Rennie Smith’s story is one of a life – and an Indigenous heritage – regained.
The writer, actor and former dancer – a well-known face at White Rock’s Playhouse more than a decade ago in productions, including The Wisdom of Eve, directed by the late Scott Wheeler – has been on a long and difficult journey for most of her life.
It’s a journey she brings to vivid life in her new book, Tribeless: Cannabis, Rock ‘n Roll and Kicking Rare Cancer’s Ass, available in both print and Kindle form from amazon.ca.
It’s a wild, raw, free-form work – part memoir, part poetry, part journalling, part family history, part celebration of the music that has mattered to her and eased her journey in the fight against cancer, and part medicinal cannabis advocacy.
With all its many digressions, Tribeless is also a fascinating, deeply compelling self-portrait of an exuberant, uncompromising woman who is in the process of triumphing over physical and psychological setbacks.
“The whole healing took eight to nine years,” she said. “The book took five.”
It’s a story she had to tell, she added.
“Friends told me I had to write a book – and they were relentless,” she said, noting she has given credit to the people who have pushed her to achieve more throughout her life, even though she admits the message has often been an irritant.
“I hate it when people are right,” she laughed.
Born into a family that long denied its Indigenous roots and residential school background – not to mention ‘mob’ connections tied to its history of longshoring on the Vancouver waterfront – Smith also carried the burden of a painful physical disease on her back, quite literally, for years.
She was 12 years old, and an aspiring ballerina, when the sore on her left shoulder blade first appeared. She didn’t know then that the tumour heralded apocrine eccrine spiradenoma, a rare cancer of the sweat glands.
Smith says that while it was considered ‘benign’ by medical science, it was also held to be incurable. She didn’t take either of those ‘facts’ as gospel, she says.
She was determined to find a cure as soon as she was properly diagnosed later in life, realizing how the subcutaneous cancer had permeated almost every part of her body – and was accelerating aggressively, preventing her from pursuing a new career as a script supervisor for the film industry. As if that weren’t bad enough, she had also battled osteoarthritis for years.
“I’ve lived with pain for so long,” she said. “It was always amazing to me how few people around me knew how much in pain I was – but then, I guess, I got really good at covering it up.”
In Tribeless, Smith talks about the focal point of her cancer – the tumour on her shoulder – which she dubbed, with typically gritty humour, as ‘Tumelot’. Ultimately the size of the circumference of her palm, it was considered inoperable.
But Smith also shares with readers her discovery of the medicinal uses of water-based cannabis resin (a form of cannabinol, or CBN) which she has learned to prepare from inexpensive stems and debris usually discarded by marijuana producers.
While it is recognized as a strong anti-inflammatory, Smith said the full benefits of CBN – which can be prepared for internal use or for external topical use – are still in the early stages of formal study.
Israeli government scientists and researchers at UBC are in forefront of current studies, she said, adding that she also benefited from auditing SFU’s 2016 President’s Dream Colloquium on Understanding Medical Marijuana (www.sfu.ca/dean-gradstudies/events/dreamcololloquium/DreamColloquium-Marijuana/EthanRusso.html).
For her, she said, using the resin not only allowed her to manage her pain, but also – in a topical application – shrink her tumour to “the circumference of three knuckles,” enabling a successful operation to remove it three years ago.
“I feel confident in believing that stem-sourced water-based cannabis is a safe alternative to many drug therapies,” she writes, although she urges others to do their own research on whether or not it can be beneficial to them.
Interestingly, Smith’s story of her physical recovery is interspersed with – and paralleled by – her growing knowledge of her true heritage.
One of the many intriguing aspects of her story – illustrated with historical photographs in the book – is that she is a direct descendant of the Smith family of Brockton Point, at Vancouver’s Stanley Park, a pioneer settlement of people of mixed Squamish, Portuguese and Hawaiian backgrounds.
They were evicted by the city – and had their homes burned – in 1931, in an arbitrary move to consolidate all the land for park purposes.
Her grandfather, boss of a stevedoring group, the ‘Star Gang’, reputed to be the fastest on the west coast – was also a mobster and alcohol smuggler who was no stranger to gang-style violence.
As Smith recounts in her book, her father had childhood memories of the subsequent family house on Arbutus Street being tommy-gunned in the 1930s; also of being pushed to the floor of the car, as his father reached for his handgun, when they became targets of a drive-by attack.
Little wonder that after Smith’s father returned from Merchant Marine service in the Second World War, her parents lived in denial of the “shame” of both an Indigenous background – and his father’s mob lifestyle.
Her mother, of Scots heritage, worked for the Vancouver Sun, participating in the ‘Edith Adams Cottage’ section of the paper, a bastion of whitebread culinary homemaking – and Smith reprints an era-typical photo of herself and her mom posing with Easter goodies in the 1960s. The truth of her childhood was more bitter, Smith recalls.
In actuality, her parents found themselves constantly frustrated by Smith’s naturally free spirit, and her instinctive identification with her ‘Grampa’ and other Indigenous relatives – describing her as “the throwback to the park.”
This, and being told repeatedly that she was not smart enough for post secondary education – she attended Concordia University anyway – led to decades of emotional pain to match her physical pain, Smith said.
Indeed, there are many emotionally-affecting elements in Tribeless, which also describes Smith’s passion for the arts and her youthful activities in music and events promotion, and bittersweet memories of a time when, as a young ballerina, she was sought out by the National Ballet of Canada – an offer she was ultimately forced to decline.
But perhaps the most touching part of the story is how Smith has, through her book, been able to weave the strands of personal history and healing together in one place, finding peace in the process.
As she states in Tribeless: “family is reclaimed…love is reclaimed…my life is reclaimed.”