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"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
     - Marcel Proust

I first saw Winnipeg as a soft light reflected on low clouds from our farm near Selkirk. I had closer glimpses when I was seven and our family began travelling through at holidays taking my older sister back and forth to her school in Portage la Prairie. Along the way, Mom explained why streets and highways emanated like bicycle spokes from Winnipeg’s centre at The Forks, that ancient peoples met at the Red and the Assiniboine, and these rivers were like highways during the fur trade era. To the west where the sky expanded, the city created an alchemy changing the landscape from our forested home to the north, to a bare plain. I focussed on the wind-tossed summer fields or delicate patterns in drifting snow, to avoid the pain of my sister being forced back to her school, away from us.

Within a decade, I moved to the city intent on a career that I believed would lead me to help medically fragile children like my sister. While studying I worked at a detention center where Indigenous teens were over-represented and began a social work career at a time when children were being apprehended, separated from families as my sister had been from ours. With the tragic death of my younger brother as I was completing school, and two years later, of my first child, I was awash in grief, like the young families I worked with who were often severely judged. Would I be judged for the vulnerability I felt in my sorrow? No. I experienced compassion from nurses, physicians, friends, and even strangers. As I recovered and more children were born, I volunteered in programs supporting families, as well as studying ethics and spirituality, searching for a way to make sense of the bewildering disconnect I recognized in the systems.

The penny dropped not through study, but through art. While living in Britain I experienced the literature I’d delighted in throughout childhood, but on the day that I heard a beautifully crafted story describing the prairie I knew so intimately, and loved – as a desolate, empty wasteland, I felt betrayed. I wondered: where are the stories of my landscape?  I didn’t sleep for days! I wrote, wrote, and wrote. My words were clumsy, but I felt I had to name my world, to make it real.

On my return, I worked with Indigenous colleagues preserving Elders’ cultural stories. These wise leaders often felt frustrated with the translations, saying their concepts didn’t fit into English words. They persevered because they wanted to share their beliefs, affirming that all, including the vulnerable like my sister, belong in community and bring gifts to their families, to those close to them. Through a changed, more inclusive social work program, I researched values shaping public policy around care of medically fragile children; placement of vulnerable children in institutions was rooted in European worldviews. Negation is woven into English words: ‘dis-ability,’ rendering her ‘in-valid,’ hidden in plain sight.

When public policy changed, my sister transitioned to community living; I believe her remarkable resilience and subsequent contributions to our family and community were because she knew she always belonged to us, and we to her.  

As a very young child, I travelled between grandparents’ homes with an innocent ease – one set living along marshlands edging Oak Hammock, the other in an elegant home patterned after those in the Orkney Isles, with a widows peak atop the wide verandah, in the event of a ship sinking. Our strict Presbyterian grandfather was furious that the Anglicans – my mother’s Métis family – built their music hall beside his church. To him, music was a tool of the devil, and dance was ‘in the fire.’

My father was drawn to the lively music and dance and became a gifted fiddler practicing in a teenaged band that met at Mom’s home. Dad often said that music helped him in the years of war, and through a bout with polio. My mother’s expression of her heritage was through visual art that our father supported her in pursuing. She painted images of the Cree women of her ancestry who were nameless in archives. Their strength and beauty forever traced, reminding us of their important role in our family and history. 

Winnipeg is a descriptive Cree word meaning, muddy waters. When the waters of the Red and Assiniboine meet, they mix and churn, stirring up the clay foundation. I like to think of our famous Forks as a place of confluence where different understandings interact and play, contributing together to a larger sense of our potential as a community.

As a child I fancied that the city itself held powers of transformation. The landscape remains magical to me. On the evening of the first snowfall of the season, I paused at Assiniboine Park. Contrasting shapes of gnarly oak and slim aspens were traced in black and white against the wash of low-grey clouds – the kind of clouds I saw reflecting light in childhood. Evergreens stood with arms outstretched, sentinels above the white-draped sculptures. The pathway skirting behind the Leo Mol and English gardens edged a riparian forest, with interlacing branches of wild fruit cradling snowy puffballs down the bank to the ice-crusted Assiniboine.

These ancient forests, growing since the melting of the great glaciers, are representative of my mother’s Métis family; the formal gardens remind me of my beloved British grandmother. In my very soul, these worlds are side-by-side; in this physical space, each enhances the other. And the joined worldviews create an extraordinary setting for Leo Mol’s work, an internationally acclaimed artist who came seeking refuge from Ukraine, a country still fraught with war. His art delights at every visit, and he bequeathed his lifework to this city that welcomed him as it continues to welcome others.

The city lived up to the promise I first saw as a child, a kind of beacon, like a light suspended from the sky in the distance. And the crucible in which this alchemy was performed, was through art that included and transcended words. As my Elder colleague Wii Bistaii eloquently stated: Everything in the world is threaded together.

Joyce Clouston PhD is a writer and social worker who has authored, edited and co-edited six books in consultation with Indigenous colleagues, as well as numerous articles and resources on self-esteem, spiritual traditions, and strengthening families. She is passionately committed to inclusive care of children and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Her current work-in-progress My Sister/Myself affirms the gifts of her differently abled sister.

A collaborative work with her daughter, composer Karen Sunabacka, based on a Cree Creation Legend is to be premiered in 2023-2024 at the University of Manitoba Desautels Faculty of Music. She continues to research the Cree roots of the little-known history of the English Métis near Selkirk, a community rich in stories, music, and play.