Echo

 

The most exotic person in my small town high school was an Aboriginal girl named Echo. There were less than 300 students in my school and a mere 3,000 in my town, but if there’d been ten times that many, Echo still would have stood out. Not only was she statuesque—at 5’10”she overshadowed the other girls in the school—she was beautiful. Her black hair fell in a luxurious curtain past her shoulders and a hem of bangs feathered thick eyebrows above dark almond-shaped eyes. Beneath them were high cheekbones, strong and striking, yet softened by a delicate ridge of nose and full lips pursed in a shy half-smile. When she did smile, her teeth were perfect and white against amber-brown skin, and her entire face seemed to radiate a quiet knowing.

There was something mysterious and reserved about Echo. Unlike the Caucasian girls in my town, whose rough and tumble younger brothers I endured during games of kick the can in The Circle—the solitary cul-de-sac in our town—or whose moms I often spied, heads half swallowed beneath the alien–looking domes of hairdryers at Leonarda’s Beauty Salon, I never met Echo’s siblings or family. Not once did I visit her home for a birthday party or sleepover. In fact, I didn’t know for sure where her house was despite the fact I lived in a town where you could cycle the streets in less time than it took to have a passing sidewalk conversation, and where everyone seemed to know your business before you did.

I had a vague idea that Echo lived somewhere east of town, down a stretch of tar-striped prairie highway on the other side of the town campsite. How could it be that I’d never once thought to ask? Our friendship found its footing in high school and seemed to be completely contained by it. On occasion we hung out together over lunch hours on the hard tiled bench inside the school’s front entrance watching a parade of students stomping in from the wintry cold, the stained snow of their shoes melting into sodden dark doormats. In English we sat next to each other, diligent, hard working students sometimes catching each other’s eye to smile at the sophomoric antics of the boys in class.  If paired up in science, we’d dip our heads together to dissect a lab specimen, filled with awe at its tiny, perfect innards. On rare occasions, our conversation would rise above the standard fare of high school foibles and infidelities, and slide towards our future dreams: mine, to be a lawyer and defend the downtrodden, hers to find happiness and peace of mind.  I held our friendship like a quiet secret. As a member of one of two Arab families in the town, I felt an affinity with Echo, an uncommon off-White identity. I considered myself an outsider too. After all, my family didn’t worship at a church and we weren’t allowed to eat the pork hot dogs at hockey games or order the bacon cheeseburger that was all the rage at Denny’s Drive Inn.

But it wasn’t just our shared “otherness” that attracted me to Echo. There was something regal and reserved about her that drew me out of the dusty shell of isolation I often felt on the northern Canadian prairie. It was as if she and I were somehow apart from the White Anglo mainstream.

The looking glass I’d fashioned for myself in high school brought this image into sharper focus at university. I recall studying a unit on the First Nations in a course called Contemporary Issues in Political Philosophy. During one discussion I felt personally affronted when a classmate, a young woman who’d grown up in the city, attributed the current problems faced by “Indians” to laziness and alcoholism. I was so incensed that I begged the professor to let me bring in a knowledgeable guest speaker to address the class. One of the most memorable moments of my entire undergraduate education was watching this speaker, a soft spoken, insightful man of 40 and government colleague of my father, systematically dispel the many stereotypes held by students who, I surmised, had not had the benefit of growing up with a friend like Echo. In particular, I relished the moment of perfect poetic justice that culminated the heated debate between the racist young woman and the my guest: 

Young woman: I don’t think…

Guest speaker: Exactly.

I hung on to that triumph like a rare, bright penny. It became the signature coin in a change purse jingling with social justice causes. I was 19 and determined to save the world—one disenfranchised population at a time. And when it came to the First Nations, I felt I had an insider’s perspective.

I can’t say how such a self-indulgent sensibility lodged itself so deeply into my subconscious, but it was years before I thought to question it.  The impetus came just last summer when I received an email via my website. The sender, an Aboriginal woman who I’ll call Rose, had recently read my book and wanted my opinion on a story. It turns out that the story was hers.

At the age of three government authorities had taken Rose from her family and placed her in an orphanage. The day she arrived, the nuns had removed and disposed of her clothes, bathed her in kerosene, given her a crude haircut and uniform, and told her never again to speak her language. She’d met dozens of other brown-skinned girls identically shorn and clothed, but it wasn’t until that night after she’d been placed in a crib—one of several lined up against the wall in a yawning roomful of beds—that a terrible reality started to dawn. When Rose laid her head down and looked through the bars, inches away was another girl her own age crying noiselessly, her tears sliding down her cheeks to dampen the mattress below. That’s when Rose began to realize she would not be going home. 

The childhood that followed was sadly similar to many of Rose’s generation—a harsh, regimented institutional upbringing, physical and sexual abuse, and the loss of family, culture and Aboriginal identity—with one extraordinary exception. Sometime during her five years at the orphanage Rose developed vitiligo, a skin disorder in which the body’s pigment-producing cells are destroyed. In the decade after she left the orphanage at age eight, and endured five different foster homes until age 18, an ever-expanding territory of white colonized the brown landscape of her skin. As fate would have it, by the time Rose was 19 she was, from the perspective of anyone who saw her, a “White” woman.

Rose’s story captivated me. It was eerily reminiscent of the experience of John Howard Griffin, a White Texan who travelled through the American South ‘passing’ as a Black man. Griffin—who transformed his appearance with the help of large doses of anti-vitiligo medication, and long lie-ins under an ultraviolet lamp—recounted his six weeks as a “Negro” in a 1961 memoir entitled Black Like Me. The book was not only an explosive exposé on American racism, it was a seminal and enduring work that has helped generations of White Americans understand the impact that their prejudices and repressive practices imposed on their African American brethren. If Griffin’s brief ordeal inhabiting the skin of a Black man could have such an eye-opening impact, surely the story of Rose’s unprecedented transformation from a shunned and abused Aboriginal youth to living the next five and a half decades as a White woman would create a seismic shift in attitude.

Meeting Rose felt like a kind of serendipity, as if her choosing me to tell her story was affirming a connection that had begun decades before through my friendship with Echo. This feeling gained greater purchase when Rose confided in me that a New York literary agency had previously offered to buy her story and put her in touch with five potential writers. Rose had interviewed them all, but felt none understood her situation in a way that gave her confidence to move forward.

Determined to uphold the faith Rose had placed in me, I immersed myself in research, not just interviewing her, but reading books and articles, combing First Nations websites, subscribing to news feeds and even enrolling in an eight-week Indigenous Cultural Competency training program. The program began by teaching aspects of Canada’s history I’d never learned in high school or university: chilling facts about Indian residential schools and Indian hospitals; restrictive government policies such as the Indian Act (the only race-based legislation I know of in the world); and the crippling consequences and legacy of colonization. I added it all to the arsenal of knowledge with which I would write Rose’s story. Next, the program turned its focus to self-awareness, asking students to reflect on White and Christian privilege. I held steadfastly to my worldview: I wasn’t White; I was Arab. I wasn’t Christian; I was raised a Muslim. I could relate to discrimination. To stereotyping. My sense of affinity with our indigenous population that had taken root in a tiny northern prairie town remained secure. I sailed on to the next assignment: writing about my family’s history settling in Canada.

That’s when something unexpected happened. I’d always been proud of my status as a third generation Canadian and, in particular, of the sacrifice and harsh living conditions my grandparents had endured so that I could prosper.  They left Lebanon after the First World War for the promise of free land and a better life in Canada. How could it be that I’d never until that moment—until tasked with one seemingly simple assignment—realized that the land upon which my Canadian forefathers had laid the foundation for my future was not “free” at all? Like the location of Echo’s home, it was something I had never even considered.

That moment of realization should have been a wake up call. Instead, I hit the snooze button and plowed forward on Rose’s story. With her permission, I pitched a feature article on her life to a national magazine, telling her it was the best way to build interest in a book. We continued to meet and talk, but as the deadline approached my focus turned increasingly inwards toward the solitary task of writing.

“Can I read what you’ve written?” Rose asked.

“Not yet,” I replied. I wanted to get a first draft under my belt. I’d already told Rose about the opening scene—something my editor had suggested would act as a perfect metaphor for her story—and she’d seemed hesitant. In that scene, Rose is 14 and stands naked in the tiny outhouse behind a southern prairie farmhouse, her third foster home. Beneath her slim brown feet is a mat of newsprint she has draped across the rough wooden floorboards and toilet. On it’s closed seat rests a small tin of “neutral lightest beige” house paint.

Rose shivers, but it’s from excitement not cold, as she dips a brush into the paint and bends to sweep a swath of it from the top of her left foot to her knee. The effect is even better than she’d hoped; the pinto-patterned patches of her skin now uniformly white.  She finishes painting one leg then the other, moving on to her arms and torso. A gurgle of happiness erupts and for the first time in her life Rose looks forward to tomorrow. That’s because with every stroke of the brush, she sees herself becoming White.

 

“Is it necessary to include that part?” Rose asked after I told her about the beginning of the article. I thought I understood her reticence. After all, she was now in her 70’s and the scene might be embarrassing. Yet, I never asked. I was intent on her seeing my point of view.

“It’s really important that we don’t sanitize things,” I said, though I had no recollection that I’d used the word sanitize.

Rose reminded me of it later when our relationship began to unravel. I shudder now to think of how offensive that word must have sounded to a woman who’d been bathed in kerosene on her first day in government care and whose culture society had labeled savage and “dirty” for hundreds of years. Yet somehow I’d been oblivious.

 

The day Rose and I had the conversation that put the chill on our relationship, we had been collaborating for more than six months. Her request that I cancel the article, just as I was sprinting to finish the draft, seemed to come out of nowhere. Looking back, had I been more sensitive, more attuned, I should have seen it coming as clearly as a thunderstorm across parched prairie.

At the time, however, Rose’s concerns made no sense: that the article had too much detail; that it would undermine publishing opportunities for a book in the same way that an overly inclusive movie trailer sapped audience interest in the movie; and that she didn’t want to shame the people who had abused her, or hurt their children.

I tried desperately to dissuade her, to reason my way back to the firm footing I’d once held. The harder I tried, the more I found the ground beneath me dropping away like dry earth eroding from a cliff’s edge.

“Give her time,” my agent advised.

So I did. I sent Rose an email saying the decision was hers to make and that I would respect it, but not before laying out the evidence that well-written articles do lead to book publishing deals and offering to change people’s names to protect their identities. I promised to follow up with her on a specific date and, in what I considered an act of magnanimity, I attached a copy of my draft article hoping that in reading what I’d written, she would find her answer.

I was right. Rose did find her answer, but not the one I thought she would. Before the date I’d specified, she sent me an email. After further thought, she explained, she didn’t think we’d be good collaborators.

“Our ideas are different,” she wrote. “This was your book, written in your voice.”

Her words now seem to me to embody the essence of Canada’s long and unequal relationship with our First Nations. Like the home of a childhood friend I’d never stepped foot in, there was something in Rose’s and my connection that had eluded me. It took weeks, however, for me to realize this and longer before I began understand that just because my skin was a shade darker and I’d grown up with an Aboriginal friend, I did not have an insider’s perspective.

The more I thought about my long-held paradigm, the more its fabric became gossamer thin. I’d left my hometown more than thirty years ago, yet in all that time I’d had no significant friendships with First Nations individuals. And what of Echo, the young woman on whose shoulders I’d long stood to claim my vaulted viewpoint? I’d seen her just once since high school and it was only by chance. We ran into each other on the University of Alberta campus, and though overcome with fond remembrance, we had only a brief conversation. I can’t recall what we talked about, only that I’d been surprised to see glittering rows of piercings that lined the lobes of both ears. My lasting impression of that fleeting encounter was that each puncture marked an experience I had not endured and could never fathom.

I lost track of Echo after that, only finding her again seven years ago through social media. I gave her a brief synopsis of my rather mainstream life—married, one child, and career—and asked for her news. It was a few years, perhaps longer, before she wrote back. She apologized for the delay, saying she had her “crazy reasons” and that she’d “been on a bit of a rollercoaster in this life.”

I wanted to ask Echo what she meant, but I never found the courage. Our correspondence remained light and sporadic and I recently discovered that she had started her own business working with dogs.  I couldn’t help but wonder if her choice was because dogs were more loyal and constant than the people in whom she had placed her trust.

 

Early in my relationship with Rose, before I’d destroyed the trust she’d placed in me, I asked why her mother had allowed a complete stranger from the government to walk into her wilderness home and take her baby away.

“Native people, we acquiesce,” Rose said.

On that score, however, I like to think she was wrong. Rose did not simply hand over her remarkable story to someone she felt would appropriate it. And though I will not be the person to write it, I am grateful to her for forcing me to examine my long held biases and beliefs. I am also humbled by Rose’s capacity, in spite of all she has suffered, to see the good in encounters with others and never close a door. In the final line of her email she told me to take good care of myself, and said that if I wanted to meet for a cup of coffee, she would welcome it.

I’m not sure if I’ll take Rose up on her offer, but a few days ago I exchanged telephone numbers with Echo. When we talk, I plan on asking a lot of questions I should have taken the time to ask long ago, starting with where she lived when we were kids.