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Richard Wagamese, author of "Medicine Walk," with his dog Molly. Photo by Danielle Pope

Writing reconciliation

Aboriginal authors refuse to be confined to a tragic script. Their search for healing is far more expansive.

By Julie McGonegal

At 40 years of age, Richard Wagamese was a broken man. A self-described second-generation survivor of residential schools, Wagamese grew up in a series of foster homes — the perennial outsider in predominantly white schools and communities — before running away to search for belonging on the streets. In middle age, an embittered alcoholic, he found himself on a mission to stare down his demons once and for all. Those demons, to his mind, lived within the walls of the churches that had colluded with the Canadian government to wrest Aboriginal children from their homes.

Spent by sorrow and rage, Wagamese entered a United church and quickly observed that he was the lone Native person in an all-white congregation. But instead of walking out with his resentment vindicated, he stayed and listened. His preconceptions slowly shifted as he heard the minister talk humbly of his human struggles.

As Wagamese recounts in an essay published in Speaking My Truth — an edited collection of insightful reflections on the possibilities of reconciliation after residential school — several weeks of sitting quietly in the pew profoundly transformed his view of Christianity: “I heard about compassion, love, kindness, 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.”

Since that life-changing moment, Wagamese has become an acclaimed author. At the heart of his fiction lies an intractable question: Is healing and forgiveness possible in the midst of ongoing oppression? As Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission wraps up its work, an Aboriginal renaissance is sweeping Canada, with several First Nations and Métis writers asking versions of this same question. For these writers, reconciliation is not a date-stamped, state-led project, nor is it reducible to the legacy of residential schools. Rather, it is a personal search to repair a broken spirit; it is a political search to end racial violence, entrenched poverty and environmental destruction; and it is a cultural search to revitalize traditional languages, political systems and spiritual practices.

Given this broad definition, it is not surprising that the legacy of residential schools isn’t the exclusive or even the predominant focus of much recent Aboriginal writing. In Wagamese’s magnificent new novel, Medicine Walk, the search for reconciliation lies in the visceral struggle of a son to make sense of his father’s abandonment. During a journey into the B.C. wilderness, the father finally reveals the secrets that have long haunted his estranged son. Like the plant he uses as a painkiller, the father’s stories are sweet medicine with remarkable healing properties. “Stories get told one word at a time,” the father reflects — meaning that they are a slow-working salve rather than an immediate cure-all.

Stories are sacred in the Aboriginal world view. Stories teach and transform. In his essay in Speaking My Truth, Wagamese emphasizes their potential to move us beyond “the repetitive narrative of Aboriginal suffering.” In Legacy, the first novel by CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice, a wise auntie says, “We can’t redefine our stories. Our legacies live on much longer than we do. So it’s up to us to make sure sadness and violence don’t define us.” Storytelling provides a way for Indigenous people to rewrite popular narratives that reduce them to victims of a tragic script.

With emotional depth and intelligence, Rice’s novel explores an issue that has made recent headlines: murdered and missing Aboriginal women. The book opens with the violent murder of a young Ojibwa university student. As the impact of her death reverberates throughout her reserve, her siblings’ lives become warped with grief. Battles with addiction and depression cast a shadow over the family for years. It is only when her brothers and sisters reclaim their spiritual and cultural traditions — participating in medicine walks and healing circles that were long treated as taboo — that they embark on the path to healing.

If healing happens in these novels, it is through a return to spiritual practices — the very practices that were historically banned or denigrated by the legislative measures that created residential schools in the first place. Our best hope for reconciliation, from this perspective, lies in revitalizing Indigenous languages and cultures.

Indeed, the rise of the influential Idle No More movement just as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was approaching the end of its mandate suggests that official reconciliation means little to most Aboriginal Canadians if it is not situated within an ongoing struggle for justice and Indigenous rights. As Leanne Simpson asserts in her powerful polemic Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, a myopic focus on residential schools alone — at a time when Indigenous peoples continue to suffer gendered violence, treaty violations and environmental degradation of their lands — risks reinforcing the myth that we live in a post-reconciliation world where historic wrongs have been righted.

The contributors to The Winter We Danced — an anthology that serves as an excellent primer on the Idle No More movement — would agree. If there is an overarching theme that unites the book’s diverse voices, expressed in genres ranging from journalistic reportage and political statements to poetry and creative fiction, it is that cultural resurgence is key to the future of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Reconciliation as regeneration, then: as a set of interventions aimed at letting Indigenous cultures flourish as they did before colonial interference. If settler Canadians were to support such work, they would not only help to restore traditions, languages and cultures destroyed by residential schools, but might also restore the tenets of their own faith. As Chickadee Richard reflects in the anthology, “Settlers need to come back to their original teachings, to their faiths, and find the true meaning of compassion, of humanity, of love, and of kindness.”

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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