White Bird Black Bird
Val Wake's first novel begins with the following poem:
When the white birds come from the south the season changes
Gone is the snow revealing the earth rotting and giving life.
The big wing gulls come from across the mountains
They ride the thermals to reach their nesting grounds.
Below the black birds wait, finding order in chaos
Pecking their way through the town's alleyways.
The white birds swoop claiming their summer roosts.
The black birds rise and engage the invader
Their cawing scratching the blue enamel sky.
But there is no doubt about the outcome.
The black birds retreat leaving the white birds to nest by the lakeshore.
When the snow returns the white birds leave to fly back to their Pacific home.
The black birds reclaim their winter ground with its cold heart and dark days.
It is natures cycle.
When Val Wake was the resident news reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the new Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife, he used to watch the town ravens patrolling the alleyways around town, tipping the garbage cans, to get juicy leftovers from wasteful households. When the Pacific gulls arrived in May Val knew that summer could not be far away although the day time thermometer rarely rose above freezing.
Val worked for CBC News in northern Canada from 1969 to 1973. He visited over 70 settlements in 1.3 million square miles of territory which made up his patch. It was an experience that he would never forget but it wasn't until some 30 years later that he began to write seriously about his time in the north in the form of a novel titled White Bird Black Bird.
Warren Pritchard, the hero or anti-hero of White Bird Black Bird is a young Toronto reporter starting out. He has a drink problem and a strong sense of mission. A curious combination that makes him go to Arctic Canada, to seek a solution to both his issues. Warren makes his choice without knowing much about the north. But he believes the north can be his salvation by giving him a sense of purpose and restoring his self esteem.
The north is not like what Warren thought it would be. He finds that it is a bureaucratic playground where Ottawa rules like an absentee landlord, pretending to grant provincial rights and responsibility while using its agent, the Territorial Government, to reinforce its rule as the federal authority.
Warren finds that the native people of the north, who make up the majority of the residents by about three to one, are largely ignored by the Territorial Government while ironically the Federal Government is taking a pro-active role in sponsoring the political development of the native people. In broad terms the Territorial Government seems to represent the views of the white minority while the Federal Government is trying to increase the influence and authority of the native majority.
It is a mess. Warren finds that this mess is reflected in relationships in his own organisation and he chooses to ignore the local hierarchy claiming editorial independence and finding his own path. In the process he befriends a Hare Indian teacher's aide who introduces him to native life and values.
As far as the south is concerned Arctic Canada is a place to visit but not a place to live. However as far as southern consumers are concerned it does have an important asset. According to the latest geological surveys the Arctic is rich in minerals, oil and gas. When the southern oil and gas men arrive, they are inevitably men, with the plans to build a pipeline up the Mackenzie River Valley to bring the natural gas of Alaska to markets in the American Midwest; the natives greet the proposal with strong opposition. The proposed pipeline is going to cross prime hunting and trapping land. Plans to bring in mobile bordellos to serve the work camps further offend the local people.
The native people organise. First forming the Northwest Territories Indian Brotherhood and then the Committee of native People's Entitled know as COPE. The leader of COPE, Franky Carpenter, is a colleague of Warren Pritchard. She is station manager of a CBC radio station in Inuvik.
Warren feels challenged by Franky, both editorially and sexually, but he remains true to his first love -the teacher at the Dogrib settlement of Rae.
Rae is the largest Indian settlement in the Northwest Territories and is the home of the Northwest Territories Indian Brotherhood. Warren spends a lot of time in Rae and attends many Brotherhood meetings.
When the pipeliners arrive to tour the Mackenzie Valley and explain their pipeline proposal to the local people, Warren is invited to come along. He knows that the Brotherhood strongly opposes the pipeline. During the pipeliner's tour Warren witnesses an epiphany of the pipeliner party when they suddenly realise that people live in the valley they want to turn into a work camp.
The pipeline plan is shelved. The native organisations apply to the Territorial Supreme Court to stop all future development applications. A native leader is accidentally shot and killed by the RCMP which heightens strong feelings of resentment right across the Arctic. A secret cell within the Brotherhood plans its own moves which result in more violence and a Territorial bid to reconcile differences.
This is a story of well intentioned government officials getting things wrong as they try and come to terms with indigenous cultures. It is a story with universal truths that apply to any society where minority and majority groups of people strive to seek an accommodation with mutual respect and understanding.
Copies of White Bird Black Bird can be bought at www.amazon.com by entering the title or the name of the author.