A Love Letter for Trespassers
- Erica Lee | July 21, 2021
I grew up in a city named after misâskwâtomina, Saskatoon berries, or as some settlers call it, “the service berry” - their tongues unable to handle the slow sexiness of Cree syllables. The inner city is a predominantly urban Indigenous space, so we develop an understanding of borders early, since straying beyond them means an increased risk of facing violence. There is a border that separates the west side of Saskatoon (the “Alphabets”; the Native side) from the east. There are borders constructed between urban spaces and rural farms built for wealthier white people and poor urban spaces and reserves meant to contain the rest of us. The rest of us live with police cars parked outside our homes, and police planes circling over our neighborhoods all night long. In Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier, the writer Gilberto Rosas characterizes this type of terrorism as “low-intensity warfare”, a constant psychological process of surveillance that dehumanizes us and restricts our freedoms. This type of terrorism is done by the state to people considered inherently criminal: those genetically and culturally predisposed to being “criminals.” In short, our very presence in this neighborhood is considered to pose a threat to the state. We are a threat to the type of “pure” nation state touted by John A. Macdonald and countless others. Surveillance, too, is an attempt at restricting our movements, and Canada’s legal system – police, prisons, and laws – are just as relevant now in the corralling of Indigenous bodies into spaces we are supposed to be as they were in the age of the North West Mounted Police.
Fences and Those Who Cross
It is here, in the inner-city neighborhood of Pleasant Hill, that early one spring, I saw a car run over a small grey cat on 22nd street. I’ll name her okocihtâwiyiniw-minôsis: little adventurer cat. When I found her, it was late enough in the evening that there wasn’t much traffic, so I walked into the road, weaving through the lanes to help her. I hadn’t thought about leaving her there, I guess because I would want someone to do the same thing for one of my cats if they were injured. When I approached her, there was no blood that I could see; when I lifted her body, she didn’t fight or struggle, but her body was broken. I carried her to my house as gently as I could, she closed her eyes and her breathing halted in my arms.
Twenty-second Street is one of the main streets in Saskatoon: stretching from the east side to the west, it begins at the river, then moves through downtown, through the inner city, and to the suburbs and new retail developments in the west. While the street passes through the inner city, it is clear this road is not built for us. There are many people in this neighborhood reliant on mobility devices like canes and wheelchairs, and the lack of sidewalk maintenance impacts them most of all. Puddles form where the street dips into the curb and walking down the street or waiting to catch a bus means being splashed and soaked by cars that never bother to slow down while passing pedestrians, and instead, often speed up. In the winter, the sidewalks are rarely shoveled unless someone from the neighborhood takes care of it. In the summer, there are no trees, no benches, and no shade along the long stretch of sidewalk. This road is meant to be fast passage through the inner city, between two wealthier, whiter centers - fast and violent passage, at the expense of neighborhood residents like okocihtâwiyiniw-minôsis. Sometimes the speed comes at the expense of humans. In January 2014, a 59-year old man was killed crossing this street in the early evening, trying to get across in an area without a crosswalk. A minute may not seem like a long time, but some of us don’t have time to waste. When you’re carrying heavy bags of groceries with no car, a block makes a difference.
It took this man’s death, the years of accidents before it, countless complaints, and petitions for a crosswalk with a light to finally be installed on Avenue M and 22nd St W. When you push the button to cross, the light takes a whole minute to activate. Of course, a push button-activated light is no use for the little creatures crossing the road, and it hasn’t stopped accidents. The simple act of crossing a street in a community of people who make a home of a place deemed uninhabitable is an affirmation of our right to live when death is considered our natural state.
In 2011, in response to the high number of accidents through an eight-block area of 22nd Street due to pedestrians crossing (or rather, cars failing to stop), the city proposed a fence in the middle of the street, 2.5 metres (8 feet) high and 2 kilometres long (1.24 miles).
Fences are often proposed as a solution to trespassing. But fences are not designed to protect people: they are designed to protect property. Fences protect cars, farms, and settler colonial states. Fences rarely prevent passage, only make crossings more dangerous than they would have been otherwise. The fences on 22nd Street were proposed to protect the people driving. Our inner city lives become the inevitable collateral damage required to maintain the city. Construction here is constant, providing the illusion of unending growth, progress, and speed required to maintain a colonial space.
When I reached home, I laid okocihtâwiyiniw-minôsis’ still-warm, soft little body on some leaves. We called city animal control to collect her. While hours passed, I sat inside and wrote, acutely aware of the small body out resting on in my yard. Later, it began to rain, so I brought her body up to the porch and wrapped her in a blanket. I laid some sage for her spirit, lit some candles, and put on some Black Sabbath in her honour. In a space where we are never allowed to stop or rest, or walk slowly down our streets without fear, mourning is a form of care for each other as residents of this neighborhood, all. Our mourning is resistance, and in public, our unrepentant tears are an act of rebellion that shakes the facade telling us all this violence is normal and ought to be expected for humans and creatures like us. When I awoke late the next morning, okocihtâwiyiniw-minôsis’ body was gone. I wondered what would happen to her, now. The ground was still frozen from the long winter, so it would have been too difficult to bury her in the yard. I still wish I had tried. Despite the violence, this neighborhood is our home, and it is hers too.