Elizabeth Hay’s novel Late Nights On Air is about the CBC radio in Yellowknife set in 1975 but published in 2007. It won the Giller Prize that year, and deservedly so. Expertly, descriptively telling the stories about three white women–Eleanor, Dido, Gwen–with the Royal Commission on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry chaired by Justice Thomas Berger as the backdrop, it is very relevant today to your life, the tar sands development, and the whole question of racism in Canada.
It is also at times gently poetic, without being actual poetry. One moment you’re in descriptive head territory, then like a lake bottom gradually deepening, changing, you’re in over your head–you’re in the subtle poesy of the heart.
Meanwhile, Justice Berger carries on his work, visiting communities, asking questions, and most importantly, listening. How can one judge, how can one be a good lover, without listening, without empathy? In sending Berger, did Ottawa send the right person? But that was then. What now, 35 years later? Are we still listening? Listening requires empathy, yes, and great patience. Listening may take centuries.
Hay, who lived in Yellowknife from 1974 to 1978, reminds us that the Barrens is ‘a land that was barely out of the ice age, a place no different from how it had been a hundred years or a thousand years ago’ but not because it’s robust; just the opposite–it’s terribly, sadly fragile, preserving a footprint for centuries. We must tread lightly, is the lesson, if we tread at all.
In Hay’s novel it becomes clear that what could happen to the land and its flora and fauna is like the displacement and rape of native children in residential schools and like Dido’s black eye–intimations of violence. Hay writes that at the Berger Inquiry “anthropologists outlined the history of prospectors, traders, whalers, and miners pouring into the north with their diseases, their alcohol, their licentiousness. Medical experts and social workers methodically outlined what happens when the traditional pattern of life breaks down and individuals, families, whole communities lose their way.”
People south of Sixty, people like me and those in Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa, and elsewhere, weren’t born there, rarely if ever go there, probably won’t die there, don’t really understand there, have no business being there, yet we’re there. Not for people, or plants , or animals, but for gold and diamonds and oil.
Hay has a Dene radio host, Teresa–born there–cry, “Malarkey.” She goes on, “If someone is sitting across from you and says, ‘I want your land,’ and you say no, I happen to like it here and I’ve been here forever, then they should respect what you’ve said, and that’s an end to it. They shouldn’t try to get around you. They shouldn’t read something else into what you’ve said. They should respect you.”
With Hay (and Thomas Berger, and Farley Mowat, and others) we don’t have to go there, for stories. Radio and imagination and late nights on air, however, and people too, faced drowning as television came to Yellowknife in the Seventies. In the twenty-first century, do we have to go there for gold and diamonds and oil? Can we, as Hay (and Berger) recommends, leave the Dene, the caribou, the North be? Can we respect that?