Unapologetically Sorry: A New Canadian’s Story
I had that dream again.
The authorities are coming. The gig is up. I buried a body, forgot about it and am about to get caught. I’m in deep fucking trouble. I stand in my front yard. The location sometimes changes, but here and now, the bones are buried in the boulevard — on city land. I’m like, oh man — not this again. My kids are little. They stand on the couch and look out the window. I want my husband to distract them. I think he does. I’ve got to move the body without anyone seeing me. I must protect my freedom — my kids. It’s urgent, it feels like the pressure of doing 100 years of taxes, but worse. I don’t remember killing anyone, but I feel guilty. I must cover up the evidence. It has to be done. This is an offence I need to outrun — again and again and again.
I wake up.
Nothing ever happens in the dream — but the essence is always the same. I’m hiding bones and the cops are coming.
A few years ago, I brought it a friend who is a kind of Jungian dreamwalker. I hoped she could help me get to the bottom of it. She asks me to tell it in the present tense.
What is the main emotion in the dream?
Anxiety. Like being audited by the CRA for a lifetime of unpaid taxes.
Do you know whose bones are buried?
Even though I’ve had this dream dozens of times, I’ve never thought to ask. As we’re talking, I close my eyes and try to reenter the dream. I see a coffin. But that doesn’t make sense. If I murdered someone, why would I bury them with care? Maybe I see a coffin because my waking imagination is limited to cliché stereotypes of dead people. Or maybe it’s because I really respect them.
It’s OK, she says. Can you open the coffin?
I drop into the dream. I pull up the lid and have a vague impression of someone — there’s some familiarity.
Do you know who this is? Do you have a sense of gender? she asks.
Male. Definitely male.
Old or young?
Does he remind you of anyone?
At the time, the only old white man I’d really known was Opa, my grandfather on my mother’s side. Maybe it’s him, I say.
My friend asks if it’s ok to play with the dream — to reframe it a little. She suggests that maybe this isn’t a dream about my crime and guilt but about family secrets I’m required to bury. Maybe those secrets are my grandfather’s and maybe the authority I fear is my own desire for truth.
Can you think of anything that your grandfather might want you to keep buried on his behalf? she asks.
I don’t know. I didn’t really get to know my grandparents on either my mom’s German side or my dad’s Egyptian side. I could say anything about any of my ancestors and no one could fact check me. For example, my understanding is that in 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s daughter accidently ran over my grandfather with her car, but no one can verify this. My dad’s dead and I don’t know my family in Egypt.
This is a reality of many third culture-immigrant or whatever-we-are children. My parents cross-pollinated, put me and my brother into little pots, and transplanted us in Pierre Trudeau’s immigrant friendly Canada. For 1970’s immigrants, unless you were rich and could fly home frequently — in our case, to two continents — family was left behind and those who did the leaving tried to throw down roots on foreign soil.
All I know about my kin are the few stories that were told in high rotation. When I think about old white men’s bones, I see my Opa’s hands.
Helmut Mowe was a foreboding figure. Born in 1907, he would have been 114 this year. He was strong and he was stern. My mother says Opa was a socialist who saw Hitler coming in the 1920’s. I’m told that he faked an injury to get out of fighting in the war but was forced to work as a machinist. Legend has it that he was a good and honest man and when the war ended, he was unsettlingly quiet because he’d lost all faith in humanity.
Before the war, Opa was a blacksmith who fit horses. His hands were twice the size of a horseshoe and just as gnarly. When I was eight, we spent the summer in Germany. He’d squeeze my knees so hard that I’d be on the brink of tears yet his blue eyes twinkled love back at me. I imagine he was trying to toughen me up, to prepare me, you know – because life is hard.
I’ve heard that some men who survive war lie about what they saw and what they did. Was Opa really a machinist? What if his murderous Nazi crimes are what I move around when I’m sleeping. No, it couldn’t be.
My friend asks me to soften around the idea that murder is the theme of the dream. What if the bones are more symbolic? What if the bones are trauma that doesn’t want to surface?
In a flash, I remember that Opa’s mom died when he was two. He grew up motherless and was in his twenties during WWII. Of course, he experienced trauma. Maybe he wants it to put to rest and wants me to do it because I was his favourite grandchild.
By the end of our conversation, I accept this interpretation of things. It makes sense. My friend says dreams are nature naturing her way through us. Nature could be revealing ancestral trauma. The dream has reminded me of the loss of matriarchy on my mother’s side. I feel a little empathy there. A little closer to something.
My friend suggests that I plant something in his honour: bury the roots of something vibrant and living to counteract the remnants of trauma.
I planted gladioli bulbs for him and for good measure, I throw in a few for my mother. Years pass. I figured I was done with that dream.
But then a couple of weeks ago, I had it again.
I’m in Beacon Hill Park. The bones are buried here. The authorities are on the way. My kids aren’t around. I’m in trouble. Still outrunning a crime that I don’t remember committing. The bones of the dead are still an old white man and I’m still responsible for keeping them hidden.
This same week I read an article about a pub on Hornby Island, our yearly vacation spot, just off the coast of central Vancouver Island. They were doing renovations and found bones that might belong to the K’ómoks First Nations. A stop work order was issued and some conflict ensued. The bones remind me of my dream, and I start making new connections about my life here in Canada.
Hiding a crime that I don’t remember committing. Genocide. Responsible for keeping the secrets of old white men. Settlers. The authority I fear feels the same as taxes. Government of Canada. Guilt and no memory. Canadian.
I’ve recently become friends with neighbours who think new Canadians don’t bear responsibility for colonial violence. Over Covid, we’ve been spending a lot of time on each other’s patios getting high and talking about what it’s like to be alive in these whacky times. She’s pushing seventy. He’s seventy-five. They are both British immigrants, original hippies, and high-level intellectuals. He still drops acid on a regular basis. They try to keep up with the zeitgeist of the times but can’t wrap their heads around why we’re talking about racism instead of cooperatively focusing on climate change.
I bring up intersectionality and talk about colonialism as a tree with many rotten branches — all of them contributing to this mass extinction event.
“But, when it comes to reconciliation, what exactly is the end game?” she asks. “There are two parts: an apology and forgiveness. If there’s no forgiveness, do you plan to carry your guilt forever?”
“Who decides when it’s time to forgive?” I ask. “And have you apologized?”
“I have nothing to apologize for,” she answers, echoing words I’ve heard from my own parents. “And neither do you! The Canadian government needs to apologize. You weren’t even here. Your family was thousands of miles of away, and your father’s people were themselves colonized. Plus, the world was modernizing. This was the way it was going. It was inevitable.”
I no longer know what we’re talking about. Could be the drugs. Could be the subject. Was it inevitable? Are the choices made ever the only ones possible? And what’s the Canadian government if not its people?
She looks at me like I’ve got dementia.
“Why should you carry the shame of dead white men?” she asks me.
“The shame is mine,” I say. “The past didn’t go anywhere. These old white men still speak through the white majority and the laws that govern the country.”
In my own front yard, on this stolen land.
I wonder if my friend sees my shame as a weakness. Her husband who’s been quiet suddenly pipes in. “Do you think shame has a place in reconciliation?” He’s red-eyed baked but something must have piqued his interest. As a retired mediator, he loves nothing more than a good intellectual exercise.
I double down. “The government uses our money to enforce their crimes. If we’re indifferent to the rights of Indigenous people we should be ashamed. It’s nothing to be proud of. I am unapologetically sorry,” I say without irony.
“How Canadian!” she says. “But who do you think will forgive you?”
Orphaned from my history, and raised by a woman loyal to patriarchy, matriarchy for me begins with Mother Earth. I want to believe She whispers to me in my dreams and weaves herself into my imagination. I don’t know if my interpretations are accurate or whose burdens I bury. I don’t know the end game or if reconciliation is even possible.
I’ve been in Canada nearly my whole life yet feel like I just got here. I don’t even know the line between a settler and a new immigrant, much less how the people of this land should move forward. I just I keep having this old dream about burying the bones of old white men and I’d like to trade it in for a new one.