“Who are you, What do you do, and Why?” How writing this book answered this for me

In May 2014 Vikings on a Prairie Ocean was launched at the iconic McNally Robinson bookstore in Winnipeg. Completing this labor of love – lots of both – for over a decade was punctuated with 13 weeks on the nonfiction bestseller list in Winnipeg. There have been several articles and reviews, most recently in Canada’s History magazine which has published an article “Making Waves” in the print and online edition, and it is in their Holiday catalogue.

I write to share the news of the book with the hope it may be of interest to you as friends, colleagues, or part of the large community of people I have been blessed to work with over my life. But I also have a deeper purpose in this note. I appreciate that we all lead busy lives and that what we read and do not read is not driven only by interest, but time. I know “the discipline of time” too well having lived a career invariably stretching myself too thinly.

If you will give me a few moments, let me open the pages to reveal the connective tissue of the book. The title and many of the short descriptors imply only a personal memoir-local history. It is that, but much more. My publishing advisers put it bluntly: “if you want this book to speak to many not a few, you must write your career into it. You are uniquely positioned to connect those dots in a compelling way.”

That proved to be my greatest challenge. I will let others speak for me as to whether I have met that challenge in these pages. I shamelessly quote from the endorsement of Barry Stuart, once my teacher, a long friend, and colleague (former Chief Judge of the Yukon amongst many other things) “This book is full of surprises but none more than the creative way in which Glenn weaves together the influences of people and places, and values from an earlier time, to shape a path-breaking career helping others reach tough decisions, and resolve deeply embedded differences. This book is full of wisdom fired by a vast range of experience.”

And my long friend, Phil Fontaine, former National Chief, kindly added these words “Glenn has a special relationship with the people of Canada’s First Nations and the good way and place that comes from shines through these pages. For the Cree and Ojibway, and the Icelanders of Lake Winnipeg, this book will always have a special meaning. Few Canadians, if any, could have written this; every Canadian should read it.”

Like Bilbo in the Hobbit, this journey began innocently with a blackberry on long airplane rides after tiring days working in the middle of some complicated tangle with many players; diverse values and interests; issues over land, water, resources; struggling to find a way to work and live together in spite of their differences to build a sustainable future. The storybook memories I had known as a boy growing up in a legendary fishing family on Lake Winnipeg brought laughter or tears. With a glass of wine and my earphones, those movies of the mind were my comfort food. Then, as long journeys are want to do, I stumbled forward. I did not want those people and times come across as caricatures and cartoons: I would need to put a context around them. I would need to reach back into the history which shaped the context.  But my greatest challenge was now laid in front of me, adding five more years to the mission. That’s what I mean; I have long labored with “time”.

The journey turned inwards as I reflected back to how the Lake and its Icelandic, Cree, and Ojibway fishermen and the communities and people on its shores had shaped and inspired my life and work. This life trajectory began in boyhood, continues into the first phase of my career as a lawyer for the Cree and Ojibway people indigenous to the lands along the mighty rivers to and from Lake Winnipeg impacted by hydro developments and mercury contamination in the 70′s and 80’s, and with the mold now deeply set onward to this day, and hopefully many days ahead. I came to realize that this act of remembering and writing was giving me deep insights into who I am, what I do, and why.

I found myself retracing the paths I had taken in refocusing my professional lens from trying to squeeze problems and solutions into a legal framework to building processes and solutions for problems with the participants who owned the problem. I would evolve out of law, a transitioning that I now know began when my career expanded to include labor relations adjudication and mediation. I would move from Winnipeg to Vancouver in 1989 and build what has become a complex career involving high profile public disputes, organizational dynamics and leadership, teaching in a business school, writing and speaking over the past 25 years.

Something more had happened over the course of this journey. Writing this story for a broad audience was also helping me to capture my “mysterious and elusive” calling in new words and ways, which I hope will be more accessible, and with that more, compelling. I have been blessed with many great teachers and mentors, many of who are touched on in these pages, but I now see that writing this book was my greatest teacher. It was also my hardest learning experience which brought together many diverse aspects of my life in ways that deepened my understanding of each. It  is now propelling me in exciting new ways to better  understand the means and mediums through which we communicate , recognizing that it is others hear, not what we think we are telling them which is at the essence.

So let me tease you with a glimpse through the window of the unique slice of Canadian history in which this saga is nested. Did you  know that the Icelanders were given an “Icelandic reserve’ complete with an Icelandic agent along the western shore of lake Winnipeg in 1875, the same year as treaty 5 was concluded with the Cree and Ojibway on the east shore? Or that these poor sheep farmers, soon to become fishermen, developed their own constitution (with a remarkable system of mediation/ arbitration for the resolution of all civil disputes) and a newspaper in 1877 amidst near starvation and smallpox, snow and mosquitoes. Or that an Irish nobleman who had visited Iceland in 1855 wrote a famous travelogue, Letter from Northern Latitudes? That the nobleman would become Lord Dufferin, Canada’s second Governor General and persuade PM McDonald to bring these hardy souls to the then District of Keewatin (for Manitoba was still but a postage stamp on the great Northwest) to begin the settlement of the West in order to counter fears of American incursion? You will have to read the book to know the truth and nothing but the truth in relation to these and many other questions, and to learn how these humble but proud Vikings became true pioneers in sustainable development!!

The book also made me understand the power of history, as I describe: “History is a story, but a story with a difference. We own this story. History is glue. It is as important to people as memory is to a person. History expresses what we share and how we differ. History is alive. It shapes the lens through which we see the world. History is identity. History is who we are.” I found myself pulling the future back into the past, and pushing the past forward into the future, giving me fresh insights into the work I do.

The many emails and comments I have received from a broad cross section of people near and far confirm for me that the book speaks to people in many different ways. Writing a book of this kind is a lonely undertaking, belabored with insecurities; engaging with many after is my great reward. If you have the time and inclination to pick it up (or refer to friends!) I would love to hear from you by email or on our Vikings on a Prairie Ocean facebook page.

Best wishes,
Glenn

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