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Issue 10

 November 2022

Cannery Row Magazine

A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits

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Section 2

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Editor's

Desk

The Thin Blue Line to Hell

by John Jantunen

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“Show us that the myth of this country can be replaced by truth because,

frankly, we have shown you enough. It’s your turn.”

- Jesse Wente, Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance

It had been a challenging morning. 

       My eldest son’s sister and her dog had failed to return from a walk the previous night. “Cassy” had fled an abusive marriage six months earlier that found her destitute on the streets of San Diego and, a few months later, couchsurfing with friends in Parksville on Vancouver Island. She’d been removed from her mother’s custody in Parksville as a teenager, run the gambit of the foster care system on the Island and, twenty years later, returned to seek refuge in this seemingly idyllic tourist town. 

        She'd soon discovered that most of her friends were themselves mired in the waking nightmare that the homelessness, mental health and toxic drug overdose crisis has made into a daily reality for an ever-increasing number of people. With no family but my son in Vancouver and with none of her friends willing, or able, to help beyond offering a place to crash for a few days, we flew her and her dog to Ontario in mid-September. She’d been living with us in Kingston for less than a week on the evening she didn’t return from her walk and, when she still hadn’t turned up by morning, Tanja and I feared something dire must have happened. 

 

On the surface, Kingston - Canada’s original capital and also the de facto prison capital of Ontario - is a prosperous, medium-sized city. Its four cornerstones are Corrections, Tourism, the Canadian Armed Forces and Queen's University, all of which buttress a local economy as seemingly inviolable as the masonry which has earned it the nickname Limestone City. As a result, Kingston has the most thriving downtown of any similar-sized place I’ve lived in throughout the country. But, as with all Canadian cities, the lack of political will to take any definitive action to mitigate the coalescing crises outlined above continues to exact an increasing death toll on the most vulnerable among us.

     

Cassy had been quite open, both about her past drug use and mental health issues, so it was natural that Tanja’s first thoughts strayed towards the very real possibility that she might have overdosed and was either in the hospital or lying dead in a ditch or an alleyway. My first thought, mind you, was of the Kingston Police.

      In A Tale Of Two Kingstons (Cannery Row Magazine - Third Issue), I wrote an account of how four large, male officers responded to a frail young woman in obvious crisis by wrestling her to the ground, handcuffing and then carting her off to the police station, so I won’t belabour the point here, except to say that I’d warned Cassy about the threat they posed by way of relating the same story to her.

So, it didn't come as much of a surprise when, around nine o'clock the next morning, Cassy returned to inform us she had, in fact, been arrested for public intoxication by four large, male police officers, who’d handcuffed and carted her off to the 'drunk tank', though from what she told us about her frame of mind just prior to her arrest, it was obvious she herself had been experiencing a severe mental health crisis. In addition to locking her up, they’d impounded her dog, a registered American Service Therapy Animal, and her mental state that morning was veering towards outright hysteria.

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        None of the arresting officers would tell her what they’d done with the animal. When she’d asked the cell monitor, she was told that the dog was going to be put down and there was nothing Cassy could do about it. I immediately put in a call to the police station and, when the watch commander told me her dog was, in fact, alive and well at the SPCA, I drove Cassy over to the shelter, posthaste. While she was filling out the requisite paperwork, I chatted with the amicable young woman at the front desk who’d agreed to release her pet, even though we’d arrived two hours before the facility opened to the public. I suspected the cops had mistaken Cassy for a homeless person, hence the rough treatment, and asked the woman, if it was common practice for the Kingston Police to seize pets belonging to the city’s unhoused population. She answered that it happened frequently. Given the cost of reclaiming a 'lost' pet was $150, I suggested that such a practice seemed punitive in nature, to which she responded vigorously in the affirmative.

Later that day, I related the incident to a fellow employee at the local bar where I’d been working part-time for the past ten months. I ended by lamenting to her that the arrest and seizure of Cassy’s therapy dog had really only served to further distress an already deeply traumatized woman, given that all it would have taken to diffuse the situation was a kind word, a sympathetic ear and someone willing to see her home safely - the last an easy enough proposition since the cruiser had to  drive right past our house on its way to the station. My fellow bartender’s response to my account, though, was a tad more visceral. 

     “Those macho assholes!” she spat. “Motherfucking bullies! I’d strangle every last one of them if I could!” Her eyes had become pits of black hate and her face flushed with rage as she clenched her hands in front of her chest, like she was indeed imagining herself strangling the life out of someone. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine, who that particular someone might have been, since she’d previously told me that her ex-husband, a now-retired O.P.P officer, had beaten and terrorized her and her children for decades before she’d finally found the courage to leave him.

       The violent abuse, she said, had been especially acute during, and after, so-called 'shift parties'. These involved her ex and his fellow officers convening at one of their homes at the end of every shift, so they could get “shit-faced drunk”. When it was her husband’s turn to play host, she’d hide out with her kids in the basement, lest one of her young ones inadvertently did something to earn her then-husband’s wrath; although, once his fellow officers were gone, I was taken to understand, their mere existence proved ample enough reason to unleash what she called "the Beast" inside of him.

Afterwards, the officers would drive - often falling-down-drunk - home to their own families, some of whom would then, no doubt, be subjected to similar abuse as she and her children endured whenever her husband returned home after a 'shift party' at someone else’s house.

       

Her confession, however disturbing, didn’t come as much of a surprise. 

      As a 'crime' novelist, I’ve spent considerable time over the past decade researching Canada’s police services. The most recent book I’d read on the topic was former Toronto Mayor John Sewell’s Crisis in Canada’s Policing, in which he provides this quote from a report by the Battered Women’s Support Services of Vancouver: “Two studies have found that at least forty percent of police officers’ families experience domestic violence, in contrast to ten percent of families in the general population.”

    This would mean that, of the over seventy thousand police officers currently employed in this country (at a cost of almost sixteen billion dollars a year), no less than twenty-eight thousand are criminals themselves - a number which, in itself, fails to account for all the officers who don’t physically abuse their wives and children, but who have knowledge of those that do, legally making them accessories to those crimes. From where I sit, it’s hard not to view this culture of domestic violence as particularly villainous, since the perpetrators - and their accessories - have all sworn an oath to 'prevent offences' prior to committing their own, with their most heinous crimes often committed against supposed 'loved ones'. 

       The above numbers alone should suffice to erase all trace of reasonable doubt in any rational mind that the members of our police services have already caused far more harm to our communities than they could ever possibly have done good, even before factoring in their central role in the historic and ongoing genocide perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples and the systemic nature of police brutality committed disproportionately against Peoples of Colour (as documented in books such as Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives and Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In). Yet, even the more progressive elements among our citizenry not only conveniently overlook such violent criminality within our law enforcement agencies, but increasingly favour politicians who take a 'tough on crime' stance by promising to increase police budgets. 

   

The all-too-predictable result has been that between 2000 and 2021 the number of active police officers throughout the country has risen by almost twenty-five percent. In practical terms, this has meant that over the past twenty years our politicians - and our electorate by extension - have enabled an additional six thousand domestic abusers to commit their crimes with impunity. 

      Given this deplorable reality, it is hardly a wonder a recent report into Canada’s national police force found that “the RCMP is regularly violating the human rights of the women it employs and the women it is intended to protect” (theglobeandmail.com) Nor should it come as a surprise that only an estimated twenty percent of victims of domestic abuse in this country are willing to report to the police at all. What is mystifying though is, why we, as a nation, not only permit this criminal behaviour to continue unchecked, but insist on rewarding it, regardless of how many reports, articles or books have been written about the harm it continues to inflict.  

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Of course there was that singular moment, after George Floyd's execution was captured on camera, when the idea of 'de-funding' or, to use Sewell’s word, 'de-tasking' the police began to not only seem viable but, in some communities, imperative. Among our lawmakers, though, that notion appears to have had about as much resilience as a soap bubble floating over a sea of broken glass (“De-task the Police, Says Former Toronto Mayor”, an interview with John Sewell in The Tyee, Feb. 16, 2022). It’s no wonder, then, that so many BIPOC activists across the country are justifiably calling for the outright abolition of our police services or, for that matter, that Jesse Wente would choose to end his memoir Unreconciled with the quote above, demanding that it’s white people’s turn to replace the myth of this country with the truth.


My own journey towards understanding the reality behind Canadian policing began as early as grade ten. That year, I was bullied by a former friend for reasons that are still unclear to me. His campaign of fear and intimidation climaxed, when 'Corey' paid a fellow classmate to threaten me with a knife on the front steps of the Secondary School we attended. Shortly thereafter, an odd thing happened: I stopped seeing Corey in any of the classes we shared. After he’d been gone for more than a week, I asked a mutual friend, whose father also happened to own the local newspaper, about his absence. He'd learned from one of his dad’s sources that Corey’s father, an O.P.P. sergeant stationed in Bracebridge, had been transferred to Timmins and taken his family along with him.      

       Apparently, my friend continued, the sergeant had pulled over a speeding car on Highway 118 and found that both the teenage driver and her equally underage female passenger were drunk. He’d offered, allegedly, to let them off without charges in exchange for a blow job. The girls had refused and, after their parents filed a complaint, Corey’s father had been demoted and sent to Timmins by way of disciplinary action (a story, I'll add, that never appeared in his father’s newspaper).

     Several years ago, when I asked another mutual friend about Corey, I was told he had since killed himself. Whether his father had anything to do with him taking his own life, I’ll never know.

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During the intervening years, I’ve not just personally witnessed off-duty officers proudly displaying tattoos related to the Aryan Brotherhood, while harassing peaceful Indigenous protesters in Regina at a Vigil for Oka, but also observed a casual act of police brutality in Surrey, BC, and two O.P.P. officers 'shaking down' the Middle-Eastern owner of a pizza restaurant just after midnight on North Bay’s Main Street. Furthermore, I've heard seemingly endless first-hand accounts of police brutality and corruption in every one of the six provinces I’ve lived in - corruption that includes collusion with criminal organizations throughout Northern Ontario. And that, of course, is in addition to the highly publicized accounts of police brutality, up to and including murder and rape, that have become an all-too-common feature of our daily news cycles.

      Meanwhile, every single time I myself have called the police, the only outcome was to provide me with more evidence that to report a crime is, at best, a pointless waste of time, regardless of what issue I contacted them about; my son's stolen bike, an incidence at the youth center I was running where one of the kids held a knife to a young Syrian refugee’s throat or the time a meth-crazed father threatened me with violence for banning his teen daughter from the same center, as a result of her bullying other kids and staff.   

Mind you, my own encounters hardly hold a candle to the story a fellow employee told me, while I was working as a PSW at a group residence in Sudbury. She was having a breakdown when I arrived for my shift one morning and, joining me on the back deck for my pre-work smoke, she muttered, “Fucking pigs!” angrily under her breath. She’d go on to relate that, some months earlier, her ex had kicked in her front door on his way to brutally raping her in front of their preteen son. After calling the police and explaining what had happened, the male officer who’d responded told her to go inside and get undressed, so he could take photographs of her injuries. When she’d demanded a female officer, as was her legal right, the officer told her that none were available and, when she refused to let him take naked pictures of her after she’d just been sexually assaulted in a brutal manner, he’d responded, “Then there’s nothing we can do for you.”

       She’d, subsequently, filed a complaint with Sudbury’s Chief of Police and ever since, she asserted, was being followed and often stopped by police when driving around the city. The harassment, in addition to her trauma from the assault, must have reached a breaking point for her that day, because the only word I heard about her after she’d finished - what would turn out to be - her last shift, was that she’d fled out West with her son, destination anywhere but Sudbury.   

      This shouldn’t, of course, come as news to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Canadian policing, but what I find most egregious - apart from the stalwart, and cowardly, refusal of our political leaders to confront the dire realities outlined above - is just how rarely police officers themselves speak out about the deep and widespread entrenchment of this violent culture within their services. It is eminently clear that they - and their families - would have as much to gain from a complete re-imagining of how law enforcement operates in this country as anyone else. 

     

To put a face to where that change might begin, I don’t have to look much further than 'Gary', an ex-RCMP officer I’d become friends with while living in Vancouver in the late 1990s. I was introduced to Gary through a friend, who’d met him while both were working as background actors in the bustling film and television industry, which has earned the city its nickname 'Hollywood North'.

        I’d written a screenplay loosely based on a recent undercover operation I’d heard about, whereby two young O.P.P. recruits had posed as wealthy tourists in Muskoka in order to infiltrate its thriving drug culture. The region had the highest rate of teen drug use in the province at the time and, during the sting, several of my former classmates had been caught unwittingly selling a gram or two to the undercover agents. I’d thought it was a story rife with cinematic potential, especially after one friend told me that the female officer of the two rookies had been impregnated by a former classmate of mine, resulting in an abortion. All of the charges against the 'double offender' ended up dropped to keep things under wrap.

     Gary had offered to give the script a look-over and, while he never voiced any criticism beyond disliking the title, I had my doubts he was overly impressed. Still, he seemed to appreciate my efforts enough that he agreed to meet me several times over coffee, so I could pick his brain. His insights into policing still influence my own creative efforts to this day, though nothing he told me would have as much impact as when he recounted his very first and last day on the job.

His initial posting was to Dawson City, Yukon, in the 1970s. He'd arrived a few days early - an eager recruit fresh out of the RCMP academy in Regina - and, when he'd checked in with his commanding officer, he was told that, to be effective as a Mountie, he’d have to make his presence known. Gary was then advised to go into a certain drinking establishment that Friday night in his civilian clothes and have a few beers, while reading the room to find out who was the “toughest son of a bitch in town”. Once he’d figured that out, he was told to go up to the guy and “beat the living shit out of him”. He was then instructed to go to the same bar the very next night, but this time wearing his uniform. “You do that,” his commanding officer assured him, “and you’ll get along just fine.” So, that’s exactly what Gary did.

       

His last day on the job happened twenty-two years later. One evening, shortly after his wife had left him for their lawyer, Gary was out on patrol and pulled over a speeding car on a dark, deserted road outside of Powell River on BC’s Sunshine Coast. As he approached the vehicle on foot, he realized that the car belonged to none other than said lawyer. When the man opened the window, Gary had his hand on his gun and he said that he came to within a split-second of shooting him in the face, before returning to his senses. He handed in his badge and gun that very morning.

     The latter account was the only time Gary ever mentioned his wife at all, so it’s been left to my imagination as to whether domestic violence played a part in their marriage imploding, as was the case with my fellow bartender’s. From the way Gary lowered his eyes, obviously ashamed, while recounting his last day on the job, I suspect it very well may have been the case and, I also suspect, that he told me both stories consecutively, because he wanted me to understand that the man he’d become on that dark and lonely stretch of highway wasn’t the man he truly believed himself to be, and that it was the job which had demanded he remake himself so. 

In the twenty-five years since Gary confided in me, I’ve come to understand that, unlike the proverbial road, the thin blue line being paved to hell has nothing at all to do with “good intentions”. It’s been rendered so by design and, then, endlessly resurfaced by a staunch unwillingness on the part of our politicians to even consider, what a radical reimagining of society might look like in which our police services have little, or no, role to play. (To get a better idea of what possibilities lie within such a radical reimagining, I’d strongly encourage you to read Robyn Maynard and Sahra Soudi’s A Road Map To Police-Free Futures at www.buildingtheworldwewant.com)

        What’s equally clear is that for us to reach a critical threshold, where real change is not only possible, but inevitable, will require a great many of us, as James Baldwin observed in The Fire Next Time, “to re-examine [our]selves and release [our]selves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify [our] lives and [our] anguish and [our] crimes for so long.”

Our police services would be the obvious place to begin this journey. It will certainly prove a daunting task but when the only other real option is continuing to consign so many of our fellow citizens to their own personal hell - be they incarcerated, in homeless encampments or, as in my fellow bartender’s case, in the 'safety' of their own four walls - it has become increasingly unavoidable to reach any other conclusion except that we, as a nation, really haven’t left ourselves with any feasible alternative.

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Seasonal

Folklore

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Night of the Krampus

by Randy Eady

When the threat of St. Nicholas leaving a lump of coal in their stocking isn’t enough to turn naughty children nice, it’s time for a demonic intervention. 

      Enter . . . the Krampus

     

In most Western countries, Christmas invokes nostalgic images of festive get-togethers, presents, lights and holiday cheer delivered courtesy of a jolly, old elf clad in red velvet. Yet in central Europe - especially in parts of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic - another, much less benign figure, takes center stage during the traditional Advent season, which ranges across the four Sundays (Advents) prior to Christmas proper.

Here, St. Nick's helper is neither little nor cheerful, but rather a terrifying creature that haunts the nightmares of children and adults alike; a beast with fangs and devilish horns covered in ragged fur wielding thick bundles of willow sticks (Rutenbündel) to whip all those on Santa's 'Naughty List'. Strapped to his back is a leather bucket, or woven rush basket, for carrying incorrigible miscreants off to his lair and around his waist drapes a stout leather belt hung with large cowbells and chains.

The fact that the Krampus can be heard before he can be seen makes him even more frightening - replacing the joyful sound of sleigh bells with something far more sinister: the menacing rattle of rusty chains accompanied by the eerie clanking of cowbells.

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According to folklore, the Krampus roams towns and countryside as Santa's sinister sidekick the night before December 6; the traditional St. Nicholas Day, when children look outside their door in the morning to see if the winter boot they'd left out the night before contains candy, nuts and fruit (nowadays presents) as a reward for being good - or a symbolic rod, bunch of twigs or coal as punishment for being naughty.    

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The Krampus, whose name is derived from the Middle High German word krampen, meaning claw, is said to be the son of Hel, who rules the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. The monster also shares characteristics with demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns, is reminiscent of the bogey man and ties in with traditional German fairy tales and stories like The Struwwelpeter and Max und Moritz. Many of these gruesome tales feature disobedient children who come to a bad, if not fatal end - a theme that runs through the centuries and was widely told to keep children in line.

The appearance of the horned beast ties into a rich legacy of winter darkness, seasonal fear and pre-Christian traditions involving demons, harvest spirits and wild men, celebrated extensively during Carnival, which lasts from mid-November to February and culminates in a host of parades and events taking place during the last week before Ash Wednesday(Re: Carnival)

"In smaller towns, St. Nicholas may appear with a gang of four or five [men dressed up as] Krampuses. In others, you have 'Krampusläufe' with up to a hundred Krampuses running around in the streets,” says Britta Bothe, an associate professor of German. “They are wild and it can get pretty boisterous.”

     In 2008, more than 1,000 Krampuses participated in one of the biggest Krampus runs in St. Johann, Austria.

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"The Krampus tradition also has an element of maintaining social order," Bothe adds. “It wasn’t until the 17th century that it evolved to become more focused on children. In its earliest incarnations in pagan societies, if adults were greedy, indecent or too strict, they were also visited by Krampuses, so it definitely had an underpinning of general social control.”

    “It’s a very old custom,” Bothe continues. “We know Krampus dates back to before the Inquisition, because it was banned then. Anyone caught dressing up as a Krampus faced the death penalty, because it was perceived as a devil figure.” Interestingly, the Nazis also banned Krampus for its pagan origins.

      More recently, concerns have been expressed in Austria about whether the tradition is appropriate for children. However, the huge popularity of the Krampus myth lives on and is now enjoying an epic resurgence, even stretching out those sharp claws across the Atlantic into North America. 

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As with many masked rituals and celebrations around the world, the rites of Krampusnacht are transformative. They allow participants to abandon the conventions of daily life and indulge a wilder and darker aspect of their personality. 

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Another example can be found amongst one of the nine Hopi tribes in the form of the Koshare Ritual Dance at the Pueblo of Santo Domingo, just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

       Here, Koshare (sacred clowns) come out among the crowds with their black and white bodies, whitened faces, dry corn-husks, and rabbit-skins, all serving as reminders that they are the spirits of the dead and will provoke children (and some less-than-mature adults) to encourage social order and balance. A Koshare's chest and arms are typically covered in bunches of pine twigs which also represent life everlasting. 

In the Hopi tradition, the Koshare are tricksters found in the Kachina religion, ritualistically personified by the Pueblo Indigenous Peoples of the southwestern US. These sacred clowns perform in a sequenced way throughout the celestial seasons. The Pamuya dances initiate the cycle to bring forth elements of life: sound, water and light. In the world, the Hopi thus bring into being each season through both a spiritual and physical form of balance by honoring the Kachina (spirits). These ceremonies give shape and substance to the awakening - the growth, the maturation and, finally, the transcendence. It is an essential process to preserve harmony with the world around us - not only with humanity, other animals and plants, but with objects in nature such as rocks, clouds and sky - through ritual performance in sacred spaces.

Though the Kachina season begins in late December (around winter solstice) with the Soyal ceremony as several Kachinas wake and emerge, this event occurs out of sight and underground in a sacred location called Kiva. A Kiva residing in the bowels of the earth is vital to translate the pulse of life (via roots that have been active - though unseen) through the conduit of water (introduced in Pamuya), the flow providing access from and to the Underworld. These ceremonies sustain and improve the bonds and well-being of the community, ensure the blessings of moisture and fertility, and reinforce the gratitude of living in harmony. 

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The Koshare (like the Krampus to St. Nicholas) act out the exact opposite of what is considered to be 'proper' in their culture. The 'clowns' often mock fornicate in public, eat their own feces and drink their own urine. They might walk backwards, on their hands, or perform shocking, horrific or humorous pranks.

       The Koshare wear the black and white stripes to elicit a consciousness of the opposites contained within all of us. We are not merely light or dark - we are a fusion of both sides. In this image, the Koshare hands over a stinky skunk in one hand while offering flowers in the other. Do we turn away or thank him?

Bringing our shadow out into the open is something that ultimately connects us, rather than isolates us, from each other. A major function of these sacred clowns is to expose this dark, subconscious side of our personalities; the part of us that's incompatible and deemed inappropriate in our socially-conditioned, public 'personas'.

     In this aspect, it closely relates to the court jester, the Fool, who is positioned closest to the King in myth and fairy tales of old. In fact, it is only the Fool who can get away with pointing out the King's own backside. The King often goes to his jester for advice, since even the mighty need an honest peek in the mirror every so often and - amongst the ingratiating flattery of the King's entourage - only the Fool can be relied on to tell the truth.

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The Koshare similarly enables us to see our lives from a radically different perspective, since they provide that precise amount of corruption necessary to disturb old patterns and open new pathways to creative interpretations. In other words, the Koshare can break us from any illusion or addiction to perfection and the predominant status quo. 

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The sacred clown liberates our integrative capacity, as it carries out this role, by showing how threatening the trickster can be to an established order and how far its influence can spread: people that don't live out any trickster function in society, particularly when its institutions are in dire need of change, merely end up protecting the beneficiaries of the established order, while insulating those that deeply fear any form of change. 

      In either case, this is a double-edged sword: a protected ego feels no pain, but also won't take any risk for the sake of safety; an ego undergoing breakthrough is confronted with paradox and can never return to its former state, as its narrow boundaries need to be shattered to spur further psychic development.

In a similar vein, the Krampus is positioned as a trickster opposite the eternally pure virtue of the symbolic Christ/Claus figure. The shadow world of the demon which, by way of its duplicity, can never be seen as pure - except maybe as pure evil - functions to throw a new light on life. As C. G. Jung explained: Only through experiencing our own evil can we recognize that "the highest and the lowest, the best and the vilest, the truest and the most deceptive, are often blended together in the inner voice”. A necessity of partially succumbing to our own diabolic tendencies lets us participate fully in human endeavors and realize wholeness and, he adds, “if we do not partially succumb, [...] no regeneration or healing can take place.” 

    Thus, the trickster's ghastly embodiment is a disruptive force which opens up a wellspring of creativity and, in order to access that creativity, it is often required to surrender the halo of the divine Christ Child and delve into the shadow just beyond its crown of light - past its infantile appearance of omnipotence. In knowing we've already let down our defenses and given the dark in us its due, we are consequently able to surrender to the Season's message of peace, innocence and rebirth.

This collective encounter with our shadow through the humor (or terror) of the demon/sacred clown functions as a source of healing within society. When we only identify with the light side of ourselves, we are out of balance. The Fool provokes us to move beyond our taboo thoughts by shouting, "HEY! I am going to show YOU to YOURSELF, so you can move past your shame. In fact, I’m going to invite you to actually LAUGH at what you're so desperately trying to hide."

      We are given permission to exist as complete human beings and not just hollow carbon copies of each other, which presents an enormous gift to our shared humanity. The ability to laugh at ourselves is truly essential for our individual and communal well-being.

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 Poetry

 &

 Musings

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Naming

by Katerina Fretwell

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Lost souls wail, wandering in empty ether,

finally heard, finally broadcast,

unmarked graves weeping, 

genocidal wrongs wailing to be righted.

 

Children are ripped from loved ones,

schooled in a white culture's god, whose proxies

rubbed their privates, lashed their backs,

trained them to lower caste jobs.

Culture whipped out of them, they're made to pray

in an alien tongue to this white god – 

that strikes terror if they slip up.

 

Murdered by overlords for god and country

that ignored Indigenous burial rites,

too many beloved sons and daughters

were stuffed into mass, unmarked graves.

A peacekeeper nation, accused of crimes

against humanity, called them savages!

 

I beg my white culture that we bow down,

lose arrogance to become right-sized, 

and acknowledge our inhumanity,

driven by hatred and hubris, fear and folly.

No more twisted words,

let the mouldering truth be heard

to allow restoration.

 

Lost souls wail, wandering in empty ether,

overwhelmed by tears, needing to be named

and properly laid to rest, guided by Elders,

and in so doing, heal our climate, culture, country.

  (Image credit: Little Butterfly Girl by Donald Chretien)

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Mental

Health

My Brush With Suicide

by Rebecca Kramer

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There I sat, all alone, under shrill fluorescent lights in the windowless backroom of our store.

        It was Christmas Day, 2005. There was no turkey dinner with stuffing and pumpkin pie to enjoy this holiday. I was neither giving nor receiving gifts. No decorations hung festively anywhere in this dismal place. And there was no merry laughter, warm hugs or friendly chit-chat. Worst of all, for the passionate musician in me, no Christmas carols filled the stale air in the room, only a deafening silence. Even Thieffer, my spouse, was nowhere to be found.

         Why, you ask, was this Christmas so utterly bleak and depressing for me? What had gone amiss? It had all been started earlier by this ruthless Grinch of a  husband, who had not only stolen this particular Christmas from me, but every Christmas and holiday from this moment forward; that is, if I made the choice to endure them.

 

We had been married in June of 2005 and I became pregnant right thereafter. When I was six months with child, Christmas was approaching and I had asked my husband, if we could get together with family and friends to celebrate the season.  

        He'd answered, quite sharply, “No. You’re not getting together with any friends or family over the holidays. No days are special; every day is the same. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it is going to stay from here on in. Get used to it!”

        As I watched him storm away, I thought, “Yes, there are special days in every country around the globe. I have seen the way they are celebrated, even read and wrote extensively about them at school.” I knew he was well aware of how irrational his argument sounded, but deliberately cancelled any enjoyment I might derive from the holidays, just to cause me pain in the deepest way possible.

 

Over the few weeks leading up to Christmas, I pondered upon the following:

         While earning my Masters of World Arts degree, I had studied cultures around the world and how they expressed themselves through the arts. Culture can be defined as the practices and rituals of any group of people, including the different ways they celebrate their special days. All countries distinguish between normal days throughout the week and celebratory occasions; when work stops and celebrations begin, such as on weekends, holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and even funerals.  

         Like an epidemic wave, more and more 'special days' have been creeping into our calendars over time. It seems we, as a species, look high and low for a reason to celebrate anything under the sun. Festive get-togethers keep us happy because we have something fun to look forward to on our calendar; somehow we can better tolerate the humdrum days and ride out the lows in our lives when special days are a regular part of our existence.

These specific days are steeped in the Arts as a unique exhibition of each cultural group of people; expressed through music, dance, film, theater, concerts, festivals, fine arts, sports, culinary creations, decorations, costumes, creative writing, speeches and readings from culture-specific holy books. Diverse offerings make special days beautiful, heartfelt, memorable, and, of course, fun.

         I had also studied how important it is for every society to cultivate the Arts, because they are incredibly useful in strengthening social bonds between communities and their members. Unity is always the pleasant outcome when we celebrate the seasons together. After much exposure and study of cultural practices worldwide, I have boiled down my insights into one philosophical statement: “Cultures thriving in the Arts bring much needed unity to communities.”

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All my hopes of celebrating with fellow Canadians died that Christmas of 2005. Thieffer had succeeded in trapping me into the life sentence of a cruel marriage; living with light deprivation, social isolation, and financial abuse so profound, I realized that my previous fear of lifetime lockup on a psych ward was Mickey Mouse in comparison to my present circumstances. At least windows brighten mental institutions and there are other patients to talk to.

      And to pile even more heavily onto my woes was the nagging reality that I was in the advanced stages of pregnancy; and I was completely unprepared to raise my son because of the warped abuses that my mother had subjected me to as a child. I knew nothing about raising children; nothing at all. I was going to hold a newborn baby for the first time at the age of 35 and felt absolutely terrified. How could I raise a child completely alone in the windowless backroom of a store with no contact to and from the outside world? I couldn’t bear the thought.

     

And so I considered my options of escape. The only family I had left were out of reach. My father had recently moved to Iowa and the only brother I had left was living in Pennsylvania. Women’s shelters denied me a safe haven; their organizations refused to take in abused women who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. And I couldn’t move out, since my husband denied me any access to my own CPP pension or disability income.     

        To make matters worse, the stigma of my mental illness had caused former friends to abandon me whenever I was in crisis. A fake, “Hi, how are you, I’m fine,” was all they tolerated from me. Telling them, “Hi, I need your help. Thieffer has stolen this Christmas from me; and all future Christmases as well. That’s every holiday with no celebrations ever again. I want to kill myself!” would have been a pointless exercise. I knew I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. 

 

I began to realize that suicide had become my last, and only, option. Curiously, it dawned on me that this had been the same option that three of my brothers had found themselves left with in the end. Now I understood, why they had chosen to take their own lives. Now it all made sense to me. Someone’s reality can be fated in such an unbearable way that people are forced to pursue any means of escape they feel would put an end to their torment. But, after sifting through all of their options, no safe escape presents itself. Then, for whatever reason, if they carry too much pain within them and have lost their endurance to continue on in their struggle, they arrive at a juncture where only death can bring them much-needed relief.      

Now it finally sank in: I had arrived at the same low point that had made them choose this last way out. I also realized that I could now answer the two burning questions I had posed myself, while I was sitting in the back of that police cruiser, escorting me handcuffed into my first hospitalization back in 1997. I had been wondering, how long it would take the Mental Health System, with all its trappings, to wear me down until I, too, would feel desperate enough to commit suicide. It was now 2005; therefore, it had taken eight long years for me to finally bottom out.

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     Also, a personal question, I'd been exploring, had been: “Is suicide a sign of mental illness, or a reflection of the poor treatment of patients in hospital psych wards?” How interesting it was to me that, though I was presently not having a bipolar episode of mania or depression, I found myself feeling decidedly suicidal. Profound loneliness and isolation without hope of belonging had fueled my desire to die; not my illness. I decided that suicide was an escape from a life of constant stigma; suicide was not a sign of mental illness. And what was stigma? As I had experienced it, stigma could be defined as the subduing or banishment of people who have a socially unacceptable mental illness.

Social deprivation not only robs people

of options when they are in crisis,

it is the very factor that delivers people

into crises to begin with. 

 

Stigma manifests itself on psych wards so insidiously, one could consider it to be actually manufactured there and, then, it easily spreads into the attitudes of 'normal' society. During my first 21 institutionalizations, in conjunction with receiving accumulated cruelties in my various home environments during three abusive marriages, as well as having been raped, excommunicated and expelled, I was subjected to the sting of stigma. I had to discover, first hand, that stigma was primarily an overt social ostracism.

      The opposite of social deprivation is social connection, which endows people with support from their peers when they are in crisis; or, because of their rich social cushioning, they may never experience severe crisis at all. I strung my logical flow of ideas along like this: “Mental illness causes stigma; stigma causes social deprivation; social deprivation leads to a lack of options in crisis; having no options in crisis leads to suicide.

       It was nonsensical for me to accept the psychiatric conviction that “All suicide is caused internally by a mental illness. External forces, such as life circumstances and social connectedness, are all insignificant factors in a suicide case." This I would counter with the question: “Then why do so many people, who commit suicide, have no previous history of mental illness?” And, to that, the psychiatric stance twists its position the following way to suit its purpose: “When a 'normal' person commits suicide, they have expressed a mental illness the moment they become suicidal: something has gone wrong in their mind at that instance; period. Every last suicide case is, in essence, always an example of a deranged mind.”

      In response, I'd argue: “The belief that suicide is a mental derangement leaves those, who choose suicide as a last resort, to be easily stigmatized and shrugged off by all 'Normals'. Therefore, those who have attempted suicide (successfully or unsuccessfully) are criminalized, demonized, or left to rot in religious purgatory for their decision; and there is no compassion awarded them - none.

I believe three aspects interplay during a suicide attempt, not just one: Suicide is circumstantial and it is social, which leads to an understandable suicidal thought process; therefore, we need to respect the person who is caught in this three-way trap.

        My insights offer a ray of hope. If suicide is just a mental disease, then little can and will be done to stop it. But, if suicide is a sign of ill-fated circumstances and social disconnectedness, then these realities can be altered; and, subsequently, lives can ultimately be saved. The secret to living a happy life lies directly in how we secure supportive social connections. All external circumstances and internal thought processes are extensions of our belief that we have a legitimate place in our society. This must be taught from an early age onwards.

      This is the centerpiece in my theory of disassembling suicide. It, therefore, logically follows that people, who have a mental illness and have, nevertheless, achieved a satisfying social network, will find themselves in favourable life circumstances and will easily refrain from ever contemplating the possibility of suicide, much less resort to it as a last option. As I write this in 2022, peace of mind has finally found me. Back then though, three days before New Year’s Eve at the turn of 2005 into 2006, any sign of social connectedness to brighten my own, grim situation was utterly out of reach for me.

     

My last episode in this life was about to begin. On December 28th, 2005, I had picked up my fully refilled prescription drugs. My husband was aware of this. I'd said goodbye to him and left for my weekly women’s AA meeting, which had succeeded in helping me quit my six-year-long addiction to alcohol. But rather than head to the meeting, I ventured out onto the highway heading towards the house where I'd grown up in Greensville: the house my father had just recently sold.

       It was 7:30 in the evening. Along the way, I began to have car troubles; in particular, my muffler was scraping noisily on the road. I was terrified. What if a cop pulled me over and asked me, “M'am, where are you going?” What was I supposed to say to him, “Oh, right now I’m just looking for a convenient place to kill myself!?” 

       So, I pulled off the highway and drove into a deserted survey area. I stopped my car to investigate. There lay the exhaust dangling by a thread of steel. With one easy yank, I pulled the muffler free and dropped it onto the ground. Much relieved, I continued on with my mission. I drove close to my dad’s old house and looked for an out-of-the-way place to park.

      It had begun to rain heavily and I stopped the car behind an industrial building out of sight from the road. I thought, “If I venture into the woods in the dark, I will most likely never be found.” So I chose, instead, to sit in the comfort of my warm car for my last moments. I took the 120 pills with a bottle of water, watched as the torrents of rain made rivers down my cracked windshield and I waited to fall into my final, much-needed sleep.      

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In the meanwhile, Thieffer was at home, panic-stricken. When I had failed to return from the women’s AA meeting, it dawned on him that I had picked up my full prescription of meds that day. He immediately called 911 and urgently demanded, “I need a search to be made for my wife. I suspect she is attempting suicide.” He was told, “A missing person’s report, when filed, requires 24 hours to pass until a search party is sent out.” But he'd insist, “You must search now. In 24 hours it will be too late; she will already be dead.”             

       My then-husband was aware of an interesting fact: that those, who attempt suicide, tend to seek the comforts of familiar surroundings. He, therefore, advised the police, “Search up in Greensville. She may be around the area of Cramer Road: it's the address of her childhood home.” 

 

A police officer finally found me unconscious in my car at midnight and brought me to the Critical Care Unit at McMaster Hospital - the same hospital I had been trapped in on a psych ward in 2002, three years earlier.

        For the next few days, Thieffer did not leave my side while I lay in a coma. When I awoke, there he was; this twisted man, who had stubbornly put my future to death, had just successfully saved my life. My heart sank. Now what? Right then I discovered just how embarrassing it can feel to have failed your own suicide attempt. At first, I vowed never to attempt it again, because I couldn’t bare the embarrassment of failing a second time. As the years passed, though, and as I grew in my ability to improve my circumstances and secure social connections, I knew that the option of ending it all would never again find its prominence in my life.

     

The fact that I had attempted suicide while being pregnant was considered a serious act of child abuse by the Children's Aid Society. Therefore, the organization determined that my son was to be taken away from me after his birth. I had to resign myself to their judgement; this was yet another unavoidable and sad reality in my life.

        On the other hand, the CAS ended up stepping in and forcing my husband to make improvements to my living conditions. First, they required a support system to be established for me, insisting that a pregnant woman should not be expected to carry her child in isolation, lacking any social contacts. Ironically, as I began to receive visitors, they turned out to be the very same people I had so sincerely wished to celebrate Christmas with. How pathetically sad the whole scenario turned out to be! Now, since their support was coerced by the authorities to ensure I wouldn’t attempt suicide again, our friendships ended.    

    And, secondly, the CAS insisted that a pregnant woman should not be subjected to poor living conditions at the windowless back of a store set in an industrial area. After a year of subsisting without sunlight, the day finally arrived when we moved to a proper house in a residential area of Hamilton Mountain. I was, at long last, able to bask in the morning sun with my cup of coffee and to contemplate life to the waning evening light peeking through the windows.

       And my situation did indeed improve slightly - if only for the time being.

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Autumn Serenade (Tanja Rabe)

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Fishbone Gallery

King's Town Splash
Tanja Rabe

Blue Splash

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Green Splash

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Orange Splash

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Short

Fiction

The Last Chieftain of Molokai

by Gregory Patrick

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“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream . . . making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams . . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence . . . that which makes its truth, its meaning . . . its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream - alone.”
-
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The affliction, the leprosy, eats away slowly and inexorably. For one accustomed to the mad fury of wading into battle and striking down two warriors at a time with one sweep of the koa club, the wasting of my body was terrible to endure. It was a day as black as the ashen skies in the steaming aftermath of an eruption, when I could no longer wield my club. First gaunt . . . then emaciated.
     

To be slain in battle would have been honourable, redeemable in the eyes of gods and mortals.

       I think back to my exploits. I remember, when I cast off from shore to defend my chieftain's honour. I arrived with the dolphin-escorted wake trailing my outrigger canoe and stood at the coral atoll, a dark shrine of volcanic rock that was only above water in a tense interval between tides. This site, where rival champions did inter-island battle, was exposed briefly before the submerging tides would roar in, drowning out final groans and battle cries under circling scavenger birds, their shrill cries like harpies.
     

The rival champion's sail could be seen like a crimson banner against the cerulean sky. I awaited, the waves lapping at my soles. Sharks sensing death sailed with him and tagged the wake of his canoe, heralded by a conch horn's sonorous brays. As his sails drew nearer, I could make out the tattoos and adornments boasting of his accomplishments in hunt and battle.
       Cupping sand into my palms to enhance my grip, I allowed the dark volcanic grains to sieve through my fingers. Below me, amidst the choppy, sapphiric waters, the crab-picked bones of our predecessors littered the sharp, blood-red coral. My rage a force of nature, like those that consumed ships and men, made me bare my teeth in a haka and brandish my club in eager anticipation.

I confronted my rival under the punishing sun, the besieging waves roaring to the shrill screech of gulls and, with a stroke of my shark-toothed koa club, I eviscerated him, then struck him with the back of the club into the sea. Sprayed blood wept down my face like red warpaint. He looked up at me from a submerged perspective, a crimson trail ascending from his sunken form. The sharks insatiable . . .   

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last chieftain

The water had risen to my shanks, yet proved still too shallow for their serrated teeth to reach me. Maddened at its elusive quarry, impatient to strike and ravenous, one reared at me and fell just short, lacerating itself on the jagged rock as it trashed its way back into deeper waters. The others turned on the wounded shark as a consolation. It writhed in its final throes as it was devoured alive, an explosion of red blooming at my feet. It met my eyes, jaws gaping, baring its teeth in futility.

I lingered there awhile after the feeding frenzy subsided, chest heaving, then slumped into my canoe before the waters would rise to envelope me. I did not trouble with the paddles, allowing the ocean to bear me whichever way it desired. I closed my eyes into the sensation of floating in ghostly passage. Like a dark melody, the eternal sigh of the waves caressed my soul as I passed over the sunken wrecks of whaling ships, their torn sails swaying in the deep currents like phantasmal banners.

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My eyes awoke to the myriad stars, the aerial charts by which great mariners navigate. I recognized the beckoning constellations, caught the aromatic scent of flowers. I was being drawn back to my island home. Torches lining the shore, drums throbbing in the night . . . I was expected.
      I waded ashore triumphantly, steeling myself to stride rather than stagger towards them. The chief's daughter draped my neck with a lei, the allure in her eyes sweeping through me like a dark wave smiting the night shore. I knew again the maddening intoxication of basking in their adulation. I felt invincible then, immortal . . .

 

For this arrogance, perhaps, the gods ultimately sought to humble and punish me as, several months later, a chance cut from an enemy would cross my guard in battle and, vexingly, I would feel no pain. Recoiling in horror that the dreaded affliction had me in its fatal grip, my world spun in kaleidoscope. Filled with a terrible rage, I lashed out at my opponent then, severing his head clear off his torso.
     When my raven-haired beauty grasped the menace I posed and recoiled from me in horror, that proved my true death, though I would linger on in body for an excruciatingly long time. The look of revulsion in her dark eyes scathed me more than any wound suffered in battle. My spirit was crushed and left me. I have been a corpse warrior ever since.
       So I sought the maddening, desolate isolation . . . the forbidden places where none ventured. Heights of cliffs overlooking the crushing brink of sea and far reaches of remote coral reefs, in exile from the tribe that once hailed me as their champion.

 

I remember when the Tiki idols were vandalised and defiled by the missionaries' decree not long thereafter. I felt the axe blows on them tangibly, like a phantom pain. My eyes smoldered by the torches and the blood-chant of my heart in synchrony with the splintering blows, whose echoes followed me into the dark forest.

I implored the gods, seeking them in the windswept heights of dormant volcano craters, towering above the clouds, and in the depths of spirit-haunted forests. Yet, my cry appeared to merely echo unheeded in the void and amid the darkness of the trees. Even the cold, black fathoms of the sea did not know their equal of my sinking despair.

 

One day, I found myself standing at the crushing brink of a remote, tide-exposed reef within sight of shore, jagged coral biting into the soles of my feet, creating crimson pools of my blood. Like a sacrificial offering, I awaited the rising tide to claim me. Dark shapes attracted by the sanguine aroma circled impatiently. I closed my eyes, arms spread wide, welcoming the waves and unrelenting will of the gods while chanting my people's sacred songs . . .

     A double-masted ship appeared on the horizon and, upon approach, hailed me . . . a missionary ship. They 'rescued' me off my rock, unbeknownst that my affliction would claim them further on along their voyage.
 

I now stand looking out at the red horizon, defiantly, as I ever stared down enemies across the dark volcanic ground of battle. The vermillion sunset like a reopened wound reflects into the sea as a mirror cast down to a fire goddess' vanity. Eerie cloud formations, resembling the art of a mad god, reveled across the skyline of fog-enshrouded mountains. My grim face lit in intervals by spurts of volcanic eruptions. The sea behind me steams cauldrenously as red veins of lava flow into the waters, a sinister plume of smoke rising towards the sky.

     I close my eyes to escape into the realm of dream as a last harbour of refuge. I envision her beauty next to me, eloping together towards a horizon cloaked in mysterious shadows. To imagine thus is deemed 'kapu' amongst our people, yet under the spell and intoxication of her dark eyes, whose fires enshrine in pools of blackness that rival Pele's, I caress ash from her sweep of raven hair like an endearment whispered to the night.

     My eyes open and the cry, in realisation of my true plight, sounds disembodied. It seemed so real. I stand at the helm of the doomed ship looking back at the island beyond the biolumined wake, a sultry gust sweeping my lament that sways the palms under the star-speckled firmament, beacons of the great seafarers who dared reach for distant shores.

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One last horizon over the silver-crested waves like a procession of dark horses drawing an Atlantean lord across the sea.       

        One last horizon . . . 

        One last horizon . . .

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