Dry his­tory comes to life with po­etry, song

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE - ALI­SON MAYES

IT’S been a grand week of his­tor­i­cal cel­e­bra­tion in Win­nipeg. Tonight, the fes­tiv­i­ties mark­ing the bi­cen­te­nary of the Selkirk set­tlers’ ar­rival will cul­mi­nate in a gala din­ner at Win­nipeg Con­ven­tion Cen­tre.

Last Fri­day evening at The Forks, I had the priv­i­lege of rid­ing in one of the York boats that were rowed into the his­toric port to in­au­gu­rate the Red River Gath­er­ing barge fes­ti­val.

It was a tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence. A re­cently formed lo­cal men’s cho­rus, the Riel Gentle­men’s Choir, had the role of singing in ro­bust har­mony as they rowed two York boats (re­pro­duc­tions built to 5/6 the scale of his­toric ones) and pad­dled a 10-man ca­noe.

I was a pas­sen­ger in the tenor boat. Most of the 26 singers are in their 20s and are na­ture lovers. One of their stated goals is to bring back hon­our and chivalry.

Even be­fore the event started, as we bobbed on the Red River wait­ing for the sig­nal to row, the oars­men spon­ta­neously broke into Stan Rogers’ folk clas­sic North­west Pas­sage, a Celticin­flected song so stir­ring in its evo­ca­tion of “a land so wide and sav­age,” it’s been called our un­of­fi­cial na­tional an­them.

The rough, lusty sound of the voices on the wa­ter was ex­traor­di­nar­ily mov­ing. Clos­ing my eyes and imag­in­ing my­self a long-skirted Scot­tish im­mi­grant circa 1812, I felt the vast­ness of the strange land and the ap­pre­hen­sion and ex­haus­tion of trav­el­ling 700 miles by York boat from Hudson Bay to the Red River Set­tle­ment. I heard the oars­men’s rous­ing voices as a ban­ner of courage, fel­low­ship and spirit.

As Rogers wrote in North­west Pas­sage, “How, then, am I so dif­fer­ent from the first men through this way?”

Af­ter the spell­bind­ing sight and sound of Riel’s Gentle­men singing in the har­bour, we turned and rowed back north­ward, out of sight of the port. Ev­ery man’s face was shin­ing, ev­ery voice soar­ing. In the bass boat, 26-year-old choir di­rec­tor Jesse Krause ex­ul­tantly waved the cho­rus flag.

Pulling back into the Parks Canada dock where we had started, the row­ers broke into Rogers’ shanty-style Bar­rett’s Pri­va­teers. Sud­denly, the cos­tumed Parks Canada in­ter­preters who’d been hired to steer the boats joined in. It was a mag­i­cal, spon­ta­neous cul­tural mo­ment.

For me, it sum­moned mem­o­ries of my fa­ther, Hu­bert (Bert) Mayes, who was a fid­dler in a Scot­tish band, a long­time French pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg, a writer/his­tory buff, a fine bari­tone singer and a proud Man­i­to­ban.

Bert, who died 11 years ago, would have been in­tensely in­ter­ested in ev­ery as­pect of the Selkirk bi­cen­te­nary and de­lighted to meet the present-day Lord Selkirk.

Back in 1976, he went on a quest to find the 1820 grave of the set­tle­ment­found­ing Lord Selkirk. He lo­cated it in the town of Orthez in south­ern France, largely for­got­ten and in ter­ri­ble dis­re­pair. Dy­ing trees had heaved the iron fence around the plot. The head­stone was cracked and the tomb’s in­scrip­tion un­read­able.

As Bert re­counted in The Beaver mag­a­zine, Selkirk had been af­flicted with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and set out from Scot­land in the hope of re­cu­per­at­ing in Spain. He never made it, dy­ing in the French town of Pau. The near­est Protes­tant ceme­tery was in Orthez.

Bert’s ar­ti­cle about the burial site was read by Cal­gary ge­ol­o­gist Jack McMil­lan, a for­mer Man­i­to­ban who had also been ap­palled by the “sad sham­bles” of Selkirk’s rest­ing place. The two am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans joined forces and McMil­lan’s em­ployer, the French-owned oil com­pany Aquitaine, even­tu­ally funded a com­plete, re­spect­ful restora­tion of the gravesite.

Bert was hon­oured to rep­re­sent Man­i­toba at a mov­ing reded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony in 1978, where the Orthez town band played O Canada and of­fi­cials pledged to main­tain the grave in per­pe­tu­ity.

Though I was proud of my dad at the time, I was a teenager who wasn’t in­ter­ested in his­tory. I thought it was dry and bor­ing. It wasn’t un­til I re­turned to Win­nipeg in 2004, af­ter 17 years of liv­ing else­where, that my work at the Free Press nudged me into it.

I started to care about our her­itage — first ca­su­ally, then pas­sion­ately. I wish my dad had lived to see me em­brace my Man­i­toba roots.

We Man­i­to­bans need more pageantry and rit­ual, more sto­ry­telling and mythol­o­giz­ing, more plays, songs, movies, tours, ex­hibits and mon­u­ments that bring our his­tory to life in an emo­tional, ex­pe­ri­en­tial way.

This week, while leaf­ing through my dad’s his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­cles — some­thing I hadn’t done since his pass­ing — I came upon one he wrote about the author­ship of the Cana­dian Boat Song.

It’s a poem, writ­ten circa 1829, from the imag­ined per­spec­tive of a sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion Scots-Cana­dian oars­man. He sings High­land oar-songs but has never seen the mother coun­try.

It in­cludes the heart-stir­ring lines, “From the lone shiel­ing of the misty is­land/ Moun­tains di­vide us, and the waste of seas —/ Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is High­land,/ And we in dreams be­hold the He­brides.”

Those words have been cher­ished — and re­mem­bered — by gen­er­a­tions of Scots-Cana­di­ans. Dry his­tory lessons may fall away, but when we mix her­itage with po­etry and song, the im­pact can be un­for­get­table.


The Riel Gentle­men’s Choir per­forms from York boats at The Forks dur­ing the Red River Gath­er­ing barge fest (left); Bert Mayes is shown with a photo of Lord Selkirk’s grave (be­low, in a Free Press file photo).

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