Here is something that’s both lovely and painful about being an obituary writer. Yesterday I spoke with Noah Augustine’s sister Patricia, requesting an interview. I sat at my desk peeking out my window at bare trees and pavement, a Toronto city-scape. Last month municipal workers planted a 12′ Silver Maple in our tiny garden plot, barely enough room for a conniving squirrel to dash up the branches or the cat to claw.
The clouds were a clash of season: rain threatening to become snow. It was one of those days when dressing becomes a frustrating exercise in uncertainty. A dark, dull, late November morning.
Patricia spoke to me from the Metepenagiag First Nation, New Brunswick where her brother had been a Mi’kmaq activist and chief. In our conversation, her quiet voice echoed. I heard the snap of poplar rushes and the splash of a painted turtle sliding into the Miramichi River. Known as the Village of Thirty Centuries, the reserve contains two National Historic Sites – The Augustine Mound and the Oxbow.
Metepenagiag is the oldest, continuously occupied village in New Brunswick, dating back almost 3,000 years. The sites illustrate wide-ranging aboriginal trading networks, which stretched from Atlantic Canada into the Great Lakes and along the eastern seaboard as far as the Ohio Valley.
I’d like to learn about Noah’s early life, I said, moments and events suggesting why he became a leader. I’d like to know him better so I’ll be able to describe his life well. Patricia paused. Then she paused again, longer. Then she spoke and my heart lurched.
“I’ve met with my family and we’ve talked about it. We’ve decided that yes, we’d like to have Noah’s obituary in The Globe and Mail, a paper he loved.”
“What we’d like to do is sit around the kitchen and turn on the speaker phone. We’ll just talk about Noah, we’ll tell stories and we’ll remember him and you can record us.”
I asked: But wouldn’t this be too painful for you? Thinking that it would be too painful for me.
“Oh no, not at all. One thing about being part of a First Nations family is that we celebrate a person’s life. It will give us pleasure to come together in this way.”
This felt like one of the most important privileges I enjoy about doing this work. Leaning my head on a hard chunk of plastic and metal and tuning in to such a dignified gathering. I was invited to share Noah Augustine’s childhood stories, remembered with love and honour. And I was invited to weave these stories into the obituary of a full life that abruptly ended before he turned 40, when his pickup truck veered off the highway and crashed into a tree.