ugly xmas tree
Years ago, more than I care to count, I confess that I was a federal civil servant. That’s not the worst part. I got that job at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. But wait. That’s still not the worst. The worst is yet to come.
Maybe I should begin with the good part of this tale. I actually felt lucky when I got the job because of where it was. A nice woman named Barbara Shaw took a shine to me, hired me into her Audio-Visual shop. There, I honed my photographic skills, learned more about audio recording and mixing, and was introduced to multi-media (slide shows and video production). I also was lucky enough to work with a few nice people.
Michel was second-in-line and loved the remote film projects he got to work on. Next came Bucky holding court in the studio, half blind and a jazz drummer. Finally, “Raw Bear” (aka Robert) in charge of the photography, slide and visual arts side of things. Down the hall was Howard and the Indian News. I took over the not-so-glam job of news monitoring, a duty the rest of the guys willingly, too willingly it seemed, let go.
I set timers on video and tape recorders every night, and the next morning reviewed local and national newscasts for anything to do with the Department’s mandate. The minister, every minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, didn’t want to be caught with his pants down at Question Period. Also as part of the job, I got to read the daily print clippings. My political spidey sense became more acute. My critical analysis of the Canadian news media took shape.
At first, the sum total of recorded news items each morning might be one fluffs-and-feathers piece. These usually, often, almost always began with the sound of drums and chanting. Always those damn drums and chanting. I read way too many newspaper and magazine clippings with headlines or stories that contained phrases like “dancing up a storm” or “whooping it up” somewhere for something. If it weren’t for that strange thing call a Mohawk sense of humour, I might have become suicidal thereby completing the tragic stereotypical process.
But I survived. And I digress. This is supposed to a cheery little Christmas story.
So one day in December, during what turned out to be my last few months at Indian Affairs, Raw Bear and I decided to accept the Assistant Deputy Minister’s invitation to partake of some holiday cheer in his offices up on the 21st. floor. This was THE 21st. Floor, usually out of bounds to lesser beings such as we.
There was only other time I’d taken the elevator up to that floor. I dropped off some news summaries because some faecal matter had struck an electric aeration device and the Minister’s Office (caps required) demanded immediate attention. Usually, one of the other guys responded to such directives. That one time, given my suspicious racial background and therefore dubious security status, the gods on 21 decided to take a chance and give mew the job of delivery boy. I felt so freaking honoured I wanted to puke. But, again, I digress.
So there we are, Raw Bear and I. We’re chuckling and stifling laughs as we prowled the food table. “White food,” I said, looking down at the usual bits of cheese and crackers. “Where’s the Injun food,” I add?
“Maybe they couldn’t afford baloney,” Raw Bear replied.
“You mean Indian steak?”
So we scoured the tables looking for something, anything more edible. We slipped over to the drinks area where someone was dispensing wine and beer, all the while looking about completely amazed at the cavorting of normally dour and dull civil servantry. This was not just another day in the belly of the beast.
I’d never seen so many comely but poorly paid secretaries… uh, I mean clerical staff, groping or hanging off each other as well as senior managers of a more lecherous bent. Suddenly, Raw Bear and I felt the joyous mood in the room become decidely cooler. We could feel pairs of eyes boring into the backs of our necks. We were definitely in someone’s scope.Then a tap on the shoulder and a whispered command to both of us: “Follow me.”
Raw Bear and I had quietened somewhat. Well, okay, I’d gone a whole lot quieter. Raw Bear had seniority while I was still on the endless cycle of six-month appointments that was the fate of most Indigenous folk at the Department. I knew one poor schmuck who had been on similar appointments for nearly 18 years. I repeat: nearly 18 years!
“Shhhh,” I whispered. “This looks serious.” This just made the slightly inebriated Raw Bear giggle even more.
We were escorted into an adjoining room and told to stay. We stood there looking at each other, wondering what the hell was going on, scanning the walls for about a minute but feeling it much longer, when the owner of the office came in. There he was. Rob Brown, the ADM himself.
Mr. ADM entered and shut the door behind. He didn’t even both with a “Merry Christmas.” He went straight to the point, which is why he got paid the big bucks: “I want you both to face the wall, and put your hands up against it.”
I wish I’d had an out-of-body experience at that moment. I wanted so much to see the exclamation points and questions marks popping like bubbles above our heads. We turned to look at each other. Then we both turned around the other way to face the wall. Dutifully, me and Raw Bear assumed the position. Y’know: That position.
By this point, being slightly pickled, we were both giggling at the whole ludicrous, ridiculous, surreal situation. We were giggling like a pair of school girls while this highly priced ADM is running his hands up and down our arms, armpits, waists, and down our legs to the ankles. And just like that, it was over.
“Okay,” he said. We were clean. Not quite innocent but not proven guilty either. Mr. ADM then turned to the door and went through it. Stunned, Raw Bear and I stayed in “the position” for a second or two before finally breaking into full blown guffaws.
Stunned, we rejoined the party. But the implications were starting to gnaw at our party spirit. Yes, our libidos went limp. We had another drink but soon decided the thrill was definitely gone.
I saw a friend, Monik, deep in shmooze mode on the other side of the room. We didn’t want to interrupt so we waved goodbye to her, headed out the door and down the hall to the elevators, shaking our heads all the way down to our floor at the pat down.
The next day, I ran into Monik. I asked if she knew what happened to us at the party? She seemed more shocked than surprised. As the tale unfolded, Monik’s expression slowly turned fron concern into a smile. What was so goddam funny, I asked? For me, the funny left town on last night’s bus to Toronto.
My civil rights, my labour rights, my human rights as an individual in Canadian society – all had been violated by my boss, the ADM of Indian Affairs. I know that shouldn’t have surprised me – me of all people! So why was Monik on the verge of busting a gut?
That’s when she confessed.
There was a little toy Christmas tree with tiny decorations on a table near the food and drinks areas. ADM Brown noticed that some of these decorations had grown feet. There we stood, me and Raw Bear, hanging around that area, just a-giggling away. Ergo, ipso fatso, we must be the guilty parties. That’s why the dragnet came out, the die was cast, and so on and so forth.
There is a moral to this story. Maybe two.
Never, ever trust any senior official at Indian Affairs.
And beware Abenakis bearing gifts.