Slavery's Ghosts
The Walrus|September/October 2021
Canada remains haunted by a past it hardly acknowledges
ESI EDUGYAN

MY FRIEND’S PARENTS retired to a homestead in northern Alberta, a great rambling estate of some hundred acres with bright rolling grasses and a handsome barn-style home. One summer, he invited me up for a weekend. We spent sun-filled days racing on ATVs; eating fresh apricots, plums, and wild strawberries pale with dust from the brambles; and swimming in the artificial lake in the clear hours before the mosquitoes thickened. In wintertime, that same lake hardened to a gleaming blue sheet that drew skaters from as far, he swore, as Edmonton. Through the snow-glazed kitchen window, you could hear the brisk hissing sounds of their blades striking the ice.

But summer was the most beautiful season. Our weekend was one of lazy contentment as if we knew we were exactly where we were meant to be. We sat around dinners laced with overripe tomatoes, the sun sweet in their flesh, talking late into the night about other places, other times.

Years later, I was surprised to hear that the property had been sold.

“Did your parents miss city life?” I asked.

But that wasn’t it. What had happened was altogether stranger.

It has been years since I first heard this story, years since I’ve spoken to my friend, but I will always remember the awe in his voice that day. The problems at his parents’ home had started simply, incrementally. After a morning in the city, they had returned in the late afternoon to discover that the furniture in the living room had shifted slightly. They could just make out the impressions of the furniture’s feet in the carpet’s pile, an inch to the right. They thought nothing of it, simply nudged everything back into place. But then it happened again, and then again. They called in a friend who worked in construction; he could find nothing awry with the house.

Then events started occurring when they were home. My friend’s mother was in the habit of marking her page in a book with her reading glasses. Rising to pour herself a cup of water at the sink, she turned to discover the glasses gone. She found them in a far-off guest room she rarely entered. Picture frames on desktops and dressers were often found overturned, lying face down. Once, as she sat in an easy chair with a crossword in hand, her back to the window, she heard the Venetian blinds rise up two slats, slowly and deliberately. She lurched from the chair. The cord on the blinds was still swaying.

They tried to explain it away. Wind, tremors in the earth, forgetfulness.

But, one evening in February, their tolerance reached its breaking point. Returning from a movie in Edmonton, they parked on their snowy gravel drive and climbed the stairs. The hall light was not working. They tried another switch. Nothing. Another, and again, nothing. My friend’s father made his way out to the garage, where, by flashlight, he flipped every fuse in the house. He went inside to find his wife still in the dark. He took her cold hand, went into the living room, and raised the flashlight.

Every light bulb in the house had been unscrewed and piled neatly in the middle of the rug.

THERE ARE THOSE for whom this story will always be fiction. The belief in ghosts has never been universal, coloured as it is by religious faith and spirituality, by culture, science, and even temperament. For some, a ghost cannot withstand its unlikeliness. To others, there exists the world of the living and the world of the dead and yet a third one, a nation in between, whose citizens are unseen but whose hold over us remains visceral; these are the ghosts of our primal terrors. But there are other, more crucial ways we are haunted, ways that require no deep belief in the occult.

And they are less easily shrugged off. One might argue that ghost stories are trivial, merely something to entertain around a campfire. But I believe they are a central way we build our personal and cultural myths. The stories we tell about the dead act as clarifying narratives to explain what has shaped us and what continues to make us who we are. Part of their work is to establish context. They connect us to what has lived on the land before us, to people and animals, to all that precedes us. They lessen our sense of solitude in the world by offering the possibility that death is not death — that human life is so powerful and exceptional it can will its own continuance and populate an entire shadow world still intimately connected with our own.

Ghost stories are, at their core, repositories of our pasts — both our personal pasts and our public, collective ones. Though we tend to think of them as a compendium of our fears, of our terror at the many open-ended things that scare us, they are also a haunting of another kind. A ghost story is as much an inversion of the things we cherish in life as it is an exhibition of things that frighten us. It is, by its nature, an excavation. To acknowledge the existence of what has come before us is to burnish past lives with importance — it is to say, in effect, that people’s passage through this world is of consequence and remains unforgotten.

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, the city of Edmonton and the land just north of it was a region of vast lakes and forests, open plains through which passed the Cree, Tsuut’ina, Nakota Sioux, Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), and Saulteaux peoples, among others. It rested between the wildness of the prairie and the stark dry hills, its lakes and rivers leading all the way to Hudson Bay.

In the early years of the twentieth century, formerly enslaved people from Oklahoma and other southern American states made their way north to the Alberta prairie. Nearly 1,000 African Americans arrived, drawn by the possibility of liberation from the crushing Jim Crow laws of the South, and they tried, with much difficulty, to establish townships on the rock-strewn land they’d been granted.

The farm my friend’s parents abandoned to ghosts lay in proximity to the lands the western Indigenous peoples passed through, and it lay also within range of the Black township of Amber Valley. After the frightening goings-on in her home, my friend’s mother decided to try to seek out the source of their haunting. My friend told me that, in the genealogical logs of the Latter-day Saints, she uncovered Germans who had fled financial persecution in Austria and arrived in Alberta in 1889; she devoured histories about Ukrainians from the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She searched for murders among the Icelandic, for Mennonite and French Canadian suicides. Every wave of migration would surely have had its own deaths and burials. In this she was undoubtedly right. But I was struck by how little it seemed to have occurred to her that her ghosts — in whose existence she was fully convinced — might belong to one of the communities of colour whose presence also predated her own on the land. She didn’t, as far as I know, bother with the stories of those who were not, like her, descendants of Europe.

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