Q&A with Darrel McLeod for Hamilton Review of Books

Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. After a varied career, including the position of chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, he now devotes himself to writing and music in Sooke, B.C. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018), a memoir, is his first book. It won the 2018 Governor General’s Award in Nonfiction.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail: This book has been described as a series of linked vignettes, and you’ve said they started out as short stories in your course with Betsy Warland at Simon Fraser University. How did you access all those memories?

Darrel McLeod: One of the things I do when I’m writing is I put on music: I put on a song or two from that era, and floods of memories come. The time I spent at my great grandfather’s cabin in the bush. My cousins. My early childhood. That wasn’t difficult at all.

The childhood songs were just there in my memory from listening to them over and over again, and singing them too. Other ones that I didn’t know as well, I’d research. Then one song would lead to all these others. I’d listen to those songs over and over again. It turned on a lot of emotions – so evocative.

To read the full interview, please click here.

Review: Mamaskatch

Mamaskatch was an utterly mesmerizing book told in a series of linked vignettes, like the stories the author grew up hearing from his mother. McLeod is honest about the incredibly complex life experiences he had growing up Cree in Alberta in small towns and big cities. He does not shy away from the difficulties he had in his relationships with family members – especially his mother and siblings – or other people around him, and he is raw and explicit about the abuse he suffered and its aftereffects.

And yet, he never overwhelms the reader, just as his spirit was never overtaken by those times of darkness and pain. He is searching and tender and empathetic, while never absolving anyone of their responsibility. And there is always a sense of humour. Sometimes McLeod delivers these punchlines at the ends of chapters, and they really do hit you with theiry wry poignance.

Author Darrel McLeod has also woven in his love of music and language, and captures accents and ways of speaking in a pitch-perfect way. His scenes are vivid and richly rendered, and his prose is as bracing as a cold Alberta stream. I am so glad I was able to spend time with this brave, optimistic and smart “young Darrel”, and to watch as he overcame life’s struggles with his trademark optimism – yet realism – to become a whole, caring man. I can’t wait to read the follow-up to this book, and anything else McLeod decides to share with the world.

Review: Thou Shalt Do No Murder

Thou Shalt Do No Murder
Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic
Reviewed by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail

Thou Shalt Do No Murder: Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic
by Kenn Harper
Nunavut Arctic College Media, 452 pages, $38.95

In 1923, three Inuit men were put on trial at Pond Inlet, on Baffin island, for the killing of qallunaat (white) trader Robert Janes. This story is not widely known outside the North, but it has fascinated me ever since I discovered Shelagh D. Grant’s book Arctic Justice over a decade ago.

Kenn Harper has been gripped by this history for much longer and has produced a hefty tome entitled Thou Shalt Do No Murder: Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic.

Harper has lived in the Arctic for fifty years, working as a teacher, historian, linguist, and businessman. He speaks Inuktitut and is the author of the bestselling Give Me My Father’s Body (recently republished as Minik: The New York Eskimo and optioned for film).
He first heard of the Pond Inlet trial in the 1970s, shortly after he moved north. It is clear both from the text and from his bibliography that Harper has immersed himself in this history via many hours spent with Inuit elders and much time in archives.
One of those elders, Jimmy Etuk, was alive when the killing and the trial took place. It is Etuk who begins the book in gripping style. His “speech was volcanic,” Harper tells us, as Etuk launches into the tale of Robert Janes’ descent into apparent madness and the circumstances that apparently forced Nuqallaq and two other Inuit men to end his life.

 

To read the full review, as it appeared in the October-November 2018 issue of Canada’s History, please click here.

Review: Victoria’s Most Haunted

Victoria is often semi-jokingly referred to as a city of the newly wed and nearly dead. But as Ian Gibbs shows in Victoria’s Most Haunted, this Canadian coastal city is not just full of students and retirees – but also the not-so-recently departed.

Gibbs, a tour guide for Victoria’s popular Ghostly Walks, reproduces the experience of these nocturnal jaunts into the city in this attractive book from Touchwood Editions. Each section begins with an artful black and white photo of the building (many taken by Ray Shipka), and you get the feeling of pausing before each one, gathering around the site, while your tour guide spins tales of heartbreak, murder, madness, suicide, and accidental death.

Like the ghost tour leaders I’ve listened to in Edinburgh, New Orleans and Vancouver, the author shares his own encounters with the paranormal as well – often with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour and snark. But, he assures his reader, he’s not out to convince you that ghosts exist. If you’re not in the believer camp, there is still plenty of local history here to tempt you (not to mention it’s a terrific tourism brochure, featuring several great-sounding hotels, pubs and chocolate shops. Although there are a few rooms and floors at the Empress I’ll avoid, thank you very much).

There were a couple of sections – “Cathedral Hall” and “The Deanery” – where I would have liked a little more research and background detail to go along with Gibbs’ personal experiences, but the author more than makes up for this in “Bishop’s Chapel” and (my favourite) “The Home on Fort Street.” I also noticed that Gibbs refers to “First Nations” in different tales, and I wanted him to dig further to find out specifically which First Nations group, village or settlement was involved – the same way he found out about the German family who lost a son to drowning, or the Second World War soldier who liked old hymns.

Despite these small missteps, Victoria’s Most Haunted will take you on a thoughtful walk around colleges, jails, brothels, saloons, alleyways and biker bars – and you’ll come away thinking maybe Victoria isn’t so staid and sleepy after all.

 

Full disclosure: my last book was published by Brindle & Glass, part of the Touchwood publishing family, and they provided me with review copies of this book as well as copies to give away to readers of my e-newsletter. All I promised was an honest review of the book in return!

Speaking on Panel about Reconciliation and Public History in Vegas This Month!

I am very pleased to be joining a distinguished panel of public historians, community activators and scholars next month at the annual meeting of the National Council of Public Historians. Our topic, Sharing Power: Reconciling Indigenous-Settler Narratives is near and dear to my heart, as is long-time collaborator and friend Miranda Jimmy, who will be making the trek from Edmonton.

In addition to Miranda and I, there’s the panel convener, Jean-Pierre Morin, and a bunch of other Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks from both sides of the 49th Parallel: Krista McCracken,
Brittani Orona, Morgen Young, James Grant, Patrick Moore, Aaron Roth, and Manuelito Wheeler.

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.