Richard Wagamese's A Quality of Light

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In early 1988, two years before Wagamese's novel takes place, 150 First Nations protesters gathered peacefully in front of the Glenbow Museum. They were part of the Lubicon band's move to boycott the Glenbow's Spirit Sings exhibit, part of the 1988 Winter Olympic Arts festival. (Photo: Calgary Herald)

In early 1988, two years before Wagamese's novel takes place, 150 First Nations protesters gathered peacefully in front of the Glenbow Museum. They were part of the Lubicon band's move to boycott the Glenbow's Spirit Sings exhibit, part of the 1988 Winter Olympic Arts festival. (Photo: Calgary Herald)

In the summer of 1990, Mohawk protesters are defending their barricade at Oka, Quebec. In downtown Calgary, Johnny Gebhardt has wired the Harry Hays building with explosives. Johnny is a white man but has always considered himself an Indian warrior. In a 4th floor boardroom in the federal government Indian Affairs office, he holds twelve people hostage. His demands? A House of Commons solution to the Oka crisis, and an International Human Rights Tribunal into the conditions of indigenous people in Canada. Johnny has also insisted that his childhood friend and blood brother, Joshua be flown in from Ontario. Joshua is an Ojibwa adopted at birth by a white farming family, now working as a Christian pastor committed to peace. At Calgary police headquarters, a few blocks away from the Harry Hays building, Chief Inspector Dodge and Detective Nettles bring Joshua up to speed on the hostage-taking. As Joshua prepares to meet his friend, he recalls not only their childhood oath of loyalty, but what Johnny has taught him over the course of their long friendship about being an Indian. Joshua knows what he must do: he will help disarm his friend, but will not denounce Johnny’s crusade.

 

We entered a war zone that morning. We left the city and all I’d come to accept as normal behind us and slid silently into a panorama of tension. It’s difficult to equate the words we use to describe society – civilized, democratic, just – with automatic weapons, bulletproof vests, camouflage, rocket launchers, helicopters and hordes of personnel. The flicker of police lights, the crisp bustle of movement, the frantic whir of chopper blades and the crush of the crowd beyond the police tape did not heighten things, they merely slowed them down.

I existed in a frame-by-frame world. Nettles handing me a bottle of pills. Dodge leaning close to talk with officers near the front doors. Waving us over. Nettles placing a hand over my shoulder. Cameramen hustling in a bow-legged trot. Native people under banners waving fists of encouragement. Officers kneeling behind cruisers with hands on their holsters. The police creating an opening in their huddle that Nettles and I eased into. All heads turning towards the glass doors. Frantic motion all around. A vested constable duck-walking with a hand-held radio, handing it to Dodge. Dodge gesturing to me. Nettles grim-faced, eyeing me. Sudden emptiness around me. The glass doors looming larger and darker with each step. A woman’s face behind the glass, ashen, shaking hands peeling duct tape from the handles. The door cracking open. Stepping out. Eyes pleading. Gone. A yell of victory. The unmoving air of the lobby. Johnny’s voice yelling something about the package on the floor. I tape it securely to the door handles and turn to see him, yards away cradling a rifle, point its barrel towards the elevators. We enter and feel the push of the lift. I see his eyes. Blue. Impossible blue.

 

Richard Wagamese, A Quality of Light (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997)