Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Jennifer Dance

Posted on: June 4, 2015

JenniferDanceWith family in the Native community, Jennifer Dance has a passion for equality and justice for all people. An avid environmentalist, Dance lives on a small farm in Ontario. Her first novel, Red Wolf, is about the Indian Residential School System and won the Silver Medal from Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards in 2014. I’ll review Red Wolf tomorrow. Save the date: June 5!

ALLISON: Your family moved to Trinidad while you were a teen. How did life in Trinidad change you?

JENNIFER: Moving to Trinidad when I was 16 changed me enormously. Up until then, I’d lived a sheltered life in an all-white community in England. Trinidad, with a population descended mostly from African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, was quite a culture shock. I learned just how badly the British had treated people around the world during the years of colonialism, and the lasting effects of that. At university, I met the man I would marry and, since he was black, that exposed me to racism and discrimination. It gave me a passion for justice and equality. These are topics that I write about.

ALLISON: When and why did you start to write?/ You developed musicals for your local church. What attracted you to this format?

JENNIFER: I started writing when I was in my thirties, plays and musicals at first, not books. That was the way my mind worked! I envisioned the characters coming and going, interacting as if they as they were on stage. But I had to write down what I saw in my mind’s eye and felt in my heart, so that others could act it out. Writing novels was an extension of that. By the way, Red Wolf was originally written as a Disney-style movie along the lines of Lion King. The Requiem was the theme song! I hope that one day, I’ll get a call from Disney!

ALLISON: Red Wolf is about segregation. What has been your experience with discrimination? Why did you become interested in residential schools?

JENNIFER: I met Keith in 1966, the same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. Black Americans had only just won the right to vote! It was a time of unrest and violence. My own parents disowned me. I thought that life in England would be relatively safe compared to the States, but it wasn’t. Keith was attacked by skinheads, white supremacists. He was seriously injured, but recovered and we moved to Canada where we hoped our children could grow up free from racism.

Unfortunately, soon after arriving here, Keith died from complications caused by the earlier head injury. Joanna was three, James was not yet two, and I was five months pregnant. At the time, my children were the only reason I had the will to keep going, but I was overprotective, fearful that I was going to lose them also. So when Joanna got on the school bus for the very first time and went off to Grade One, I was devastated.

Red Wolf was born in my head that very day, the day my heart filled with pain for First Nations mothers who were saying goodbye to their children, not just for one day, but for 10 months! And there was nothing they could do about it, because it was the law for them. Twenty years later, Joanna married a First Nations man and when I shared my Red Wolf draft with his family, they encouraged me to keep writing. Disney had not yet called me… so I decided to write it as a book. And here we are!

ALLISON: Why did you pick the Algonquin wilderness for your setting?

JENNIFER: I love Algonquin Park. It’s still wilderness, and is not that different from how it would have been over a century ago, the era of my story. Wolves still live in Algonquin Park. Wild ones, not like in the zoo. So I could easily imagine Red Wolf and his family living on one side of the ridge and Crooked Ear and his family on the other.

ALLISON: Why do you think young people should read your novel?

JENNIFER: I feel very strongly that young people should know about the Indian Act and residential schools. Until recently this was a hidden part of our history. I wrote Red Wolf hoping that young readers would feel just a little of what these stolen children went through, and say, “That wasn’t fair”. I hope that the story opens up discussion and dialogue so that young readers can glimpse the devastating long-term effects of these schools on survivors and their families. I think this will help us to move forward as a nation.

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