jackson. A miserable old cuss. I used to babysit him. He was a sweetheart back then. But like father, like son, as it turns out.”
Apparently Jackson’s violent dad had eventually abandoned his family, leaving behind a traumatized son. “My father took care of the Jacksons for a couple of years. Made sure they had enough to eat. Even bought Kyle boots every winter. Then the old man got laid off. I lost track of Kyle when we moved back to the rez. Was happy to see him that day he came up the hill at CPT to complain about loud drumming or some such thing. He pretended not to know me, but I recognized the old scars.”
The very idea of child abuse, as always, made me nauseous. “Family violence turned to cultural violence?”
“Sad, huh? Did you bring it?” Janet asked. I pulled out my hand drum. She beamed. “Sing me one of your healing songs.”
I sang softly in K’iche until she fell asleep.
In the kitchen Lydia served me avocado-stuffed tortillas (homemade) and a cup of fresh ground coffee from beans I had just delivered. Jorge, a Honduran guest who had passed through last month, had once worked the coffee fields. He had offered the beans in trade for an assortment of local plant medicines I’d given his pregnant wife.
I told Lydia about the raid, this time admitting to my feelings of inadequacy and confessing my reluctance to replace Janet on CPT’s Advisory Council. I was thirty-two years younger than Janet’s eighty-seven, and where I had come from, calling myself an Elder at my age would have gotten me laughed out of the community — and rightly so, if my performance at the raid was any indication of how wise I waxed under pressure.
Lydia disagreed. “Mom invested a lot of years into teaching us. We would dishonour her if we didn’t use what we know to help the people.”
Janet had taken me under her wing three decades earlier, formally adopting me into her Bear Clan and teaching me Longhouse ceremonies, protocols, and the ways of local plant medicines. She called me daughter and had been helpful to my family when we’d first arrived in Toronto. That implied responsibility. It fell on me to pay her kindness forward.
As I climbed the hill for the Advisory Council’s fall meeting, my spidey senses went off again. This day would be a memorable one, but not for the reasons I thought.
On the edge of the garden a somber Thandie, four mid-teen boys from the video project, and a couple of men I knew to be parents of one of the boys sat on folding chairs arranged in a circle. Thandie waved me over into the shade, and Suresh, nudged by one of his dads, gave me his seat.
“Glad you’re early, Ketzal. We’ve got a problem.” After greetings were exchanged, Thandie explained. “It seems these young men trashed Mr. Jackson’s food garden a few nights ago.”
“He ratted us out to CBS,” Zigwon said.
“You don’t know that,” Thandie snapped. “And even if it’s true –”
“Every time me and my boys pass his house he calls us the N-word,” Reggie interrupted. “Tells us to go back where we came from.”
Zigwon piped in. “My mom is Nish. This is our land.”
“Anyway,” Thandie continued. “The old man was here this morning. He thinks the boys poisoned his dog.”
I winced at the notion of an innocent dog suffering because we humans couldn’t resolve our petty disputes.
“Stupid mutt tried to bite me,” Suresh said. “But I’d never hurt him.”
“The dog will live,” Thandie said, “but Jackson says if the cops can’t shut us down, he will.”
“He’s got a gun,” Reggie said. “Tried to kill us the other night. Cares more about tomatoes and cucumbers than human life.”
“You don’t destroy food, Reggie,” one of the dads said. “Not in these hard times.”
Reggie sucked his teeth in response.
“He told me I was a freak.” The normally soft-spoken Elan hung his head. As a trans boy he’d suffered too much ridicule and hate in his short life. My heart went out to him.
As details of the story emerged, I realized that, as an Elder Advisor, peacemaking was among my responsibilities. They were all expecting me to find a way to resolve this mess. I didn’t have a clue how I would even begin. Then I remembered something Janet once said. “It’s not my job to have all the answers. It’s my job to help folks come up with their own solutions.”
Zigwon took the initiative to light up a handful of dried sage in an abalone shell and fanned the smoke with a hawk feather he’d earned in the Creative Cuisine program.
Before smudging I shared a prayer. “As this sage goes around the circle, let’s each of us clear our minds so we can think in a way that takes into consideration the wellbeing of all life over the next seven generations. Let us be reminded to remain peaceful, inside and out.”
The boys’ expressions sobered with my words. They were, at heart, good kids.
In the next hour I posed some questions, and the boys eventually agreed that their actions in ruining Jackson’s garden had been neither honourable nor helpful to CPT’s interests. And it certainly wasn’t good for our guests. I was about to ask them what they thought should be done next when a visitor appeared. He startled us by coming up the back steps through our outdoor amphitheater. Gripping a cane, he limped over to the circle.
“Mr. Jackson!” Thandie stood and offered her chair.
The old man waved her off with the cane. “You people are a blight on the neighbourhood.”
Thandie looked despairingly at me, and I tried not to appear as anxious as I felt. Jackson looked nothing like I’d expected. He was lean and fairly robust despite the limp. At the same time his curly gray hair, hazel eyes, and café-au-lait skin indicated a mixed-race background. His use of the N-word suggested he had some self-hatred going on. And that, I realized, made this situation a lot more complicated than I would have preferred.
With his free hand Jackson patted a bulge in his pocket. “If you people can’t control your children, you shouldn’t have them. I can take care of that for you.”
The tension around me heightened, but I found myself relaxing. As a child I had known real killers, and this old man didn’t fit the profile. If Jackson were serious about killing anyone, his gun would be in his hand, not his pocket.
“Mr. Jackson and I need to talk. Why don’t you all wait inside?”
Thandie gave me an incredulous look. You sure? I gave her a half-smile and nodded. Jackson didn’t protest. He knew we weren’t in a position to call the cops on him. Or maybe he didn’t care. As Thandie and the parents herded the reluctant boys inside, I introduced myself to the old man and explained that we were sorry and ready to discuss how to make amends.
He scolded me with a finger. “They wrecked my garden. You going to feed me for the winter?”
I noticed a burn scar on the inside of his wrist. Several, actually, as though someone had put out multiple cigarettes on his arm. As I studied them, I realized the little round scars formed a Sankofa symbol.
“Reach back and fetch it.” I whispered the meaning of the mark, aghast that Jackson’s father would take the best-known and most beloved Adinkra symbol in the African diaspora to burn into his child’s skin.
I gestured toward the scars. “ Is that how Janet recognized you?”
Jackson’s hand trembled, and he shoved it into the pocket with the bulge. “I’m not here to talk shit.”
“She passed away. Back in June.”
He flinched. I’d hit a nerve. It occurred to me that friendship is the most powerful protection spell anyone can conjure.
“She called you Kyle. Said you were a sweet kid back in the day. And your father was a sonofabitch.”
The old man collapsed into a chair. “No. She made a mistake. Kyle is dead.” Tears welled in his eyes, the crack in the armour I was looking for.
A Rumi quote I’d seen on social media came to mind: The wound is where the light enters. Maybe I had a role to play on the Elders’ Council after all. I sat next to Jackson and reached out to squeeze his hand. He let me.