WAGAMESE, Richard (1955-2017)

Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Alcohol, Fiction

An Ojibway from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Richard Wagamese was born in Minaki, Ontario, on October 14, 1955 and grew up in fifteen foster homes. According to Wikipedia, "He and his three siblings, abandoned by adults on a binge drinking trip in Kenora, left the bush camp when they had run out of food and sheltered at a railroad depot." He was re-united with birth family members in his early twenties. As a self-described "second-generation survivor of the residential school system" that had adversely affected the lives of his parents and other family members, Wagamese partially overcame alcoholism and PTSD to attain national acclaim.

Also known as Richard Gilkinson, Wagamese had "a criminal history with more than 50 convictions dating back to the 1970s," including numerous alcohol-related driving convictions, according to the Kamloops News. But he persevered and gained widespread acceptance, forming a 25-year friendship with Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC's The Next Chapter, and earning several prestigious awards. With thirteen books under his belt, he was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize one week prior to his death in Kamloops on March 10, 2017.

A memorial gathering was held at Thompson Rivers University on March 25, 2017. The cause of death was not divulged.

While primarily residing at Paul Lake near Kamloops, Wagamese had already received the George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness in 2011 for One Story, One Dream. In 2012 he was chosen as a recipient of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (NAAA) for Media & Communications. In 2013 he became the first recipient of the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature First Prize for Indian Horse as well as the 2013 recipient of the Canada Council on the Arts Molson Prize. Having moved to live in Kamloops, he received the Writers' Trust Matt Cohen Award: In celebration of a Writing Life for a body of work in 2016.

Wagamese began his writing career as a journalist was with the First Nations publication New Breed, then becoming a "native-affairs" columnist at the Calgary Herald where he became the first indigenous journalist to win a National Newspaper Award in 1991. Wagamese’s first novel, Keeper ’n' Me, tied for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta fiction award in 1995. Then he won the 2007 Canadian Authors Association MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction for his novel Dream Wheels.

In his non-fiction collection One Story, One Song, characters gain wisdom from wolf tracks, light a fire without matches, and learn about Martin Luther King from a grade five teacher.

One Native Life is his memoir of playing baseball, running away with the circus, attending a sacred bundle ceremony, meeting Pierre Trudeau, alcoholism, drifting from town to town, and being abused and abandoned as a child. It is an anger-free exercise in coming to terms with himself within the larger construct of Canada.

His third novel Dream Wheels is about the healing relationships between a former world champion Ojibway-Sioux rodeo cowboy who is crippled by a bull and a black single mother with a 14-year-old son named Aiden. His other books are two novels -- Keeper 'n Me and A Quality of Light--and an autobiography, For Joshua.

In 2008, Wagamese wrote Ragged Company, the story of four chronically homeless people who, seeking refuge in a movie theatre from severely cold Arctic weather, discover a winning lottery ticket worth millions of dollars.

Indian Horse (D&M 2012) by Richard Wagamese was selected as a finalist for the 2013 CBC Canada Reads competition and won the First Nations Communities Reads Awards, as well as being short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Casting for a movie production was commenced by Screen Siren Pictures of Vancouver, makers of Hector and the Search for Happiness, with shooting slated for Sudbury, Ontario, Oka and Kamloops in the fall of 2016.

According to publicity materials, "a character named Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he's a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he's sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he'll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he's led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows... For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he's sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement."

In Medicine Walk (2014), we meet 16-year-old Franklin Starlight as he saddles up to ride into town, feeling compelled to rescue his dissolute father, Eldon, someone he doesn't even know very well. Eldon is a drunk, dying of liver cancer in a flophouse. Frank dutifully accedes to his father's request to be taken into the mountains, into the woods, so he can be buried in a traditional Ojibway way. As they ride into the backcountry, Eldon's past comes to light: his poverty-stricken childhood, serving in the Korean War. Frank finally gets to know the father he seldom had.

Richard Wagamese's Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (D&M) reached the top of the BC Bestsellers List in March of 2017 soon after his death. It's a collection of everyday reflections on activities such sawing and cutting and stacking wood for winter and the indigenous smudge ceremony to bring him closer to the Creator. Without attempts to attain the role of teacher, his meditations as a self-described "spiritual bad-ass" explore grief, joy, recovery, beauty, gratitude, physicality and spirituality. For this book, largely derived from Facebook postings that were revised and expanded, Wagamese was the posthumous co-recipient of the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award accepted by his publisher, Howard White, at the B.C. Book Prizes gala in April, 2017.

But literary success did not vanquish his demons. "Alcohol could numb me to all the things that arose in me," he told Provincial Court Judge Stella Frame in 2011."When they arose, I just drank more and more." Wagamese was facing jail time for three offences of drunking driving, having been found driving drunk three different times in as many weeks. His blood-alcohol levels following the arrests were between 0.223 and 0.315, ? above the legal limit of 0.08. Judge Frame gave him an 18-month provisional sentence and a ten-year driving ban.

Richard Wagamese was honored with Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops in 2010, and from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in 2014. He was the 2011 Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lecturer in Writing at the University of Victoria. Wagamese was predeceased by his father, mother Marjorie, brother Jack, sister Jane, niece Jackie, as well as his spiritual father Jack Kakakaway who gave him the name Mushkotay Beezheekee Anakwat – Buffalo Cloud – and told him his role was to tell stories. Wagamese was married and divorced three times. He is survived by his partner Yvette Lehmann and his sons Jason (Jeneen) and Joshua, as well as ten grandchildren: Dustyn, Jordan, Dee, Zoey, Koda, Chase, Erik, Montana, Torrie and Wyatt, along with their Grandma Deb, his brother Charles (Lori) and many nieces, nephews and extended family.

"He was story. He was love," wrote Shelagh Rogers in a Facebook tribute.


Keeper 'n Me. (Doubleday, 1994). 0385254520 $13.95

A Quality of Light. (Doubleday, 1997). 038525606X $18.95

For Joshua. (Doubleday, 2002). 0385257120 $32.95

Dream Wheels. (Doubleday, 2006). 0-385-66199-1 $34.95

One Native Life. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008). 978-1-55365-364-6 $29.95

Ragged Company. (Doubleday, 2008). 9780385661560 $29.95

Runaway Dreams (Ronsdale 2011). 978-1-55380-129-0 $15.95

One Story, One Song. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) 978-1-55365-506-0 $29.95 / (paperback) (Douglas & McIntyre, 2015) 978-1-77162-080-2 $19.95

The Next Sure Thing (Raven Books 2011) 978-1-55469-900-1 $9.95

Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012 978-1-55365-402-5 $21.95

Him Standing (Orca / Raven Books 2013) 978-1-4598-0176-9

Medicine Walk (M&S 2014) 9780771089183 $29.95

Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (Douglas & McIntyre 2016) 978-1-77162-133-5 $18.95

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017]

One Story, One Song wins Ryga Award
Press Release (2011)

Vancouver, B.C., September 21, 2011.

Douglas & McIntyre is delighted to announce that Richard Wagamese's One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre, 978-1-55365-506-0, $29.95) has won the 2011 George Ryga Award. This literary prize is granted to a B.C. writer who has achieved an outstanding degree of social awareness in a new book published in the preceding calendar year. The judge, Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, selected from a shortlist of five titles assembled by a panel of readers. He said the following about One Story, One Song:

"Of all the books which made the shortlist, I found that One Story, One Song best answered the award's criteria for a book that was outstanding both as a literary work and in its presentation of social and cultural issues. Wagamese artfully weaves sixty-some short essays into an unpretentious philosophy of life rooted in personal observations and experiences, transposing an understanding of traditional Ojibway principles (humility, trust, introspection and wisdom) into modern-day life. Though drawing unflinchingly on his experiences as a native man, a child of residential school survivors, a homeless person and an addict, Wagamese writes with honesty and pathos without becoming ensnared in sentimentality. Yet it is not a book focused on hardships, victimhood or survival; rather, One Story, One Song is a frank and frequently mirthful testament to the prospect of a way forward; a reminder of our responsibility to live principled lives. For this reason, I have decided to recommend it for the George Ryga Award."

The four competing titles were A Room in the City by Gabor Gasztonyi (Anvil); Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater, by Sylvia Olsen (SonoNis); Invisible Chains, by Benjamin Perrin (Penguin) and The Tiger by John Vaillant (Knopf).

One Story, One Song is a new collection of warm, wise and inspiring stories from the author of the bestselling One Native Life. In this new book, Richard Wagamese again invites readers to accompany him on his travels. This time, his focus is on stories: how they shape us, how they empower us, how they change our lives. Ancient and contemporary, cultural and spiritual, funny and sad, the tales are grouped according to the four Ojibway storytelling principles: balance, harmony, knowledge and intuition.

Runaway Dreams by Richard Wagamese (Ronsdale $15.95)

from Hannah Main-Van-Der-Kamp
Born Ojibway, Richard Wagamese was lost to his roots as a teenager but was reborn to his culture as an adult. Generous in spirit, Runaway Dreams amounts to an autobiography in fifty poem/chapters, not a chronological account but rather a moving back and forth through the journeys, both inner and outer, that Wagamese has taken.
Wagamese is not sentimental about being “Injun” (his term). He is realistic about East Hastings squalor and the challenges faced by First Nations communities. He writes of the scars and wounds that will never be completely erased. But the overwhelming impression is not one of bitterness but of gratitude and awe.

Words such as “love, discovery, shadow, transcend, song, dancing, heartbeat, purify and wound, the circle of wholeness” have been so over-used in writing about the “healing journey” that they are losing their power. Soon these words will turn up in advertisements for spas, chocolate and all-inclusive vacations.

Wagamese gets away with using them because of the particularity of his story and his response. His apparent lack of egoistic “my story” telling includes fetching phrases such as “the sudden spray of heron from a tree,” “streak of an owl flays back the skin of night” and “loon call wobbles.”
At times the repeated use of words like “honour” risk becoming banal but he surmounts that because of his raw honesty, a stance of awe, and his sly humour. His elders’ tales have a subtle rather than a ha-ha, funniness.

Without being self-deprecating, Wagamese tells of his own fumbling efforts to become a “reborn Injun” and the way tribal humour was used to deflate him. He tells on himself as “warrior” now being the one who brings in the firewood and plants annual bedding plants.

There are Trickster stories, grandfather stories and spiritual rhetoric. Some of the poems contain sections that are reminiscent of the teachings of medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart. It’s a universal language, not limited to medieval Christians or to indigenous spirituality.

“Nothing is truly separate. Every one and every thing carries within it the spark of Creation and exists on the sacred breath of that Creation.”

This is spiritual writing in the best sense of the word: inviting, connecting, gracious about sorrow and sorrowful in the right places. In reference to a Gospel account of “Jesus wept,” Wagamese confesses his gratitude for pain, “and salvation that comes/ with the acceptance of it/ when you learn to hold it/ you can learn to let it go/ it’s how an Indian prays.”

The land is powerfully present. “Geographies become us when we inhabit them enough.” Wagamese now lives near Kamloops in a whitey suburb, and gazes lovingly at the terrain. On the land, “harmony happens on it own.”

“when you open your eyes there’s
nothing before you but the land
and its absolute stillness there’s the sound of wind and water
and as you push to hear it you
discover that you really have to really
want to it doesn’t just come to you
you have to crave it, yearn for it
ache for the luxuriant whisper…”

The poems in Runaway are introspective but not self-absorbed, intimate, nature imbued, respectful and reverent.

Along with love poems to his wife and his geolocale, Wagamese, 55-year-old, speaks with compassion about the confused 17-year-old runaway he was.

Foster care and adoption, residential school, urban squalor and abuse are part of the story and not disavowed.
“My skin is broken territory and my heart went along for the ride.” But now, he values the small ceremonies, like standing at the sink doing dishes. “I am older now and quiet feels better on the bones than noise and the only fight in me is the struggle to maintain it all, to keep it close to my chest … never thought I’d see that.” 978-1-55380-129-0

Poet and birdwatcher, Hannah Main -van der Kamp lives on the Upper Sunshine Coast, attentive to the absolute stillness in the sound of wind and water.

[BCBW 2011]

Richard Wagamese Wins Burt Award
Press Release (2013)

Richard Wagamese Wins Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature First Prize

October 2, 2013

Ottawa, October 2nd, 2013 ?The first winners of a unique literary award that will provide thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth across Canada with access to culturally-relevant, engaging books were announced on October 2nd.

Shelagh Rogers and Waubgeshig Rice co-hosted the inaugural gala for CODE’s Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, recognizing outstanding literary works for young adults written by First Nations, Métis and Inuit authors.

Richard Wagamese received the first prize of $12,000 for Indian Horse (published by Douglas and McIntyre), Tara Lee Morin won the second prize of $8,000 for As I Remember It (published by Theytus Books), while the third prize of $5,000 went to James Bartleman for As Long As the Rivers Flow (published by Random House of Canada Ltd.) The winners were selected by a jury composed of Canadian writers administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Award’s book purchase and distribution program will ensure that a minimum of 2,500 copies of each of the three winning titles will be delivered to First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth across Canada through community libraries, schools, Friendship Centres and summer literacy camps.

“It’s really important to us that the winning books actually get in the hands of young people,” said CODE Executive Director Scott Walter. “Thanks to our partners, we can make sure that these three truly amazing works reach First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth, even in remote communities, so they can enjoy stories in which they see their culture and their reality reflected.”

The Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature was established by CODE – a Canadian charitable organization that has been advancing literacy and learning in Canada and around the world for over 50 years – in collaboration with William (Bill) Burt and the Literary Prizes Foundation.

The Award is the result of a close collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the National Association of Friendship Centres, Frontier College, GoodMinds, the Association of Canadian Publishers and the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I want to congratulate the winners and everyone who submitted works for the first edition of the Canadian Award,” said William (Bill) Burt, who financially supports the initiative. “It’s my hope that First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth will enjoy them, get inspired to keep learning, and develop a life-long love of reading.”

CODE’s Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature is an annual award. The deadline for submissions of manuscripts or recently-published books for the next edition is May 1st, 2014.

The Burt Literary Awards is a global readership initiative and is also currently established in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and the Caribbean.

Returning to Harmony
Personal Statement

I am a victim of Canada’s residential school system. When I say victim, I
mean something substantially different than “Survivor.” I never attended a
residential school, so I cannot say that I survived one. However, my parents
and my extended family members did. The pain they endured became my pain, and I became a victim.
When I was born, my family still lived the seasonal nomadic life of traditional
Ojibwa people. In the great rolling territories surrounding the Winnipeg
River in Northwestern Ontario, they fished, hunted, and trapped. Their years
were marked by the peregrinations of a people guided by the motions and
turns of the land. I came into the world and lived in a canvas army tent hung
from a spruce bough frame as my first home. The first sounds I heard were the
calls of loon, the snap and crackle of a fire, and the low, rolling undulation of
Ojibwa talk.
We lived communally. Along with my mother and siblings, there were my
matriarchal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Surrounded by the
rough and tangle of the Canadian Shield, we moved through the seasons.
Time was irrelevant in the face of ancient cultural ways that we followed.
But there was a spectre in our midst.
All the members of my family attended residential school. They returned to
the land bearing psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical burdens
that haunted them. Even my mother, despite staunch declarations that she
had learned good things there (finding Jesus, learning to keep a house, the
gospel), carried wounds she could not voice. Each of them had experienced
an institution that tried to scrape the Indian off of their insides, and they
came back to the bush and river raw, sore, and aching. The pain they bore
was invisible and unspoken. It seeped into their spirit, oozing its poison
and blinding them from the incredible healing properties within their
Indian ways.
For a time, the proximity to family and the land acted as a balm. Then,
slowly and irrevocably, the spectre that followed them back from the
schools began to assert its presence and shunt for space around our
communal fire. When the vitriolic stew of unspoken words, feelings, and
memories of their great dislocation, hurt, and isolation began to bubble and
130 | Richard Wagamese
churn within them, they discovered that alcohol could numb them from it.
And we ceased to be a family.
Instead, the adults of my Ojibwa family became frightened children. The
trauma that had been visited upon them reduced them to that. They huddled
against a darkness from where vague shapes whispered threats and from
where invasions of their minds, spirits, and bodies roared through the
blackness to envelope and smother them again. They forgot who they were.
They struck back vengefully, bitterly, and blindly as only hurt and frightened
children could do.
When I was a toddler, my left arm and shoulder were smashed. Left
untreated, my arm hung backwards in its joint and, over time, it atrophied
and withered. My siblings and I endured great tides of violence and abuse
from the drunken adults. We were beaten, nearly drowned, and terrorized.
We took to hiding in the bush and waited until the shouting, cursing, and
drinking died away. Those nights were cold and terrifying. In the dim light of
dawn, the eldest of us would sneak back into camp to get food and blankets.
In the mid-winter of 1958, when I was almost three, the adults left my two
brothers, sister, and me alone in the bush camp across the bay from the tiny
railroad town of Minaki. It was February. The wind was blowing bitterly and
the firewood ran out at the same time as the food. They were gone for days,
drinking in Kenora sixty miles away. When it became apparent that we would
freeze to death without wood, my eldest sister and brother hauled my brother,
Charles, and me across the bay on a sled piled with furs.
They pulled us across that ice in a raging snowstorm. We huddled in the furs
on the leeward side of the railroad depot cold, hungry, and crying. A passing
Ontario provincial policeman found us and took us to the Children’s Aid
Society. I would not see my mother or my extended family again for twentyone
I lived in two foster homes until I was adopted at age nine. I left that home at
age sixteen; I ran for my safety, my security, and my sanity. The seven years I
spent in that adopted home were filled with beatings, mental and emotional
abuse, and a complete dislocation and disassociation from anything
Indian or Ojibwa. I was permitted only the strict Presbyterian ethic of that
household. It was as much an institutional kidnapping as a residential school.
For years after, I lived on the street or in prison. I became a drug user and
an alcoholic. I drifted through unfulfilled relationships. I was haunted by
fears and memories. I carried the residual trauma of my toddler years and
the seven years in my adopted home. This caused me to experience postResponse,
Responsibility, and Renewal | 131
traumatic stress disorder, which severely affected the way I lived my life and
the choices I would make.
The truth of my life is that I am an intergenerational victim of residential
schools. Everything I endured until I found healing was a result of the effects
of those schools. I did not hug my mother until I was twenty-five. I did not
speak my first Ojibwa word or set foot on my traditional territory until I was
twenty-six. I did not know that I had a family, a history, a culture, a source for
spirituality, a cosmology, or a traditional way of living. I had no awareness
that I belonged somewhere. I grew up ashamed of my Native identity and the
fact that I knew nothing about it. I was angry that there was no one to tell me
who I was or where I had come from.
My brother Charles tracked me down with the help of a social worker friend
when I was twenty-five. From there, I returned to the land of my people
as a stranger knowing nothing of their experience or their pain. When I
rejoined my people and learned about Canada’s residential school policy, I
was enraged. Their political and social history impelled me to find work as
a reporter with a Native newspaper. As a writer and a journalist, I spoke to
hundreds of residential school Survivors. The stories they told, coupled with
my family’s complete and utter reticence, told me a great deal about how
my family had suffered. I knew that those schools were responsible for my
displacement, my angst, and my cultural lostness.
For years I carried simmering anger and resentment. The more I learned
about the implementation of that policy and how it affected Aboriginal
people across the country, the more anger I felt. I ascribed all my pain to
residential schools and to those responsible. I blamed churches for my
alcoholism, loneliness, shame, fear, inadequacy, and failures. In my mind I
envisaged a world where I had grown up as a fully functioning Ojibwa, and it
glittered in comparison to the pain-wracked life I had lived.
But when I was in my late forties, I had enough of the anger. I was tired of being
drunk and blaming the residential schools and those responsible. I was tired of
fighting against something that could not be touched, addressed, or confronted.
My life was slipping away on me and I did not want to become an older person
still clinging to a disempowering emotion like the anger I carried.
So one day I decided that I would visit a church. Churches had been the seed
of my anger. I had religion forced on me in my adopted home and it was the
churches that had run the residential schools that shredded the spirit of my
family. If I were to lose my anger, I needed to face the root of it squarely. I was
determined that I would take myself there and sit and listen to the service.
132 | Richard Wagamese
As much as I knew that I would want to walk out and as much as my anger
would direct me to reject it all, I would force myself to sit and listen and try to
find something that I could relate to. I chose a United Church because they
had been the first to issue an apology for their role in the residential school
debacle. They had been the first to publicly state their responsibility for the
hurt that crippled generations. They were the first to show the courage to
address wrongdoing, abuse, forced removal, and shaming. They had been the
first to make tangible motions toward reconciliation. It put them in a more
favourable light with me.
I was uncomfortable at first. No one spoke to me as I took my seat in a pew
near the back. There were no other Native people there and I used that fact
as a denunciation. When the service began, I heard everything through the
tough screen of my rage. Then I noticed the old woman beside me sitting with
her eyes closed as the minister spoke. She looked calm and peaceful, and
there was a glow on her features that I coveted. So I closed my eyes too and
tilted my head back and listened.
I ceased to hear the liturgy that day. I could not hear doctrine, semantics,
proselytizations, or judgment. Instead, with my eyes closed, all I could hear
was the small voice of the minister telling a story about helping a poor, drugaddicted
woman on the street despite his fear and doubt. All I heard was the
voice of compassion. All I heard was a spiritual, very human person talking
about life and confronting its mysteries.
So I went back the next week. I went back and took my seat, and I listened
with my eyes closed. After the scriptural text was read, the minister analyzed
it by placing it in the context of his impatience and the lessons he had learned
in the grocery line and in the freeway traffic. Here was a man responsible for
directing the lives of a congregation talking about facing his own spiritual
shortcomings. There was no self-aggrandization, no inferred superiority.
There was only a man telling us how hard it was to behave like a spiritual
I went back to that church for many weeks. The messages I heard were all
about humanity and about the search for innocence, comfort, and belonging.
I do not know just exactly when my anger and resentment disappeared. I
only know that there came a time when I could see that there was nothing
in the message that was not about healing. I heard about compassion, love,
kindness, trust, courage, truth, and loyalty and an abiding faith that there is a
God, a Creator. There was nothing to be angry about in any of that; in fact, there
was nothing different from what Native spirituality talks about. After I came
home to my people I sought out teachers and healers and ceremonies. I had
Response, Responsibility, and Renewal | 133
committed myself to learning the spiritual principles that allowed our peoples
to sustain, define, and perpetuate themselves through incredible changes. I
had adopted many of those teachings into my daily life, and every ceremony
I attended taught me more and more about the essence of our spiritual lives.
What I heard from that minister those Sunday mornings was not any different
from the root message of humanity in our teachings. With my eyes closed there
was no white, no Indian, no difference at all; the absence of anger happened
quietly without fanfare.
It has been a few years now since I sat in that church. I have not receded back
into the dark seas of resentment, rage, or old hurt. Instead, I have found a
peace with churches and, in turn, with residential schools, with Canada. See,
that church changed my personal politics. Sure, there are genuine reasons
to be angry. The hurt caused by the residential school experience, both of
the Survivors and of those like me who were victimized a generation or more
later, are huge, real, and overwhelming. But healing happens if you want
it bad enough, and that is the trick of it, really. Every spiritually enhancing
experience asks a sacrifice of us and, in this, the price of admission is a keen
desire to be rid of the block of anger.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes its tour of the
country and hears the stories of people who endured the pain of residential
schools, I hope it hears more stories like mine—of people who fought
against the resentment, hatred, and anger and found a sense of peace. Both
the Commission and Canada need to hear stories of healing instead of a
relentless retelling and re-experiencing of pain. They need to hear that, despite
everything, every horror, it is possible to move forward and to learn how to
leave hurt behind. Our neighbours in this country need to hear stories about
our capacity for forgiveness, for self-examination, for compassion, and for our
yearning for peace because they speak to our resiliency as a people. That is how
reconciliation happens.
It is a big word, reconciliation. Quite simply, it means to create harmony.
You create harmony with truth and you build truth out of humility. That is
spiritual. That is truth. That is Indian. Within us, as nations of Aboriginal
people and as individual members of those nations, we have an incredible
capacity for survival, endurance, and forgiveness. In the reconciliation with
ourselves first, we find the ability to create harmony with others, and that is
where it has to start—in the fertile soil of our own hearts, minds, and spirits.
That, too, is Indian.