Tuesday 6 October 2015


Gabriola Island of the Arts Festival
Michael Kusugak, far right
I was thrilled to meet Michael Kusugak at the 2015 Gabriola Isle of the Arts Festival last spring. It was wonderful to see so many of my favourite books and hear Michael’s stories about growing up in Repulse Bay and Rankin Inlet.

I like Bill Pope’s photograph, shown here, as it captured the lovely ambiance of the opening of the festival at the historic Surf Lodge. Michael is on the far right, visiting with the audience before his talk.

In my play, Running: The Alex Decoteau Story, published in 2014 by Fictive Press, I concentrated on the adult life of Alex Decoteau until the day he was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

However, his family history and early years are fascinating and this blog gives me the opportunity to try to imagine Alex’s life through the eyes of a child.

After hearing Michael speak, I found myself wondering what Alex’s early years would have been like. He was a child during the transition from the hunter-fur trade culture to the agricultural settlement period with railroads and paddle-wheelers. The buffalo were gone and small game was scarce. The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 had played out in the Battleford area. Frog Lake, Cutknife Hill, Poundmaker and Big Bear were the stuff of his heritage. Snares, knives, beaver dams, animal signs, campfires fishing, horses but no buffalo, and snowshoes were the everyday adventures of his youth.

I can imagine Alex, full of energy and excitement running around his family’s farm in the Eagle Hills. His landscape was totally different from Michael’s, but like Michael he would have been soaking up impressions of the flora, fauna and light in all seasons.

There wouldn’t have been many trees in Alex’s landscape, as prairie fires were frequent and would have kept things open. I can imagine him in the rolling hills and valleys where his parents had taken up farming after they left the Red Pheasant Reserve following the Northwest Rebellion. I plan to write about the tragedies that occurred at that time, but for now I will just imagine Alex as a toddler.

A child’s first landscape makes a lasting impression

Without realizing it, children never forget their first landscape. This was the topic of a conference I attended, The Geography of Wonder, put on for writers, visual artists and musicians in 1995 at the University of Alberta. Writer Sharon Butala spoke enthusiastically about the significance of the idea. For her, as I recall, even the early memories of a cabin’s log walls stayed with her.

Saskatchewan-born artist, Douglas Haynes, well-known as an Alberta abstract painter, described how wherever he goes he finds himself drawn to places that evokes the light and space of Regina, his birthplace. This explains why I almost fainted when I saw his huge abstracts in Edmonton’s City Hall. I spent my first three years in a flat little town near Regina and I have a memory of myself sitting on a wooden sidewalk with the big sky all around me. It was that light that hit me when I saw Haynes’s work.

I imagine Alex carried memories of his early landscape with him. Memories of the river valley, picking berries, his mother’s cooking. I can imagine moccasins, blankets, furs and snow. Snow is a magical thing which inspires wonder and I can imagine Alex, like Michael, playing in it.
It’s safe to say there was lots of snow when Alex was a child. One Saskatoon newspaper article describes a snow storm in 1888 and the death of a man who was trapped in the blizzard, “making his way home from a neighbour’s house on the spacious Prairie. He wanted to check his livestock and lost his way.”
The day before Alex’s father was murdered, on February 3, 1891, Peter Decoteau had been out with a neighbour, in a sleigh, looking for a horse. This heart-breaking time was pivotal in Alex’s life. It led to his mother moving back to Red Pheasant, and a series of coincidences, even romance, which took him to live in Edmonton where he became Canada’s first aboriginal policeman, running all the time, training for the 1912 Olympics, no matter was the weather.
As a grown up, Alex didn’t mind the cold, especially when racing in the annual Calgary Herald Christmas Day Road Race. He dressed for the weather, wearing a toque which he could pull down over his face. He enjoyed it and put on a jovial show by running far ahead of the other runners to clear the road of traffic. He was a policeman after all.
Alex had a tattoo

Did he choose a tattoo to remind him of his childhood home? When he enlisted during WWI he wrote “Battleford, Saskatchewan” as the place of his birth. Along with details about his height, weight and eye colour, these papers recorded that the tattoo was on his left arm.

Before my fringe play in 2001, Trevor Duplessis, the actor who played Alex, and I tried to figure out what the tattoo could have been. Three years later when Izola Mottershead launched her book, before – Alex Decoteau – after, at a presentation of the family version of my play, I found out.

In her book she wrote that Alex’s tattoo depicted “two eagle feathers with crossed shafts, tied by a cord and hanging point down”. Izola also suggested the tattoo could have been a tribute to his mother whose maiden name, Wuttunee, means eagle tail feather.
I like to believe that Alex carried this memory of his home in the Eagle Hills with him until his last race, at the age of twenty-nine, running a message at the Battle of Passchendaele.


  1. Loved this. The stories never end ...

    1. Unknown is really Phyllis Reeve.
      I will figure this out eventually