Death by donkey, and childhood

Maclean's magazine? When did you start reading that, and do you have a subscription or can you actually buy this quintessential Canadian publication in Santa Barbara? OK, it is apparently quite true that the Canadian North has the nation's highest Crime S

Maclean’s magazine? When did you start reading that, and do you have a subscription or can you actually buy this quintessential Canadian publication in Santa Barbara?

OK, it is apparently quite true that the Canadian North has the nation’s highest Crime Severity Index, with the Yukon leading the nation for homicides. And yes, the stats for auto theft and breaking and entering are higher than the national rate, but really, I am not living in mortal danger.

I do, however, live in some sadness about the crimes against women and children here. The highest rate of sexual assault and aggravated assault, while not worrying me much personally, are evidenced in a population of kids with severe issues.

The reasons given for these shameful numbers are FASD, the traumas of sexual and physical abuse, the frequency of suicide, the pervasiveness of addiction, geographic isolation and lack of social services, all of which in my experience are certainly true.

These statistics present a picture of a population without much imagination; rather than taking advantage of the isolation and learn new ways of living, they get addicted and abusive? However, I think it is important to your understanding to know that the majority of our populace did not choose to live here. The First Nations people were already here; the choice they must make these days is whether to stay and work for change or leave.

For the rest of us choosing to live here would seem to be a decision made with some foreknowledge of the geographic isolation and the lack of social services, but a lot of us who made that choice had no idea of the abuse, addiction, suicides and the crime rate. I know lots of people search out that sort of information before moving to a new community but I am one of those lots of people that wouldn’t even think of doing such a thing. The news of these problems and their implications is news that I have learned gradually over the last few years, coming to me through the media, conversations and observation. Being a couple not involved professionally with the community, it has been a slow process learning who is who and what is what.

What I do to prevent getting bogged down in feelings of rage and helplessness is try to spend time with the positive aspects of living here, and I have the good fortune of having met and gotten to know some wonderful families: families who are involved with their children and doing everything possible to make their lives safe and happy. In some cases they would not be classified as ‘normal’ groupings, but what is normal any more other than a setting on a clothes dryer?

For instance, Cee and her husband tell some stories about their family that might give a social worker some concern. Smacking the kids for certain offences was not uncommon, nor was the telling of falsehoods.

When their children were young they were told things like “steak is not good for children,” and that Whitehorse didn’t allow kids. When much-loved pets died, the kids were told they’d gone to Swift River, a legend which lives on in the family language and now applies to anything or anyone that dies. To keep them from going in the attic, the children were told there was a crazy old aunt that lived up there and this story was strengthened by frequent openings of the trapdoor on the ceiling by the parents who would then pretend to be putting food and water up there for Aunt Wendy.

One of their kids, going through a rebellious adolescence, insisted she’d been adopted; she believed could not possibly belong in such an awful family. Her dad finally told her what he declared was the real truth about her beginnings; “You were adopted, but they brought you back.”

As near as I can tell, these somewhat weird practices didn’t harm their kids in any lasting way; they are a wholly functioning and successful lot who display a great fondness for their parents and each other.

Pete and I have had many hilarious evenings when the clan was gathered for some celebration, or to mark a holiday, and when they start relating stories of their childhood we all end up weak with laughter.

The time they bought a camper for a summer touring the coast is particularly good. All four kids had elected to ride in the camper at one point in the journey, a decision I suspect aided by their parents who were heartily sick of the constant squabbling going on in the back seat.

After a quiet hour in the truck, Cee and her husband decided to stop for coffee; they opened the door of the camper to ask the kids if they wanted anything and were pleased to see all four playing a board game and in peaceful coexistence. The parents were told there was nothing needed by their offspring at that moment and so they went into the little cafe in the middle of nowhere on the Alaska Highway and enjoyed a peaceful coffee break. They then continued on their trek, unaware that the children had all left the camper to go into the souvenir shop attached to the cafe but with a separate entrance.

You can imagine their consternation when they stopped again, one hundred miles later, and found themselves childless. Their panic, it is now told, could not have held a candle to that of the kids who found themselves abandoned, shoeless and jacketless, with night approaching. These were the days before cellphones but it didn’t take long for the distraught parents to realize what had most likely happened and to turn around for the anxious drive back. They found their kids drinking Cokes and eating pie in the cafe, cared for but definitely worried, and unusually demonstrative when reunited with their sire and dam.

There are great memories of different things the children said or did in their growing years, like the time the eldest boy decided he needed to explore his spiritual options and chose to attend Sunday school at the Catholic church. His Biblical knowledge was astonishing: “Mary was able to have Jesus because she had an immaculate contraption” was Cee’s favourite, followed by “All through history Jews had trouble with unsympathetic genitals.” I liked “Solomon was a king who had 300 wives and 700 porcupines” while Pete enjoyed learning that “the people who followed the lord were called the twelve decibels.”

One of the kids had a scientific bent, informing his family of such marvels as the colour of butterfly blood (it’s not red, it is brown), the amazing news that only female ducks quack, and that more people are killed annually by donkeys than by airplane crashes.

An evening with them reminds me of my own childhood: how safe I felt without even thinking about it, and how I took my parents’ love and support for granted. I guess that is the sum of a good family; when the children take for granted that they are loved and safe. It makes me sad for the ones who have never felt that way; how terrible it must be for them, and how infinitely damaging, for them and eventually, for society.

Those who have had an affectionate and secure childhood usually perpetuate it by the manner in which they raise their own children and those who haven’t do the same. Hence the faces I see in our community, many young faces full of innocence, and too many young faces full of old and painful knowledge.

It is hard for those of us spared youthful traumas to imagine them and it is even harder to imagine adults who are abusive and violent with their kids. I am aware of the many reasons for such adults, but a reason is not an excuse; somewhere, with someone, it ought to stop.

Children cannot be expected to be respectful of others if they come from a household where there is no respect for anything.

They can’t be kind if they don’t witness kindness and it can be certain they will not trust anyone; they don’t even trust one another.

It is said if we want to change behaviour we must model the things we wish for and I guess for me, childless, the only thing I can do is notice and greet the children I meet with recognition of their humanity. It is a small thing, but a hopeful one, and we can do it no matter where we live, even in this much-labelled place of the highest CSI.

Love,

Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.

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