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Archive for the ‘Central Canada’ Category

Jennifer presenting Red Wolf at INSPIRE!   The Toronto International Book Fair, November 2014

Jennifer presenting Red Wolf at INSPIRE!
The Toronto International Book Fair, November 2014

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  “Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The Commission documents the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience. The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal peoples and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.” In the guest post below, author Jennifer Dance talks about the concept of reconciliation and explains how her first novel, Red Wolf, can be part of the healing process.

Red Wolf and Reconciliation
by Jennifer Dance

Canada is one of the most multicultural and tolerant countries in the world. That’s why millions of immigrants have come here, to escape persecution and live in freedom. It’s why I came in 1979, looking for a place where my bi-racial children could grow up in safety and have equal opportunity regardless of skin colour. So it’s hard to comprehend that while the Canadian government gave immigrants the opportunity for a better life, they behaved so badly toward Aboriginal People.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has just completed the long and painful task of recording the personal experiences of residential school survivors from all over Canada. Justice Murray Sinclair, who chaired this daunting project, concludes that, “the residential school experience is clearly one of the darkest and most troubling chapters in our collective history… leaving in its path the pain and despair felt by thousands of Indigenous people today.”

Justice Murray Sinclair challenges all Canadians to be part of the reconciliation process. “Reconciliation,” he says, “is not an Aboriginal Problem. It is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”

So what is reconciliation? The dictionary definition includes restoring to friendship or harmony/ resolving difficulties. In my mind, it means making things right. But we can’t make things right if we don’t know what’s wrong. So the first step toward reconciliation is learning the truth. Thanks to the voluntary testimony of over 6,750 survivors as well as school staff, we now know the truth. We can no longer ignore or deny that 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and families for one reason alone: they were Aboriginal. We can also no longer deny that the rift between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada today is very real, and is largely due to the residential school system.

History of Residential Schools

History of Residential Schools

During the 140 years in which Aboriginal children were being taught that they were inferior, white children were being taught that they themselves were superior. Ever since settlers arrived here, this colonial mentality has been alive and well in Canadian classrooms. But children are not born racist. Racism and prejudice are learned. The hope of true reconciliation lies with the youth of today, and with their teachers and educators. Just as systemic racism was taught in the old schools, it can be “untaught” in today’s schools. Grade 5/6 teachers in Ontario are now required to teach a unit on residential schools. This is a big step in the right direction.

However most teachers were not taught anything about residential schools or the Indian Act when they were in school, because this shameful part of Canadian history had been silenced. They know little about it. Over the last year many of them have commented that Red Wolf has opened their eyes to this difficult subject, helping them to teach their students. A teacher recently tweeted that her act of reconciliation is to read Red Wolf in her classroom!

Murray Sinclair says this: “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you a path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

For further information on concluding statements from the TRC visit: For The Record.

The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor is one of the more unique multicultural selections I have read. Taylor blends European vampire lore with modern Aboriginal culture to create a deliciously creepy tale.

Many multicultural stories are often set in the past so that authors can educate readers about a culture. When set in the present, multicultural stories instead tend to tackle discrimination. It’s rare then for a multicultural author to explore genre such as Taylor does with The Night Wanderer. The result is an unusual tale, rightfully labelled as a native gothic romance. True to gothic form, The Night Wanderer contains supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events and a curse. The secretive stranger who lodges at the Hunter home, unknown to anyone in the First Nations community, has existed for over three hundred years. One minute Pierre can be speaking to a character, the next minute he has disappeared without a trace. What’s just as mysterious is that he never shows himself in the daylight and makes a great effort to avoid eating and drinking with others.

True to romance form, The Night Wanderer also utilizes overwrought emotion and a female in distress. Tiffany Hunter’s mom has deserted the family, leaving Tiffany rebellious against her dad. Tiffany gets involved with a white boy named Tony, lets her grades slip, shuns her friends, and acts in other irrational ways. As Taylor begins to provide clues to the background of Pierre, my nervousness continued to build. Is he the one killing old-timers and young people? If so, will he kill Tiffany’s grandmother? When Tiffany runs away from home, and is followed by Pierre, what will happen when Pierre catches up to her? While vampire lore and romantic angst might seem like typical teen fare, Taylor blends them together to create a unique moralistic story that, thankfully, does not involve vampires and humans falling in love.

Normally, young adult literature is written in first person and, as such, provides immediate and personal connection to the narrator. At times, I missed this feeling in The Night Wanderer. However, there’s also a valid reason for using such a style. A prime example of the third-person omniscient style in young adult literature occurs in The Body in the Woods, where April Henry successfully intensified the suspense in her crime mystery title by switching seamlessly between various viewpoints. Similarly, by allowing readers to see inside the heads of both the peculiar stranger and the Hunter family, Taylor creates tingles. We know that Pierre has killed even those whom he loved. What is his motive in returning to the village of his childhood? We also know that the Hunter family is just distressed enough to have let down their guard. Will this be a mistake?

Although not set in the past, The Night Wanderer also does educate readers about modern Aboriginal culture by appropriately depicting a conflicted mix of old and new lifestyles. Tiffany’s family lives on Otter Creek Reserve, but she learns about Nazis and Bolsheviks at school. Her mom had been part of a traditional Native dance troupe but, at the same time, her dad drowns his sorrows over his divorce by watching television. Tiffany’s grandmother still speaks mostly Anishinabe but at the same time has a fondness for pickles. In addition, she relies on plant roots to cure illnesses while also shopping at Walmart for shoes. Even though Aboriginal families have been granted status cards for necessities, Tiffany uses it instead to impress her boyfriend with luxuries such as jewelry.  Finally, native mythology is full of mysterious creatures such as wendigoes, but Tiffany and her friends find more relevance to the monsters they battle in video games.

One of the members of the diversity committee to which I belong borrowed The Night Wanderer before me, but then returned it saying that she didn’t like to read scary stuff. While The Night Wanderer did cause goose bumps, I appreciated that my apprehension arose from bump-in-the-night chills rather than bloody and gory descriptions. If you enjoy old-fashioned horror, this coming-of-age novel is worth checking out.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

DrewTaylorBorn in Curve Lake, Ontario, Drew Hayden Taylor is part Ojibwa and part Caucasian. About this mixed background, his biography offers this quote from Taylor: “I plan to start my own nation. Because I am half Ojibway half Caucasian, we will be called the occasions. And of course, since I’m founding the new nation, I will be a special occasion.”

In his career, Taylor has worn many hats. For example, he has performed stand-up comedy at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and served as Artistic Director of Canada’s premiere Native theatre company. Also, in 2004 he was appointed to the Ontario Ministry of Culture Advisory Committee.

As for writing kudos, he has been an award-winning playwright (receiving over 70 productions of his work), documentarian (having worked on over 17 documentaries exploring the Native experience, a journalist/columnist (appearing regularly in several Canadian newspapers and magazines), television scriptwriter (including writing for notable shows such as The Beachcombers, Street Legal and North of 60), short-story writer, and novelist.

Although based in Toronto, Taylor has also traveled to seventeen countries around the world, trying to educate the world about the lives of Canada’s First Nations and spreading the gospel of Native literature. He was even invited to Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in California, where he taught a series of seminars on the depiction of Native characters in fiction, drama and film.

ALLISON: What are your earliest memories?

DREW: Half remembered memories of playing inside a lilac bush out in front of my old house. Watching my uncle or mother put wood in a stove. Lying down on the grass with my dog and watching the rain fall directly onto my face.

ALLISON: You are half Ojibway and half Caucasian. How does this give you a unique perspective?

DREW: It gives me a special ability to deal with topics like identity. A lot of my work deals with that topic, from many of my plays i.e. IN A WORLD CREATED BY A DRUNKEN GOD, THE BOY IN THE TREEHOUSE, TORONTO AT DREAMER’S ROCK, THE SOMEDAY TRILOGY, alterNATIVES, and many more. I find myself always investigating what being Native means….. Same with many of my essays like PRETTY LIKE A WHITE BOY which was the corner stone of my four part series of creative non-fiction books, FUNNY, YOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ONE.

ALLISON: Why did you write about a Ojibway vampire?

DREW: For a number of reasons, I wanted to culturally appropriate a European legend and indigenize it. Also, may successful writers harbour a secret wish to write genre. Tom King has a murder mystery series he writes. And at the time, vampire tales were quite popular. It could be more basic than that…. I wanted to do something new and to the best of my knowledge, untried before. A new genre…. aboriginal gothic.

ALLISON: What inspires you to spread the “gospel of Native literature”?

DREW: I think part of our responsibility as writers, and more importantly Native writers, is to tell the world about our stories – what we write and why we write it. I am just one warrior in the battle for literary recognition. We all must let the world know about all the great things we have written and will write. Also, when you are on tour, you sometimes get tired of just talking about yourself and your work, and want to include the writing other people are contributing to the cause.

ALLISON: What is your proudest moment?

DREW: Tough question. I don’t know if I have one yet. It could have been when I was nominated twice for the Governor General’s award, or when my first book came out or when my mother said she was proud of me.

In 2007, Annick Press published Taylor’s first novel, The Night Wanderer. I’ll review The Night Wanderer tomorrow. Save the date: June 12!

“I would tell the children not to be afraid, to follow their dreams. I would tell them to never give up hope. Get up, pick up your books, and go to school (just not in portables).” These passionate words were spoken by Shannen Koostachin, a fourteen-year-old activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario. Janet Wilson so compellingly recounts Shannen’s story in Shannen and the Dream for a School that not only do I develop a tremendous appreciation for Shannen, but I also become a believer in her dream for safe and comfortable schools for all First Nations young people.

What if your school had closed because of a fuel spill that had happened twenty years ago? What if you and the young people in your community had only portables in which to attend school? What if after waiting eight years for a new school, the government cancels its plans? If you were eighth-grader, Shannen Koostachin, you would protest. You’d organize all your schoolmates and then picket with signs, write letters, create videos for YouTube, and speak at rallies. Wilson movingly portrays how Shannen becomes an activist. One of the most moving moments happens, when Shannen and her eighth-grade class decide that instead of celebrating their graduation by partying at Niagara Falls and Toronto, they would visit Ottawa and talk directly to the minister of Indian Affairs.

While I felt moved by reading of Shannen’s activism, I also enjoyed discovering how much Shannen felt like a normal teen too. Shannen came from a full family, one where she loved to chase her younger siblings. While she loved the traditional Cree foods her great-grandmother made, she also found it boring to pluck the feathers of the geese the men killed and thought following recipes would be an easier way to prepare bannock. Shannen had lots of friends, ones with whom she could talk campaign strategies but also get excited about graduation travel plans. Maybe for graduation, the eighth-grade class could visit Canada’s Wonderland or the Nightmare Fear Factor or….? She cared about whether her favorite teacher would leave or stay, whether the graduating class would have time to shop or attend a boring camp, and whether she could have a regalia of her own or have to share.

Perhaps what most endeared me to Shannen was reading of all the obstacles she had to endure in her fight for a school. Imagine convincing your peers to give up their graduation plans to travel to Ottawa, only to have the Minister of Indian Affairs tell you that it might be another fifteen years before building you a new school becomes priority. Moreover, imagine that when you ask the Minister to visit your community to see the reality of your situation, he declares his schedule is too busy and then abruptly says he has another meeting to attend. These setbacks were understandably enough to make Shannen cry. When later, the old school got demolished and people started complaining of headaches and students start falling sleep at their seats, Shannen felt her hope slipping away. I don’t think that I could have kept up the good fight as long as her, much less somehow renew my strength. That Shannen never gave up makes her an inspiration and role model to young people and adults.

A librarian friend of mine likes to regularly post on Facebook about mighty females. Shannen Koostachin is a young person whom I plan to tell her about. Thanks to Shannen’s never-ending fight, the rest of Canada learned of the plight of First Nations schools, which receive less funding per student than Provincial and Territorial schools, and zero dollars for things like libraries, computers, languages or extracurricular activities. Moreover, many of their schools are plagued by serious health concerns such as extreme black mold contamination, high carbon dioxide levels, rodent and reptile infestations, sewage fumes in schools, and unheated portables.

Besides Shannen and the Dream for a School being a powerful story, there are also many extra features which round out the book, including historical notes, timeline, a glossary of Cree words, photo credits, and acknowledgments. In her research for this story, Wright also interviewed family and friends of Shannen. Shannen and the Dream for a School is a book anyone with a heart should read.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

JanetWilsonJanet Wilson is an author and fine artist who is continually inspired by stories of young people making a difference in their world. Her book Shannen and the Dream for a School was the winner of the First Nations Communities Read program for 2012-13. She has written two other books about how young people are changing the world and making a difference. In addition, Wilson has also written and illustrated many picture books. I’ll review Shannen and the Dream for a School tomorrow. Save the date: June 10!

ALLISON: Why do you believe that creative expression is important for young people?

JANET: I believe babies are born naturally creative, but as children get older, some become inhibited and self-conscious about their abilities. Too much emphasis and judgement is place on the end result of a creative endeavor rather than the positive benefits of the act of self-expression. It’s sad that we deny ourselves the creative impulse because we might lack ‘talent’. I believe it is unhealthy in the long term. I think we are much happier if we sing, dance, write, and draw.

According to her biography, Wilson had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. When most of her friends were going to university and getting jobs, Wilson was raising her kids. Both her boys were amazing little artists and drew in their sketchbooks all the time. Watching them also inspired her to go to Art College. Wilson didn’t know what kind of artist she wanted to be until she got her first job illustrating a story book. Over the twenty years since that time, Wilson learned what she wanted to do–to tell the world how amazing kids are!

ALLISON: What drew you drew to the field of writing?

JANET: As an illustrator, I tell stories in pictures, so it was a natural progression to want to add words. When I came across Shannen’s important story, I felt compelled to leap into writing.

ALLISON: How do you balance two creative pursuits?

JANET: After spending several hours sitting in front of a computer screen, I welcome the chance to switch disciplines and stand in front of a painting on my easel. This is what inspired me to become a Daily Painter of small landscapes and still life.

Wilson and her husband live in the village of Eden Mills. The village, a tight-knit community of many artists and writers, is located twenty minutes northwest of Milton, Ontario. It’s also a community with a strong environmental focus that includes an initiative to be the first village in North America to go carbon neutral. (www.goingcarbonneutral.ca) Her home and studio are located beside the Eramosa River, a pleasant setting for summertime barbecues with her husband. Besides illustrating and writing, Wilson enjoys giving talks to schools.

ALLISON: What do you like most about Ontario?

JANET: I was born and raised in Ontario and have never lived anywhere else. My family has a cottage in Muskoka, a place that National Geographic named one of the most beautiful regions of the world. I appreciate my great fortune to be born in Canada.

ALLISON: What themes do you most like to explore?

JANET:My last six books have been telling true stories of young activists from around the world. The themes are mainly about justice issues—social, indigenous, economic, intergenerational, and environmental. I believe children have an important role to play in influencing adults and reminding them about what is really important—fairness, compassion, kindness, and responsibility.

In her biography, Wilson credits Gandhi’s belief that “To reach peace we must begin with the children” with inspiring her to begin both writing and illustrating a series of books about the power of one to motivate and empower readers to make a positive difference. One Peace: True Stories of Young Activists was followed by; Our Earth: How Kids Are Saving the Planet and she’s working on the third about the rights of the child. These books combine her passions for portraiture and for non-fiction that is “inspiring, inter-generational, culturally inclusive, and international in scope, addressing important global issues of non-violence, environment, and social justice”.

ALLISON: How did you encounter the story for Shannen and the Dream for a School?

JANET:I learn about many child activists from the International Children’s Peace Prize. Shannen had been nominated for her actions to get the Canadian Government to build a much-needed school in Attawapiskat First Nation. It was the first time I had come across a story where a child’s rights were violated in my own country.

ALLISON: What kind of research was involved?

JANET: My first step was to meet Shannen’s family to receive their blessing to proceed. I traveled to Ottawa to meet with politicians and Aboriginal rights activists, and then to Attawapiskat to speak directly to Shannen’s friends, relatives, and teachers. I was able to get transcripts of House of Commons exchanges and many newspaper articles. The rest came from Shannen and her sister Serena’s many speeches on YouTube. I taped all the personal and phone interviews.

ALLISON: How long did it take to write Shannen and the Dream for a School? What was your writing process?

JANET: I wrote this book quickly because I felt an urgency to tell this story of Aboriginal injustice in a timely manner. The publication coincided with the introduction of Shannen’s Dream in Parliament, an initiative for equality in education funding for all First Nation children. After I established an accurate timeline, I wrote a draft including dialogue, which was mostly taken from my many interviews. I invented very little and only where absolutely necessary. Shannen’s family read the final draft and gave their approval.

ALLISON: Many young people dislike school. What has been student reaction to this book?

JANET: I’m most proud of the reaction by First Nations young people who have found a positive and inspiring role model to admire as a hero. Non-aboriginal children are outraged by the injustice and unfairness of our government’s treatment of students on remote northern reserves. I hope that kids who claim to not like school can feel empathy for others who understand the importance of having a good school with proper resources and are willing to fight to get the education they deserve.

ALLISON: You write about kids who make a difference. Besides Shannen, whose story most stands out to you?

JANET: I could write a book about every kid I’ve written about! I’m most impressed with children who come from very difficult circumstances in poor countries without the advantages of education, and yet they find the courage and strength to stand up and speak out against injustice, and they show kindness and compassion to help others. Another book in the creative nonfiction Kid Power series is Severn and the Day She Silenced the World, about Severn Cullis-Sukuki’s powerful speech asking world leaders to stop wrecking the planet for future generations.

To find out more about Shannen Koostachin, youth education advocate from the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, check out the below links:


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