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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The ultimate meaning of life is to embrace that which compels you to act in spite of fear.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Northern Trader

Last fall I did a CBC Outfront piece about my maternal grandfather, Everett Kemp, and his trip to Stanley Mission, Lac La Ronge, in Northern Saskatchewan, where he and his siblings grew up among the Cree. During Everett's childhood, his parents, Elsie and Harold, managed a Revillon Frères trading post, across the river from the Hudson's Bay post.

That was back in the 1920s. Eventually, Harold moved the family to Prince Albert, in central Saskatchewan. Years later, long after Everett had grown up and left the house, my great-grandfather wrote a book called Northern Trader, a straightforward but highly engaging account of what he described as the true Northern life, as he recalled it, not a fanciful tale like those written by urban writers in Toronto or New York. He was a highly independent man who liked to disagree, I'm told. But even before the book was released, in 1956, Harold wanted to disabuse readers of their false notions about the North by publishing a series of magazine pieces -- tales inspired by his experiences.

Three summers ago in Winnipeg, I met my grandfather for the first time. It was an amazing experience, which I describe in my Outfront piece. When I shook Everett's hand, I tried to connect him to the stories in the book, which I had just read. Everett's steel grip spoke of another age, of hours spent alone, often on foot or in a canoe, and the constant struggle to eat and survive while in the North's harsh embrace.

The Prairies may be harsh in the winter and teeming with insects in the summer, but the air is clear (except for the bugs) and the distance seems scaleless. Some hate the big, open sky of the Prairies and the bush to the north, but for me it always feels like home. The vastness emboldens me even as it fills me with awe.

For those who know what I'm talking about, I'd recommend the book. I recently discovered the above link, which is why I'm thinking about it lately. I understand Northern Trader is still read in some Saskatchewan schools. Not sure. If you have read it, drop me a line and share your thoughts.