Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘aboriginal literature for young people

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!

On the surface, Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance is a compelling story about an Indian boy and a wolf. On a deeper level, it’s also an unflinching portrayal of the harsh reality of Indian Residential Schools in Canada in the 1800s. Despite some flaws in plot and style, I enjoyed both aspects of Red Wolf.

Although Dance herself is not Status Indian, her daughter is married to one. This gave Dance the initial encouragement to write a story that had been on her heart for over thirty years. As part of writing Red Wolf, Dance worked with individuals within the First Nations to ensure the Anishinaabe language, beliefs, and customs were accurately portrayed. Moreover, she read research and personal stories about residential schools, as well as read accounts scrutinizing the relationship between Indian people and the church and the repercussions endured by former students of residential schools. Finally, from other Aboriginal literature that I’ve read for young people, Dance’s account of Red Wolf’s devastating experiences with residential schools rings true. There is every reason to view Red Wolf has authentic historical fiction.

Dance is also not a stranger to prejudice. While being part of a bi-racial marriage, she and her husband found themselves effected in the areas of housing and careers, and Dance even lost her husband to a racist attack. Her experiences propelled her to want to help right the wrongs of the past. It’s this passion perhaps that results in a sometimes one-sided and preachy tale. For the most part, all the white people are selfish and cruel. The priest acts out of a false belief that civilizing Natives is needed to make them Christian, the teachers admit to being there for the pay only, and an Indian agent accepted his job simply to escape England. All of them use rulers, straps, or even more violent means to achieve their goals. In contrast, Natives are portrayed as being perfect in their care of family, the land, and animals.

Some of the Aboriginal literature which I have read has been more focused. Dance tries to squeeze in an account of Red Wolf from the time he is five to an adult into a mere two hundred pages. At the same time, I appreciate that Dance provides the unique parallel of systematic destruction of wolves. Just like the Aboriginal people, the wolves were viewed as dangerous and savage. Consequently, they were shot, snared, trapped, and poisoned. Not until 2003 were wolves awarded protection. The relationship between Red Wolf and Crooked Ear, the latter being a young pup when the two first meet, is endearing and beautiful. It’s also integral to the plot. Each year, when Red Wolf leaves for residential school, Crooked Ear follows Red Wolf to the forest just opposite it. He also meets up with him every summer when Red Wolf returns home. Like Red Wolf, Crooked Ear is separated from family and find his place with strangers but struggles to remember home. Finally, both have occasion to save each other’s lives.

Some reviewers have voiced the same complaints about Red Wolf as me, as well as criticizing its simplistic style. The latter I actually think will endear reluctant readers to this adventurous tale. No matter what, a significant deciding factor for me in whether to recommend a book is how much I feel moved. And Red Wolf impassioned me. There were much better ways that white man could have negotiated with Indians, taught the English language, and shared the Christian faith. How tragic that we choose to act so savage. Red Wolf also brought to my mind the controversy that exists today regards immigrants and how much they should assimilate. If we ignore the travesty wrought to our Aboriginal people by residential schools, we might find ourselves repeating it in the future with other ethnicities. Let us instead learn from Red Wolf, so that we can have a more honorable future.

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

How would you rate this book?

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.

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers