Tag 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.)

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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.

Reclaiming Our Stories: Another View of Residential Schools

For a couple of years, when I was in my late teens, my family was entirely dysfunctional. Right after my mother and father separated, there was some financial hardship and the trauma of moving from a small town to the big city so my mother could go back to work as a secretary. But that was nothing compared to when my mother hooked up with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, fertilizer salesman (really), who moved in with my mother and we four girls when I was 17. Things then got completely out of control–or, should I say, the fertilizer really flew.

As the eldest of the brood, with only two years left in high-school, immediately after which I hightailed it out of there, I got off relatively easy. But I do know a thing or two about growing up in poverty with an alcoholic parent, or surrogate parent, and how this can affect kids. The kids who are especially vulnerable, because they’re the youngest, or smallest, or least developed intellectually or emotionally, are likely to be left deeply scarred, with very low esteem. As adults, unless they recognize their problems and get professionally help, or somehow work out their problems themselves, they are likely to perpetuate the pattern of abuse.

And, oh yes, I’m White. Bad stuff sometimes happens in White families, too.

I mention this aspect of my background here–that I haven’t previously publicly divulged–because it’s relevant to my concerns about dominant narratives in Canada concerning First Nations residential schools.

I personally know not just one, but two, White Canadian writers, both of whom come from, in my view, very privileged backgrounds and both of whom are strong proponents of the now-dominant view in Canada, shared by Whites and Aboriginals alike, that Canadian First Nations residential schools were basically hellholes. Although it’s not indicated in any of their published writings of which I’m aware, both received at least their secondary educations (and maybe their elementary educations, too) in private Christian boarding schools. Schools for rich kids.  (At least some of my readers probably will want to know these writers’ names. I’m sorry, but I won’t be providing that information here. You’ll have to take my word for it.)

I don’t personally know anyone who attended a residential school. However, the comments of a Native audience member, who had family members who had attended such schools, at a talk I attended in Toronto about the residential schools, back when I was a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, support my suspicions.

This Native audience member, a teacher herself, took exception to the overall condemnation of residential schools by the speaker, a White university professor. She pointed out that her aunt generally had enjoyed her experiences. Among the things she enjoyed, according to her niece, were that there were three meals a day and clean sheets on her bed once a week–things she wasn’t able to take for granted at home. Also, she developed a love for learning, that she shared with her niece, who went on to university and became a teacher.

I don’t mean to suggest that the residential schools were entirely without problems. But I do suspect that the very dark picture of them that currently prevails in Canada is due at least in large measure to certain influential, privileged, White folks projecting dark memories of their own boarding school experiences onto residential schools and their First Nations students. If one comes from a financially and emotionally stable family background, boarding-school life may indeed seem wretched compared to family life; but if one isn’t so lucky, while school may not be paradise, it’s likely to be more tolerable.

As for emotional scars having been left on former generations of Canada’s Aboriginal people by the residential schools, and these scars being the root cause of problems such as alcoholism and domestic abuse among succeeding generations, there are other ways that one, whether Native or White, can become emotionally scarred. Only approximately 30% of Canada’s Aboriginal children attended residential schools during the period that they were primarily active (between 1876, following the passage of the Indian Act, until the late 20th Century). It would be interesting to know which group, those who did or those who didn’t attend residential school, ended up better off.

Poverty, associated with the breakdown of traditional cultures, was rampant among Canada’s First Nations people during most of the period of the residential schools, and continues to be common among many of our First Nations people. To escape poverty, education is key.  Also, through education, we  can achieve greater control over our stories–stories told about us by others and stories about us we tell ourselves.

**In doing some basic research for this piece, I came across an interesting article published in The National Post newspaper last year, “Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?“, in which the author, Paul Russell, debunks various common conceptions about residential schools. While the issue of privileged White people possibly projecting their own narratives onto Aboriginal people isn’t addressed in this article, issues such as the ‘high’ rate of fatalities in the residential schools from tuberculosis and smallpox and the ‘abusive’ disciplinary practices of teachers are addressed. For anyone interested in the residential schools, I believe this article is worth a read.