The Walls That Divide Us in Calgary

Marcello Di Cintio has travelled the world, researching barriers and the ways they affect people for his book Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. Now he looks at the walls in his own hometown.



Illustrations by Michael Waraksa

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Kris Demeanor, Calgary’s first poet laureate, grew up on a block of 1960s-era bungalows in the southwest suburb of Oakridge. A high fence, taller than the other fences in the neighbourhood, stood between the bungalows and a neighbouring community of lower-income brown townhouses. 

Occasionally, Demeanor and his friends would engage in “mini-rumbles” with the townhouse kids. The disputes were innocent enough — little more than the playground politics of childhood — but, during these fights, Demeanor and hisbungalow buddies used to tease the other kids over their relative poverty. “You can’t afford a real house,” they’d say with easy cruelty. 

When their battles escalated, Demeanor’s friends lobbed mud balls or rocks over the fence at the townhouses themselves. “Once, we even smashed out a window with a pellet gun,” he said.

Demeanor does not know where this ire for his slightly poorer neighbours came from. “My parents were the most NDP, European-Socialist, open-minded folk you could imagine,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten the fodder for those taunts from them.” 

I suspect the “fodder” came from the fence itself. Barriers like fences and walls are simple structures, perhaps the mostbasic of all architecture, yet they can affect our psyches in complicated and unexpected ways. 

I’ve seen the extreme expression of this division elsewhere in the world. I have travelled to the barricades along the border between Mexico and the United States, to the “Peacelines” that carve Belfast into Catholic and Protestant enclaves, andto Israel’s wall around Palestine, among others. In each of those places, the walls are as much psycho-social barriers as they are physical structures. The walls impose difference, ossify conflict and cast prejudice in concrete and steel. 

But what of the lesser barriers, like Demeanor’s fence, that divide people in this city? What are the “walls” of Calgary? 

When he was a boy, Cory Cardinal used to ride his horse through the valley behind his mother’s house on the Tsuu T’ina Nation. He carried a rifle to protect against the wild animals that wandered the valley. On hot summer days, Cardinal often rode to the eastern edge of the reserve where a wire fence stood between the Nation’s land and Calgary’s southwestern communities. 

“I would tie my horse up in the valley and hide my gun in the woods,” said Cardinal, now 41. “Then I’d jump the fence.” Cardinal would cross the pathway, navigate past the bicycles and the neon-clad joggers — it was the 1980s after all — and walk to the Red Rooster to buy a slurpee. Afterward, he would jump back over the fence, strap on his rifle, untether his horse and ride off. 

In 1877, Treaty 7 granted the Tsuu T’ina lands that theyshared with the Siksika and Kainai nations. The arrangement did not satisfy the Tsuu T’ina chief, who demanded a new reserve along Fish Creek and the Elbow River. The land was surveyed and, in 1884, given to the Tsuu T’ina. 

The Tsuu T’ina were one of the only First Nations in Canada who chose the location of their reservation. “No one wanted us there in the first place,” Cardinal said. The fence edging the reserve’s eastern border was meant to, “keep the Indians out of the way,” he said. 

Yet, Cardinal said he does not consider the fence an enclosure: “I never felt hemmed in by it.” He attended elementary school off the reserve and went to the birthday parties of his wealthy, non-Native classmates on the weekend. 

Instead, the fence protects Tsuu T’ina land from the indignities of suburbia. The land on the city side of the fence is scarred with bike trails and littered with garbage and dog droppings. On Cardinal’s side, young bears still amble through the reserve; wolves and cougars still prowl the nation’s woodlands; and beavers still dam creeks where the water is so clean, you can see fish swimming on the bottom. 

“The land looks like it did a hundred years ago,” Cardinal said. 

While the fence doesn’t enclose Cardinal, it also does not keep everyone out. Occasionally, non-Natives trespass onto the reserve to fish in those clear waters. Once, Cardinal’s horses escaped through holes trespassers cut in the fence. Some infiltrators use the reserve as a shortcut, and the Tsuu T’ina Nation police regularly find lost drivers who can’t read the Tsuu T’ina road signs. 

There have been more sinister breaches, too. A few years ago, nation police found a non-Native man dumping waste from his motor home illegally on the reserve next to an elementary school, so Cardinal heard. The police searched his vehicle. “They found a treasure trove of child pornography,” Cardinal said. 

Lately, Cardinal has noticed another sort of infiltration. He has found evidence of aboriginal rituals in the valley near thereserve’s fenced border where none of the reserve’s residents would perform their devotions. “I think that it was urbanaboriginals,” he said. “They come and cross the fence and do ceremonies, just to do it on pure Indian land.” 

At the same time that Cardinal was riding his horse on his side of the fence, Tyree McCrackin, also 41, was riding
his BMX bike on the other. 

Like Demeanor, McCrackin also grew up in Oakridge, just on the other side of the Tsuu T’ina’s border. He and his friends commandeered the empty strip of land along the fence and used wheelbarrows and shovels to build BMX tracks and jumps. 

McCrackin and his buddies weren’t afraid of much. They risked broken bones launching themselves off the dirt ramps they built, and gambled on parental rage by flipping through the water-stained Playboy magazines someone’s older brother hid, poorly, in a box near the fence. But, for all their youthful courage, the boys never dared to breach the fence itself. 

“You didn’t even think of crossing that line,” McCrackin said. He and his friends heard a rumour that someone who climbed over the fence was shot at with rock salt. “It was never true, of course, but we heard he had to lie in a hot bath to melt the rock salt out of his ass,” McCrackin said.

Another story was even more terrifying. “Somebody’s dad’s brother’s uncle — or something — got caught in there and wascastrated with a sardine can lid,” McCrackin said. The legendary assault never actually occurred, and McCrackin has no idea where the story came from, but the horribly specific details and misconceptions of the Natives were enough to keep the boys away. 

Looking back, McCrackin understands now that his childhoodperceptions of the Tsuu T’ina were racist, but they came froma place of ignorance rather than outright malice. And theycame from the fence itself. 

McCrackin saw First Nation kids in Oakridge all the time. He remembers them hanging around the KFC in Cedarbrae, or drinking cartons of Beep outside the Super Valu. Some went to his school. They all likely lived on the reserve. Ironically, though, McCrackin never associated the aboriginals he’d see on his side of the fence with the unseen and unknowable “Indians” he feared on the other side. 

That stretch of chain links was more than just a physical barrier. The fence represented danger and imposed a fearsome otherness on people that McCrackin and his friends knew nothing about. This is what walls can do. 

 

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