How I became an academic: My brief postdoc with the Mìgmaq and Danielle Cyr

In the last four blog posts, I described how my experiences in elementary school all the way to my PhD thesis defense influenced how I became an academic. In this post, I will describe my brief post-doctoral fellowship under the supervision of Danielle Cyr, during her time as interim Vice-Rector of the Université du Québec à Rimouski. She introduced me to the world of First Nations culture and we wrote a dictionary of Mìgmaq together – of all my projects, the one of which I am the most proud. That year changed my life and led me directly to my unusual professorship at McMaster, where I was tasked with co-founding (with Dr. Graham Knight) a new Communication Studies Program.

My post-doctoral adventure started when I found out, in late May of 2000, that I had been awarded two post-doctoral fellowships: the first, a Châteaubriand Fellowship from the French Government; the second, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Government. The Châteaubriand is the most prestigious fellowship the French Government offers and only one Canadian social scientist is chosen each year. Mine was awarded to me so that I might spend a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris to work on computational text analysis methods applied to media analysis from a cognitive linguistic perspective. The second fellowship was from SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to work with Dr Danielle Cyr, a French Linguistics professor at York University, to help her realise her dream of a comprehensive, culturally-authentic Mìgmaq-English reference dictionary. SSHRC postdocs are for two years and extremely sought-after. The success rate of applicants hovers around 20%.

I had a long, hard think. I asked myself what was more important to me: going back to Paris for a fabulous, well-paid year and an excellent chance that I would find a permanent job there; or going to the far end of Canada to spend two years in the bush, by the sea, with people whose culture I had no idea of. I just didn’t know. So I went for a very long walk with my father through a wooded area in the Hockley Valley, north of Toronto.

I find that I need to walk in the forest when it is time to make a big life-decision. It must be a long, exhausting walk that lets me cross the threshold of silence – away from the cacophony of the thoughts and emotions which fill my everyday; away from the influence and admonitions of those close to me. Long, exhausting country walks clear my head and open my heart. So we walked – in silence – for hours. My father and I had hiked this path in the past and I knew that it would take us up to 5 or 6 hours to reach the end of the trail.

I listened to the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves above me and I felt an alternation of warm and cool on my skin, as we stepped though sunbeams which slit through the green canopy to shine shards of golden light on the mossy loam underfoot. I concentrated on making my mark, each time I hopped from stone to log to stone to cross a burbling brook. I paused to watch guppies and carp glide lithely beneath the glassy surface of still pools, protected from the flow by errant branches. Once, when we crested a hill, I looked across a large clearing – more of a valley, really – and saw how the forest had surrounded what had been a cleared field and was slowly encroaching upon it, reclaiming the open territory and replacing it with the dark green mystery of the woods.

After several hours of walking, the rhythms of my footfalls and feeling of the cool, moist air of the forest against my skin – tangible in its caress – all of this became part of the rhythm of my walk and of my thoughts and I felt that fleeting serenity that comes in moments of perfect alignment and flow. It was then that I started to say a prayer to the Creator of the beauty that surrounded me, and so relaxed me, and I asked for guidance: what to do? which fork in the road should I choose? I felt keenly that my choice would change everything and set me on a path that would irretrievably set the direction my life would take for the next several years.

I have come to realise that life often presents us with choices and we sometimes think: “Well, I will make this choice now, and then I will change later. I am young, I still have options.” Experience has taught me that this is a fallacy, a pitfall trap which can consume years of people’s lives, only to release them changed: scarred and full of baggage. Our decisions, about who we date, where we live, what jobs we take – all of these decisions shape and colour our lives in profound and permanent ways. In ways that determine the future. We are necessarily slaves to our choices, and that is why it is so important to always consider your options carefully and then choose wisely. Consult people you trust, but, above all, trust your gut. If you feel uncertain – run away. It is better to choose the safety of aloneness or exclusion over something that feels even slightly wrong. At least that way, you retain the ability to choose in the future.

As I walked, I knew the seriousness of my decision. I had to choose right. And, by the end of the walk, as we slumped into my father’s well-weathered and road-dusty burgundy Oldsmobile, I had made my choice. “I am going to the Gaspé,” I said to my father, simply. He replied: “You’ve made the right choice.” And that was all we said about it, really. The rest of the ride was spent talking about family matters, theology (one of my father’s favourite topics) and the North. My father is a northerner and a tortured romantic at heart. He is in love with the world, and often heartbroken that his love for it is sometimes unrequited.

And so I took the long train ride to Rimouski and joined Danielle Cyr on the 1st of October, 2000. It was already quite cold in Rimouski, and Danielle had arranged that I would stay in a Seminary about an hour’s walk away from the University. The seminary was a great place – it was a dark and imposing French Canadian building, like so many that one finds in Québec. The highlight was the great hall, where the seminarians and boarders would sit, have coffee and watch television by the fire. I had many wonderful, warm conversations in that hall and learned more about Québec politics and popular history than I would have in an entire bachelor’s degree, I think.

The old-timers and monks who lived there loved talking and enjoyed making fun of my mid-Atlantic French accent. My accent has always amused French people everywhere. While it is obvious that I am a native French speaker, people can’t place where I am from, based on how I talk. This is a source of great consternation for French people, because accent is such a large part of a French person’s identity. Being unclassifiable also offends the French mind’s love of structure, order and process. A Québecker who’s just met you can tell you pretty much exactly from whence you come in French Canada, and a Frenchman can pinpoint your region of France within minutes of speaking with you. I can still visualise the strained expressions of Québécois taxi drivers, French farmers, and colleagues at schools in both places, as they struggle to place me. I have a funny blend of melodies and styles in my accent: some of the rhythms and nasal peculiarities of the South of France, an undertone of clipped syllables and thin vowels of Paris, and a hint of the twangy, musical cadence of my French Canadian origins.

We spent a few weeks in Rimouski, while Danielle finished her term and I coded the database that would house the electronic version of the dictionary. We prepared incredibly thoroughly for the work we would do on site in Listuguj. I worked through a grammar of Mìgmaq, written by our research partner, Mr Emmanuel Nagugwes Metallic, poetic, gentle soul who loved words and felt that he was the keeper of his culture’s words. It was tough going, but I found the language beautiful, and the heartfelt and often hilarious example sentences Manny had chosen entranced me.

I learned a lot from Manny during the brief time we spent together. I learned of his profound respect for his ancestors, of his humility in front of nature and its glorious spider’s web of interconnected beings, songs and stories. I learned of his patience – born of a life of quiet frustration at being an outcast everywhere: among First Nations people he told me he felt jealousy and unease because he was a writer and an intellectual; among white people he felt out of step, as though he wasn’t living life according the same rhythm as them – he found his life didn’t flow in the same ways as those of the white people and that made him really uncomfortable. I learned of his mysticism and his poetry – born of the forest and its secrets, expressed through stories and myths and parables. Above all, I learned patience – a quiet, powerful, nostalgic patience that Manny had: a patience that kept him writing despite the mockery of his neighbours; a patience that kept him alive throughout his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Manny eventually lost this struggle – a great tragedy for First Nations culture and a great loss for the field of anthropological linguistics. I remember I was working as a senior policy and communications advisor to Gerard Kennedy in November of 2008 when I heard of his tragic death. I was in our office suite (#832) in the Confederation Building when I got the email from Danielle Cyr that Manny had died in a house fire caused by an overturned kerosene lamp. I wept quietly at my desk and walked to the washroom of the 8th floor of Confed, a washroom that had a window overlookimg the craggy copper roofs of the building and the Rideau Canal below, and I watched the sunset. It felt like a great ending to me, of both a chapter in my life and as though a great light had been extinguished.

Manny was patient and kind. He listened to the wind and to his little dog. He spoke with the rocks and the trees and his neighbours and the Acadiens near by, and Danielle, and to me. Now, before you start thinking that he was crazy, let me assure you that he knew what he was doing. He told me once, as we walked by the sea, near his home, that every being has a song, a rhythm, a melody – you only had to find it by listening carefully and being open to its quiet sound. He told me that he’d tried very hard, all his life to hear it, to converse truly and fully with those around him, seen and unseen. He told me that, on a rare occasion, when the wind was just right and the sun just so, he could hear nature’s song of rustling leaves and breaking waves, of creaking trees and animals’ cries – and that to him it was the most beautiful lullaby, without equal and of all time, for to Manny, it was the song of his childhood.

Whilst working for several months on the dictionary in Listuguj, I lived at the seaside ranch of my supervisor, Dr. Danielle Cyr, in the guest house. What an idyllic location that was. Danielle is a truly extraordinary person – she has lived several lives, an early marriage to a dashing jazz musician and then quickly mother of four children, then divorce and the beginning of a new life as a mature student at university, a successful PhD defense in her forties, a tenure-track job at York University and travel around the world, sharing her anthropological and cognitive linguistic theories. Danielle has a special connection to Sweden, where she did spent time during her PhD and she has always told me that she thinks the Québécois have more in common with the Nordic peoples than they do with the French. Quiet, introverted and reflective, believers in order and community – somber in taste and literature, jovial in fest – who knows, she may be right. I am not sure, for these comparisons are really subject to our personal experiences of the world and the people we encounter in it. I can see how she felt it that way, though and in many ways her ranch reflected her beliefs. It sat on a cliff at the end of a long dirt road, just outside of New Richmond. The cliff overlooked the Baie des Chaleurs and you could hear the sea from Danielle’s stately century manor home and coquette guesthouse, decorated expertly with a blend of French Canadian antiques an Scandinavian minimalist furniture. Danielle has an eye for colour and shadow and design – her ranch is evidence of this. A particularly beautiful touch was the glorious fireplace in the manor home and the great oaken doors that she had salvaged from a dilapidated church. The manor house was under serious renovation while I was there, so we both stayed in the guest house – she in the bedroom and I on the fold-out IKEA sofa-bed in the main room, by the firelog stove. It was wonderful. We would wake up with the dawn, make a sumptuous sea-food breakfast, drink some strong coffee, go for a little hike and then work on the dictionary all day. We spent a few weeks like that, in the snow, until the Spring thaw came and we were able to see more of the country.

We interviewed many Mìgmaq people, we worked hours and hours with Manny, and we consulted Elders, education experts and others who worked at the Mìgmaq immersion school that Danielle took three years out of her life and her professorial career at York to found. In fact, during those three years, Danielle built the school and served as its first headmistress. Didn’t I tell you that she is an extraordinary woman? Danielle loves First Nations people, their languages, their cultures and their politics. Well, maybe not so much their politics – she was always exhausted by the long negotiations required to gather the umpteen permissions for us to be able to use culture items as sources for the dictionary such as: love letters from WWII, old copies of local newspapers, audio cassettes of Elders’ meeting and personal home videos. She is a passionate woman and can sometimes have a short fuse. She also feels things very deeply and can’t help but take the mean things that people can say during a negotiation to heart. Danielle would sometimes be depressed and sad in the evening, and when we would meet for dinner, she would tell me, over a snifter of cognac, Scotch or some mulled port, how it hurt her to be insulted but that she understood it was the voice of insulted ancestors speaking through the person who said the hurtful things, and that they didn’t really mean to hurt her. She would often, after some time had passed, find the people who said mean things to her and there would be tearful or sometimes sombre and matter-of-fact reconciliations. When you deal with people whose ancestors live among them, and through them, the stories you tell and the things you say can get woven together into complicated knots. I discovered, however, through watching Danielle interact with the Mìgmaq and listening to Manny as he told me of his interactions with his peers, that if you are very patient, and let time pass, and listen hard enough to and value what others have to say, that knotty carpet gets smoother and smoother until you have a glorious tapestry. A tapestry that tells the stories of those who participated in weaving it, as well as the stories of those whose voices echo through history in the minds and the conversations of the people alive and telling each other stories around a campfire today.

It would take me an entire essay to tell you about how much I was changed by my time with the French of the Gaspesian Peninsula and among the Mìgmaq, immersed in their culture and their words. If I tried, it would be an impressionistic tale, of sunrises over the Matapedia River on the observation deck of the VIA train (after having been woken up by the romantic French conductor who told us they would ring a bell at sunrise because “Some things are too beautiful to be missed, even if it means you will be tired.”), watching the river catch fire as the morning sunlight in reds and ochres and violets raced up its length, illuminating two mountains as they fled the sea and skimmed inland. It would be a tale of jokes told around a bonfire, gentle humour and long silences as people pondered the story that someone had told of an Acadian woman so heartbroken at the loss of her love at sea  that she wandered, clothed in her bridal gown, down to where the breakers smashed the rocks and was lost forever. It would be a story of hiking quietly through snow-heavy spruce forests and listening to the muffled rumble and crunch of passing Jeeps. It would be the tale of trying to understand a shimmering, culture that changes depending on the light and the time of year, and an ancient language that greeted my ancestors when they arrived from France. It would be the tale of how I learned that Canada was not born of conquest, but of understanding, and how these quiet, practical people, with their beadwork art, lobster traps and Sunday socials, joyful pow wows and spirit walks, have had a consistent and powerful, but largely under-appreciated influence on how we Canadians define ourselves, how we resolve our conflicts and how we came to be so generous to errant folk and those in need of help – both moral and monetary. It would be quite a story – but a little too long for this blog post.

When I took the last train back to Toronto for my interview at McMaster in January of 2001, I was a changed man. When I took the train back again in June of 2001 to move into my office at Mac, I was a transformed man. I owe the Mìgmaq an awful lot – they shared with me their language, their culture and their outlook. And it would be something that I continued to touch me through my first years at McMaster, culminating the in publication that was the cornerstone of my tenure case. It haunts me to this day.

Finally, I keep a special place in my heart for Danielle Cyr – mentor, teacher and friend. Not only was she the first linguistics professor I ever had, in my second year of university at York, but she was the best professor I ever had. I owe her so much that it wouldn’t do that debt justice were I to try and write it down here.

In January of that year, I got a call from my mother about a job at McMaster that someone had mentioned to her might be good for me. It was a tenure-stream professor position to start up a new communication studies program. I applied and… well… that crazy story will be the subject of my next blog post in this series.

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