SEARCH FOR THE DISH WITH ONE SPOON
FROM OCTOBER 2017 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Bloor and Lansdowne is home but not home. I’m Haudenosaunee and it’s my ancestral land, but these streets have a hard time holding onto their past
Every time I come back my blood runs a little faster through my veins. Run through these streets, my instincts say. Feel the sun and the particular way it cuts through the trees, warming your neck, your arms, your legs before its unblinking attention becomes too much and you go home sunburnt. Hear the night, which is never totally silent – raccoons hissing or late-night liquored-up strangers laughing or street sweepers rumbling or delivery trucks beeping. See the night, how its darkness always has an escape hatch – a streetlight or lit-up store sign to guide you home, even though that radiance blocks out the stars. Place your hand over this neighbourhood’s heart, feel it beat against your palm. Love its perfection. Love its imperfection. Feel home again.
But I’m not home again. Not really. Bloor and Lansdowne hasn’t been my home for seven years. My second – youngest brother, Mikey, a freshly minted adult, is moving here to go to school. It’ll be his home soon. I’m not one to believe in fate, but I can recognize a good coincidence when I see one. This is definitely a coincidence.
As we walk down the familiar streets together – past the Value Village, the Coffee Time, the restaurants drawing us in with scents of curry and coffee and cookies and chicken – I see his eyes go wide with possibility. I’m sure mine did the same back then. I’m sure they’re doing the same now. After all, few are immune to the shiny neon and collapsed boundaries of big-city capitalism.
Mikey shows me his apartment. It’s small, like mine was, but at least its floors are level. I know he’ll push against the smallness, the tightness, assert himself within this space until he feels a sort of cozy comfort in its claustrophobia. Our home on Six Nations – 122 kilometres southwest of Toronto and seated on the Grand River – was small, too, but we had whole fields of green to explore, thick forests to investigate, a browning stream to stick our toes in or rush across.
Though the green here is confined to small patches around houses, sometimes lounging luxuriously across a handful of parks, a different sort of freedom fills its absence: anonymity.
Toronto is so big, this neighbourhood so busy and full, one’s personal history gets lost in its frenzy. Back on the rez, both Mikey and I were Wes’s kids, the newest links in a chain of history that reached back much farther than anyone ever bothered to explain to us. But here, among all these people who don’t know your name or face or history, you can just be you. Unbuckle your uncomfortable past, the city murmurs. Pack it tight in a box and shove it in the back of your closet. Stretch your newly unburdened shoulders. Choose your own adventure.
I was still in school when I lived here, finishing an English-lit degree, taking hour-long transit rides to York University, where I would read and read and dream my name would one day be printed across book spines, too. I took a class on diaspora literatures, attracted by the promise of Indigenous writers on a course syllabus. My professor, who was intimidatingly smart, mercilessly dissected any answer to any question she posed, and therefore terrified everyone into a brief silence whenever she spoke.
“Why do you think I included Indigenous literature in a diaspora course?” she asked one day.
I surprised myself by answering without a second’s hesitation.
“Because Indigenous people are almost always put in the position where they’re displaced on their own lands.”
My professor didn’t dissect anything. She simply smiled. I knew I should feel proud that she approved, and I did, but I also felt a pressure building in my chest – one that perhaps was always there, but hidden away, like my past.
Tucked away in a box at the back of this city’s closet is a history. The history is this: Toronto was once Tkaronto. This city ruled by by-laws was once ruled by treaty. It was Dish With One Spoon territory: a space that was shared by my people, the Haudenosaunee, the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Huron, the Wendat. This land was not supposed to have its plenty mined and discarded; it was supposed to be treated as one collective dish
each nation had to share, hunting an equal but sustainable amount of game. All would eat from that dish together, using a beaver-tail spoon instead of a knife to ensure there was no accidental bloodshed – which might lead to intentional bloodshed. In this way, it was a space of mutual peace and prosperity.
But early settlers approached the land with the eyes of enterprising tourists: looking at its green, its forests, its waters – and seeing a big red X on a treasure map. They forced out the lands’ native inhabitants and went about realizing this land’s “potential,” laying roads and constructing buildings, later putting up condos and converting old restaurants into organic fair-trade cafés.
Here, at Bloor and Lansdowne, gentrification is in full swing. The neighbourhood now holds new vegan bake shops and beard-grooming joints – ventures that seemed unthinkable when these streets held me close. A few restaurants and businesses have already abandoned the area, the trendiness they helped create now turning on them, pricing them out.
I can’t help but think of Leslie Jamison’s essay “Fog Count.” She visits a friend in prison and, while there, realizes they can never really occupy the same space: “A space isn’t the same for a person who has chosen to be there and a person who hasn’t.” Jamison can ask as many probing questions as she wants, can write down all the details, but she will always, in effect, be a tourist in that space because she can always choose to leave.
But Jamison wasn’t exactly right. There aren’t only two ways to consider a place. It isn’t just about those who choose to be there and those who don’t. What about those who were forced out – often before you even got there?
I wonder if the people who are now moving into and claiming this neighbourhood, choosing to paint over its poverty and swat away its seediness, recognize they, too, are tourists, choosing to make homes where homes were already made. They too see an X on a treasure map, and, shovel in hand, are determined to mine its bounty. But those who already live here know the neighbourhood has inherent worth, whether outsiders recognize it or not. Still, they are told what they consider “worthy” isn’t worthy enough. They haven’t used the space properly, haven’t recognized its “potential.” They must leave to make room for others’ progress.
No trace of Indigenous history is etched into these sidewalks, illuminated by these streetlights, cemented between these bricks – not when I lived here years ago, and not today. That past is still packed up, forgotten. Descendants of this land’s original caretakers are still here, though. We’re selling dreamcatchers at Bloor and Spadina, or dancing in our regalia at the annual powwow at Dufferin Grove Park, or reading on the subway on the way to school. We’re here, in diaspora on our own lands. We’re watching as the same exploitive process that pushed our people out centuries ago continues to push out others today – an updated version with different copyrights attached.
Whenever I visit my brother, I’ll walk the streets of Bloor and Lansdowne and know this is my version of diaspora. I’ll observe the neighbourhood with the warm nostalgia and cool distance of a former lover: measuring the present against the past, frowning at disappointing changes, smiling at positive ones, ultimately hopeful. Perhaps one day this neighbourhood, this city, this country, will finally hear its neglected past whispering, Look at me plainly. Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t forget.
Images from two of the author’s homes, Six Nations (net, cloud, tractor) and Bloor and Lansdowne (parking lot, subway station, Discount Optical).