Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dry history comes to life with poetry, song

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It's been a grand week of historical celebration in Winnipeg.

Tonight, the festivities marking the bicentenary of the Selkirk settlers' arrival will culminate in a gala dinner at Winnipeg Convention Centre.

Last Friday evening at The Forks, I had the privilege of riding in one of the York boats that were rowed into the historic port to inaugurate the Red River Gathering barge festival.

It was a transcendent experience. A recently formed local men's chorus, the Riel Gentlemen's Choir, had the role of singing in robust harmony as they rowed two York boats (reproductions built to 5/6 the scale of historic ones) and paddled a 10-man canoe.

I was a passenger in the tenor boat. Most of the 26 singers are in their 20s and are nature lovers. One of their stated goals is to bring back honour and chivalry.

Even before the event started, as we bobbed on the Red River waiting for the signal to row, the oarsmen spontaneously broke into Stan Rogers' folk classic Northwest Passage, a Celtic-inflected song so stirring in its evocation of "a land so wide and savage," it's been called our unofficial national anthem.

The rough, lusty sound of the voices on the water was extraordinarily moving. Closing my eyes and imagining myself a long-skirted Scottish immigrant circa 1812, I felt the vastness of the strange land and the apprehension and exhaustion of travelling 700 miles by York boat from Hudson Bay to the Red River Settlement. I heard the oarsmen's rousing voices as a banner of courage, fellowship and spirit.

As Rogers wrote in Northwest Passage, "How, then, am I so different from the first men through this way?"

After the spellbinding sight and sound of Riel's Gentlemen singing in the harbour, we turned and rowed back northward, out of sight of the port. Every man's face was shining, every voice soaring. In the bass boat, 26-year-old choir director Jesse Krause exultantly waved the chorus flag.

Pulling back into the Parks Canada dock where we had started, the rowers broke into Rogers' shanty-style Barrett's Privateers. Suddenly, the costumed Parks Canada interpreters who'd been hired to steer the boats joined in. It was a magical, spontaneous cultural moment.

For me, it summoned memories of my father, Hubert (Bert) Mayes, who was a fiddler in a Scottish band, a longtime French professor at the University of Winnipeg, a writer/history buff, a fine baritone singer and a proud Manitoban.

Bert, who died 11 years ago, would have been intensely interested in every aspect of the Selkirk bicentenary and delighted to meet the present-day Lord Selkirk.

Back in 1976, he went on a quest to find the 1820 grave of the settlement-founding Lord Selkirk. He located it in the town of Orthez in southern France, largely forgotten and in terrible disrepair. Dying trees had heaved the iron fence around the plot. The headstone was cracked and the tomb's inscription unreadable.

As Bert recounted in The Beaver magazine, Selkirk had been afflicted with tuberculosis and set out from Scotland in the hope of recuperating in Spain. He never made it, dying in the French town of Pau. The nearest Protestant cemetery was in Orthez.

Bert's article about the burial site was read by Calgary geologist Jack McMillan, a former Manitoban who had also been appalled by the "sad shambles" of Selkirk's resting place. The two amateur historians joined forces and McMillan's employer, the French-owned oil company Aquitaine, eventually funded a complete, respectful restoration of the gravesite.

Bert was honoured to represent Manitoba at a moving rededication ceremony in 1978, where the Orthez town band played O Canada and officials pledged to maintain the grave in perpetuity.

Though I was proud of my dad at the time, I was a teenager who wasn't interested in history. I thought it was dry and boring. It wasn't until I returned to Winnipeg in 2004, after 17 years of living elsewhere, that my work at the Free Press nudged me into it.

I started to care about our heritage -- first casually, then passionately. I wish my dad had lived to see me embrace my Manitoba roots.

We Manitobans need more pageantry and ritual, more storytelling and mythologizing, more plays, songs, movies, tours, exhibits and monuments that bring our history to life in an emotional, experiential way.

This week, while leafing through my dad's historical articles -- something I hadn't done since his passing -- I came upon one he wrote about the authorship of the Canadian Boat Song.

It's a poem, written circa 1829, from the imagined perspective of a second-generation Scots-Canadian oarsman. He sings Highland oar-songs but has never seen the mother country.

It includes the heart-stirring lines, "From the lone shieling of the misty island/ Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas --/ Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,/ And we in dreams behold the Hebrides."

Those words have been cherished -- and remembered -- by generations of Scots-Canadians. Dry history lessons may fall away, but when we mix heritage with poetry and song, the impact can be unforgettable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 G8

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