Category Archives: First Nations

BOOK REVIEW: “Rose’s Run,” by Dawn Dumont


I’ve been reading a lot of material about Canadian First Nations people over the past few months–including the two books my reviews of which have comprised the past two posts in this blog. All of this material has consisted of non-fiction. I wanted to try some First Nations fiction for a change. First Nations fiction is something I haven’t yet explored and, given that I’d heard several reports of excellent work in this area having been produced in recent years, it seemed about time.

So when I was down at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library a couple of weeks ago, I hit the “New Fiction” section, looking for something, anything really, since I then didn’t have any authors’ names to go by, that could serve as my starting point for exploring this new terrain. Dawn Dumont’s 2014 novel, “Rose’s Run,” published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press and the winner of the 2014 City of Regina Book Award for Fiction, flew off the shelf into my eager hands. I say ‘flew’ off because there is a prominent silhouette of an in-flight raven against a bright red background on the cover that made the book readily identifiable to me as First Nations literature. (I commend whoever thought up, and executed, this cover image. It not only fits the story but also works well in attracting newcomers like me interested in a good First Nations read, probably as well as those more experienced with this genre.)

After reading “Rose’s Run” and, immediately after, her earlier book of biographical essays, “Nobody Cries at Bingo”–and watching an episode of the APTN show “Fish out of Water” that she co-hosts–DAWN DUMONT is a name I won’t be forgetting any time soon. The caliber of Dumont’s writing combined with her TV hosting duties and involvement with theatre (she’s written some plays I haven’t yet read), and her sense of humour, bring to mind another Canadian author/broadcaster who is much better known, at least in my circles: Ann-Marie MacDonald. I suspect that, if Dumont were White, although she’s still only in her mid- to late-30s, she’d already be at least as well-known across Canada as MacDonald–and maybe she eventually will be.

“Rose’s Run” combines a very contemporary story of female resistance against male repression and female redemption, set on a rural Saskatchewan reservation, with supernatural elements taken from plains Cree mythology. The first part of the story takes place mainly in the ‘normal’ world; but once the central character, Rose, a mother of three now abandoned by her husband, takes up long-distance running to reclaim her self-respect and to serve as a role model to her kids, strange, otherworldly, things start to happen. After she trips and bumps her head on one of her training runs, the otherworldly elements amp up, until the final chapter of the book, when Rose participates in the big marathon race that has been her goal since taking up running and things get back, at least superficially, to ‘normal’.

The combination of the the ‘normal’ and the supernatural works extremely well in this book, especially through Dumont linking supernatural elements to long-distance running. In reading this book, I was reminded of the “magic realism” of certain South American writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but with the supernatural elements taken from Cree culture, set in a contemporary Canadian context.

Dawn Dumont’s “Rose’s Run” provided me with an excellent introduction to Canadian First Nations fiction and I’m looking forward to reading many more such books, by her and by other Canadian First Nations authors. Dumont has set the bar high with “Rose’s Run,” so I hope I won’t be disappointed when reading other books of this genre.

As a final point here, after reading both of Dumont’s books set in in Saskatchewan (the novel and her biographical essays) and published by a Saskatoon publisher, as well as reading some interesting non-fiction books published by the University of Regina press in the past few months (including not only the two I’ve reviewed in this blog), I’ve become much more interested in Saskatchewan as a possible place to spend some time in the future. Many interesting things seem to be going on culturally now in Saskatchewan, related especially to the strong First Nations presence in that province. (My only previous personal experience of Saskatchewan was taking the Greyhound through the province heading back to Vancouver when I was a student at McGill, and stopping over for a couple of hours at the bus depot in Saskatoon. Seems there’s a lot more to the province than wheatfields and that depressing bus depot.)

BOOK REVIEW: “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir”, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir

I awoke the morning after finishing reading this book the evening before, just before I went to sleep, with a very poignant, and powerful, scene being acted out on the movie screen of my waking mind. I saw a drunk and disheveled old Native guy, someone I hadn’t previously met, sitting alone on a bench in a city park. Normally, if I’d come across a guy like that, I would have just let him be, and gone on my way. But that’s not what happened this time.

I observed him for a while, realizing, oddly (we hadn’t previously met), that this was a guy who had many interesting stories to tell, and who was a good story-teller, and I wanted to hear those stories. I also knew that, due to the drink, and his age, and a possible desire to preserve his dignity, I shouldn’t expect that his stories would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to hear his stories anyway, and to share a park bench with him and savour his warmth and gentle humour, so I went over to join him. I sat down, and we started to talk. Then I got up … up out of bed, that is, only because it was a workday and I had to get to work.

Critically-minded readers who read “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir” looking for just further evidence of the indignities and abuse suffered by residential school students are likely to find this book disappointing–at least initially. Augie Merasty, a survivor of nine years at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, whose handwritten stories of his experiences at the school written over several years comprise the basis of this book, is not, as I think any reasonable person would acknowledge, an entirely reliable narrator.

Age, drink, and the fact that, at least when he began his project of recording stories from his days at St. Therese, he was likely to have been aware that he stood to gain financially by presenting a dark picture, all lend suspicion to his account. (Augie began to record his stories in the late 1990s as evidence to be used by lawyers in the first stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that led to a 1.9 billion federal government settlement package, implemented in 2007, for survivors of the residential schools.)

A further, related, problem, is that, although Augie is still alive, he apparently is now too sick (from cancer) to do television interviews and other kinds of personal appearances that could lend credibility to his case. We’re unable to watch Augie, and to listen to his actual voice, as he relates his stories–unlike when we watched, and listened to, selected survivors of the residential schools presenting their videotaped testimonies as part of the wrap-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 2, and knew, with certainly, that they were telling the truth and, furthermore, knew, with certainty, what a devastating experience this had been for them.

In addition to these problems related to Augie himself, there are problems related to how this book was put together. A professional writer, David Carpenter, formerly a teacher in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan, considerably helped Augie in bringing to fruition his dream of publishing his memoir as a book. As Carpenter reveals in the relatively lengthly introduction to this slim volume (about a third of which consists of the Introduction), he had to do a great deal of editing to corral the various prose passages and letters that Augie provided, over a period of several years, into a coherent, publishable, book. A question arises, as it inevitably does with this kind of collaboration, regarding who actually contributed what to the finished work.

Often, in the main section of the book that is supposed to be Augie’s memoir, the language is jarring, not at all in keeping with how a Native guy who did learn how to read and write at St. Therese’s but who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and trapper would be expected to communicate. For example, would Augie really have referred to himself and his pals at school as “me and my fellow reprobates?” Or would he really have said of a particularly sadistic nun at St. Therese, “I cannot say enough to vilify her name”? Problems like this with the language used to relate Augie’s experiences dilute the credibility of the experiences themselves.
But, of course, if Carpenter hadn’t done a great deal of work on Augie’s ‘manuscript’ to make it publishable, including sometimes interjecting his own vocabulary, and sensibilities, this book would never have been published.

Despite these ‘weaknesses’, assuming that readers come to this book with the usual preconceptions and expectations–that its publishers, unfortunately, haven’t made an effort to discourage–I believe this book is worth reading. It’s the images that occur after finishing the book, when one’s guard is down, and the power that these images may have in helping achieve reconciliation between Native and non-Native Canadians, that may be this book’s greatest strength. Images like that of an old, drunk, Native guy sitting on a park bench, grinning warmly as you draw near …

BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even to those skeptical of academe. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

Remembering Whapmagoostui (Whale-Pam-Goose-Too-ee)

20130401-095149.jpg

I still knew the Cree and Inuit village in northern Quebec where I worked for six months as a co-ordinator for a Cree youth employment program right after finishing my BA at McGill as “Great Whale River” or, in French, “Poste de la Baleine”. So when I first heard about the six Cree youth from “Whapmagoostui” who had hiked 1,600 kilometers from their village in northern Quebec to Ottawa, beginning in January and arriving March 25th, it didn’t register with me they were from that same village. I did know, however, that some of the First Nations villages in northern Quebec that used to be identified at least by Whites by their European names were now generally known by their First Nations’ names, and 1,600 km seemed about the right distance, so I eventually checked on-line. (I probably would have clued in faster if the distance had been reported in miles.) “Great Whale River”, or “Poste de la Baleine”, and “Whapmagoostui”, or “Kuujjuarapik” (the Inuit name for the village), are all one and the same–at least in geographical terms.

Culturally, however, there are four distinct cultures–including two cultures widely regarded as Canada’s founding cultures, English and French, and two significant Canadian First Nations cultures, Cree and Inuit–represented in this small, isolated, village. This makes Whapmagoostui, as I’ll call it here, unique. (“Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik”, which now seems to be the official name for the community as a whole, is too much of a tongue-twister for me, at least just yet. I have to first get used to just the Cree part.)

Whapmagoostui is the northernmost of the ten Cree settlements in Quebec, and also the southernmost of several Inuit settlements in northern Quebec. A Canadian Air Force base, built during the Cold War but already closed for many years by the time I visited, in the late ’70s, had drawn the two groups to the same place. All of the Cree lived in one part of village while all of the Inuit lived in another part, separated by an all-important runway (there is still no year-round road access to Whapmagoostui); but the two groups shared many community amenities.

The predominant second language among both groups, at least when I was there, was English. Yet most of the Whites who then lived in Whapmagoostui, or who visited the community, were Quebecois, who spoke French among themselves but who also could communicate in English–and sometimes also in Cree and/or Inuktitut. When they were speaking with me, because my French is limited and because I was, after all, from Vancouver, they spoke English–although I heard more French in the six months I was in Whapmagoostui than I had heard in the three years prior that I had been living in Montreal, and even tried speaking French on several occasions (especially after I’d had a few drinks). I also learned a few words in Cree and Inuktitut.

Arriving at this this very special Canadian crossroads, where four linguistic and cultural groups converge, almost immediately after completing an intense academic program at McGill, my thoughts turned to Canadian post-secondary education in relation to Canada’s supposed multicultural identity. Perhaps, in the months following university graduation, most recent graduates go through a process of reassessing what they’ve just been through; but, in my case, the process seems to have been especially intense because of where I was residing during this period. The Euro-centric educational program that I had just completed did not do justice to the multiculturalism that I experienced in Whapmagoostui.

Even now, while many Canadians currently critique our universities in terms of economics or the poor job prospects, and sometimes also high debt loads, of many Canadian university graduates, my critique begins with a consideration of cultural factors. That’s not to say that is where my critique ends; but that’s where it begins. And this seems to go back to my six months in Great Whale River–or Whapmagoostui–followed by a year of helping to set up a program on three First Nations reserves in my home province of British Columbia modelled after the program for which I’d been working in northern Quebec.

Congratulations to those six Cree youth from Whapmagoostui who made it all those 1,600 kilometers, in the middle of a frigid northern Canadian winter, to Ottawa. It was a great personal triumph for all of you, as well as, in my view, a very significant step forward for Canada as a whole in its long march towards a just, multicultural, society. You brought with you in your trek to our nation’s capital the Northern Lights of your unique community, that can help to show the rest of Canada the way.

20130401-095009.jpg