Morrie is from Valley East in the Sudbury Basin, a long way from this west-end Toronto bench. Call me Mo, he says, shaking my hand. He tells a fishing story that begins with his wife giving him 30 dollars and ends with a store-bought salmon fillet and a night spent on the couch. In the middle of the story he is in the city, spending the money on drink. Next to him is the beer from my LCBO bag.
Maybe his story is a way to give back, or maybe he has fish on his mind. As far as I can tell it is just a random meaningless story. I wonder about his wife but don’t ask. I think I can fill the empty spaces. One clue is his weathered look of a tempestuous life. I know that look and I know why he is far from home asking strangers for money and beer. But we don’t talk about that. I leave telling Mo to take care of himself, knowing he likely won’t.
High Park is a prosperous neighbourhood. The Ukrainians have come to Bloor West Village to escape deprivation and political terror. Each summer there is a street festival where they sing about their homeland and dance and remember the Holodomor. They sell bratwurst and perogies from shopfront stalls. In the back alley where I go to avoid the congestion the bins are filled with unsold food and flowers. The street people linger, smoking butt-ends. I discern the geography of managed abundance and scarcity but it no longer shocks.
Most of the homeless I’ve known are like Mo—people of the indigenous diaspora, exiled within our own territories. Sometimes I have change, sometimes a beer. Sometimes I have the Sago cigarettes, named after the Kanien’keha greeting, that I buy on the reserve to give away. Sago, as in still. “Are you still walking along the good path? Are you still well?” Care for others, for the collective, is hard-wired into the language. Not along some warm, romantic reasoning but for the purpose of survival.
I think of the memorials to the Holodomor on stolen land where a slow-motion genocide proceeds unnoticed, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The suicide pacts of children consigned to reserves that are unliveable as a matter of policy and of design. The lack of houses and water and opportunity in a land of plenty. The geography of managed scarcity that is so ordinary it goes mostly unremarked. I will never see Mo again, but he is everywhere.