Writing a book can be a mystical experience. Things happen that sometimes cannot be explained, like last month after the final proofread for Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry, which has just released.
Once a book is off to print it’s time to reorganize your life; organize and file notes, toss outdated stuff to make space. I was at my burning barrel feeding outdated files into a fine autumn fire. As I steered a handful of 1999 tax papers toward the leaping flames, a breeze caught it, scattering some. I retrieved the escapees and as I started to toss them into the barrel saw the name ‘Billy’ on one of the pages.
I flipped through pages and saw the following sentence: “Billy Skead was buried almost three months ago but the question continues to prick the conscience of this troubled community: Why did he die?”
I was stunned. That was the opening sentence of a story I had written in 1976 about a 22-year-old Indian man who didn’t need to die, but did because of the unbearable social conditions our society had allowed to develop in northwestern Ontario. The same conditions that continue to exist four decades later in places like Attawapiskat on James Bay.
I keep everything I write but the Billy Skead story had gone missing many years before. I had looked for it many times because it contained some shocking statistics on violent deaths in the Kenora region. Most recently I had looked for it to see if I could reference any of it in Smoke Signals. I gave it up as lost forever.
The deeper I got into the writing of Smoke Signals, the more I thought about Billy Skead. I didn’t have his story to reference but I did have the memory. So I decided, for no explainable reason, to dedicate the book to him.
After re-reading that long-lost story, I’m glad I did.
Jim Poling, Sr., is a former Native affairs writer for Canadian Press and is the author of Waking Nanabijou and Tecumseh: Shooting Star, Crouching Panther. He lives in Alliston, Ontario.
The Markerting Coordinator at Dundurn, lover of books, tea and dancing in the rain.