Finding Peace in the Present
Network, Winter 2004
The Hon. James K. Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, has identified three areas of focus for his mandate: to encourage aboriginal communities, especially young people; to speak out to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness; and to support initiatives that fight racism and discrimination. Mr. Bartleman grew up in the Muskoka village of Port Carling, Ontario, and is a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation. In October 2002, Mr. Bartleman published Out of Muskoka, a memoir of his early life.
Out of Muskoka begins with the shocking and vicious assault on Mr. Bartleman in a Cape Town hotel room when he was Canada’s high commissioner to South Africa. This event led to the collision of two worlds as, battling with post-traumatic shock and intense depression, he started on a journey in which he would relive his past in order to find peace in the present.
You quote Amin Malouf at the beginning of your book: ‘Identity isn’t given once and for all; it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime.’ Does that describe what you realized about yourself as you wrote Out of Muskoka?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: Yes. I think it accurately reflects the condition for everybody. We change and we have to come to terms with our new identity. In my book I describe a child, myself, who didn’t know there was any difference between him and the other people living around him in Welland. When our family moved to Port Carling I realized that I was not part of the mainstream — I was different. I had roots and links to both the native and non-native community, and I spent my childhood and adolescence wondering where I belonged. I ended up burying myself in the larger Canadian identity. The marvelous event of my life was when the law was changed, giving my mother her status within the Indian community. Because we were accepted into that community it allowed us to participate in the broader community. Theodore Zeldin, who wrote An Intimate History of Humanity, says that it is an illusion that humans can be understood simply as examples of their civilization or their nation or their families. That few people can extract solutions to their problems from their roots and that this means that it is not just where people come from that matters, but where they are going and what kind of curiosity or imagination they have. I believe that it is very important that we realize that everyone is unique. We all have our roots which are extremely important, we all need to have a sense of belonging somewhere, but we have to adapt as we go through life.
Why was it important for you to write this book? To disclose publicly your life experiences including your battle with depression?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: There are literally dozens of reasons why people write. It could be for therapeutic reasons, it could be to leave a legacy, or out of an aesthetic impulse. People write books for egotistical purposes and for revenge. They write to clarify their sense of identity. So why did I write this book? I think it was a mixture of all these things, but primarily it was therapeutic — just trying to understand myself. It was also because I realized that there was a history of the people in the Muskoka area which might never be told; a sense of duty and obligation to make sure that the story of the native Indian camp in Port Carling did not just disappear like the history of so many small communities. This was a rich history that deserved to be remembered and was beneficial both to the native people themselves and to the surrounding mainstream community. And so that’s why I wrote it.
How difficult was it for you as a public figure to make a disclosure of your mental illness?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: I didn’t find it difficult at all. I don’t think I have that gene of shame which surrounds mental illness. My mother suffered from a mental illness and never hid the fact from her children, and I didn’t find it a problem to write about my own struggles.
How about how people viewed you? Were they surprised by your book and what you revealed in it?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: People may have been surprised but I never noticed because I didn’t really care. I just carried on with the things that were important to me. I didn’t feel that I could be hurt by writing this book, although I did have some concern for my youngest son who at that time was 9 or 10 so I discussed it with him. I have to say that I don’t know what my feelings would have been had I been say 39 years of age and about to be sent on my first posting as a young ambassador. Would I have been as courageous? I don’t know. Would I have wanted to see my future career prospects in the hands of some anonymous board in Ottawa, looking at my file and saying, ‘Better not send Bartleman there, he might not be able to handle the pressure’? This happened at the end of my career, but I suspect I wouldn’t have felt any different earlier in my life. Getting promotions or a higher grade in the Foreign Service weren’t my goals in life; these were just ephemeral things, not the important things. I can understand people who try to hide their problems though because they think they might hurt their career. I was not in that position so I certainly cannot judge them. I think the goal for all of us who are fighting to de-stigmatize mental illness is to build a society where people can speak out without fear.
So there are risks in speaking out and identifying yourself with a mental illness?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: Yes, and that’s why it’s so important to change the attitude of society so that those risks are minimized. If a person is ill they should be able to ask for help, no matter who they are or what kind of job they have. Foreign Service employees, for instance, spend half their lives abroad and the pressures of adjusting to different cultural and political climates are enormous. There is a lot of stress inherent in the job itself. When you go to a country like Bangladesh there are people starving, with their hands through the gates of your house begging for something to eat. You know you can’t give them anything because if you did, literally within minutes, there would be thousands of people rioting, so what do you do? You work away at the aid programs, you bring in shiploads of wheat, but meanwhile there is the face of the individual that you have to deal with. That is just one of the many stresses you have to face.
In your book you describe how you felt after you were attacked in Cape Town, how your attitude toward suicide changed dramatically. You wrote, ‘Dying would obviate the need for me to reconstruct my life.’ Could you expand on that statement?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: When I wrote the book the first version was very black. Then as I went through it and edited it, I found more and more of the positive things of my life and I was able to put some of those events into the book. Suicide was one of the lasting images from my youth at the time when we were considered to be the real outsiders. It seemed to me that so many of the middle class white people of the village were committing suicide. After I went into depression, and especially after I was attacked, I just wanted to die and all I could think about was various ways of doing it. I think your mind goes along a different track and you become preoccupied with suicide, but I never made any preparations for it. I could see intellectually the reasons against it — the shock it would be for my wife and my children — and so I managed to get over that hurdle, but suicide is a major problem particularly in the Aboriginal community and it’s one of the things that I am spending a lot of time on. I am launching a program to put used books into all the libraries of the North and I have also spoken to John Kim Bell of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation to take this program one step further and to have posters put up in the schools in the North profiling heroes, figures that youth can look up to. Stan Beardy, who is the Grand Chief of the Cree in Ontario, told me that 200 young people in his community have committed suicide in the last ten years. We have to give these kids a sense of identity and self worth and help them to have a greater resistance to suicide and addictions. Kids from multicultural backgrounds in our towns and cities are also under tremendous pressure — it’s not just native kids.
At the beginning of your book you state that you were going to relive your past in order to find peace in the present – has that happened?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: As I went through the various revisions of the book, that’s what took place. By the time I finished I had a much clearer sense of who I was. I felt quite at peace with myself even though I continue to suffer from depression.
I found it very interesting when reading your book to discover that although on the surface we had very little in common, there were some events and incidents in your life that I had also experienced. Is this what any kind of disclosure, including disclosure of mental illness does? It gives other people an opportunity to realize that we are not as different as we think?
THE HON. JAMES K. BARTLEMAN: I think so. It helps with communication which is essential. People are social animals, we don’t live alone, we cannot live in isolation. People who try to do this will never be whole. We have to live in society, and one of the problems with people who have a mental illness is that they are shunned by society, or they shut themselves off from society. We have to have contact with other people. And we have to continue to fight the stigma.
Mr. Bartleman’s first book, Out of Muskoka, was published by Penumbra Press in October 2002 and won the Ontario Historical Society’s Joseph Brant Award in 2003. Mr. Bartleman has donated all royalties to the scholarship fund of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. Mr. Bartleman’s second book, On Six Continents, detailing his life and experiences in the Foreign Service, will be published by McClelland and Stewart in March 2004. All proceeds will go to the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.
The Hon. James K. Bartleman was sworn in as the 27th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario on March 7, 2002. Mr. Bartleman had a distinguished career of more than 35 years in the Canadian Foreign Service. He was Canada’s Ambassador to the European Union from 2000 to 2002. He served as High Commissioner to Australia in 1999-2000 and to South Africa in 1998-1999. Mr. Bartleman was Ambassador to the North Atlantic Council of NATO from 1990 to 1994. He served as Ambassador to Israel and High Commissioner to Cyprus from 1986 to 1990, and was Ambassador to Cuba from 1981 to 1983. From 1994 to 1998, Mr. Bartleman was Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister and Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet for Foreign and Defence Policy, Privy Council Office. He also served in senior positions in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade from 1967. He opened Canada’s first diplomatic mission in the newly independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1972.
For more information, visit the Lieutenant Governor’s official website: www.lt.gov.on.ca.
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