Houston Talk: “Writing Stories of Humiliation and Hope”

If you live in and around Houston, I invite you to come to this free talk through The Final Twist Writers Society on Saturday, January 7, 2017!

“Writing Stories of Humiliation and Hope”

January 3, 2017 is Humiliation Day and is observed worldwide on the same day each year. Humiliation Day is thought to be originated from a reaction by the Chinese immigrants to the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada in 1923. Humiliation can be at any level — individual, a class of people, a race, a nation, etc. And its best remedy is reconciliation.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, the editor of In This Together— Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation (Brindle &Glass), will talk about her professional experience. In this engaging presentation, she will discuss her interest in social justice and how things like Humiliation Day have prodded her to look deeper into Canada’s history through picture books, novels, nonfiction publications, radio, and short films.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail specializes in telling hidden stories. A historian by training, she is the author of For the Love of Flying (Robin Brass Studio), Polar Winds (Dundurn), and the forthcoming Alis the Aviator (Tundra Books).

She is the former Writer in Residence at Berton House in the Yukon, and the Historian Laureate of Edmonton (Canada). When Danielle is not spending quality time with her four-year-old son and traveling, she is working on a WW2-era novel, Sky Girl, and a creative nonfiction project based on her popular http://www.ghostofcamsell.ca serial blog

 

They meet at the Spring Branch Memorial Library in the room off the front entryway, to the right of the restrooms.

10:00 – 10:30 am (Networking)
10:30 – 11:00 am (Chapter Business)
11:00 am to 12:00 pm (Guest Speaker or Round Table)

One young reader’s thoughts on In This Together

I read In This Together, and wow. There were stories in there that I connected with emotionally, stories in there where I could relate to what the author was saying, and stories that made me question myself. All the stories made me think. Thank you for this book. I honestly believe that it needs to be read by all High School and University students.

Also, thank you for including the contact information for the contributors to the book. I’m in the process of contacting them just to thank them, and for a few, to ask questions. ~Salman Ahmed, college student in Edmonton, Alberta

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Liz Muir launches new books about Canadian aviation for kids this month!

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The Charles Camsell Indian Hospital: From Haunting to Understanding

I was walking around my new neighbourhood here in Houston, Texas, and all the pumpkins, witches and ghosts decorating homes got me thinking about the Charles Camsell Hospital and how far we’ve come.

In 2014, when I first started researching the Camsell in earnest, most news stories and internet hits talked about its status as a haunted building. There were “Top 10 Edmonton Haunted Sites” lists and shivery stories about breaking in after dark. But, as I’ve been learning, urban legends keep knowledge shallow. They keep us from looking into the complex nature of places and experiences, and the roles we play in them.

To read the full post on my Ghosts of Camsell site, please go to http://wp.me/p5S7BR-5n

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A Celebration and Transformation

p1040234When I decided to throw a party to launch my new book in the US, I wondered the best way to do it. While traditional book launches are lovely, this book has been all about creating community, having tricky discussions, and seeing each other through new eyes. I wanted my young son to be able to enjoy the party. I wanted my new friends here in the Houston area to gather, bring their families, and meet each other.

p1040255So I threw a ‘book birthday party’ that Namita Asthana at Off the Vine Bistro generously offered to host. About thirty of us got together to drink her delicious pumpkin-spice punch, eat her home-made French macarons, and chat while the kids drew on poster board with crayons and glitter paint what it looks like to work together and to listen. My new friend, Catherine, of Sienna Plantation Face Painting, brought her kit and her creativity to show us how we can all make small steps to transform ourselves.

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The kids are already ahead of us on this. The ones who came were mostly in the four to six year old range, and have pretty good ideas about what’s fair and what’s not in the world. But they’re still elastic enough in their thinking to adopt new ways of doing things if the old ones aren’t working. They’re able to ask tough questions because they really want to know – they’re just so curious. They don’t realize adults might find the questions awkward or embarrassing (albeit necessary). They know they can expand their experiences by pretending to be a rainbow leopard or Spiderman, or anyone or anything else.

Wouldn’t it be great if we adults were that playful and open? Willing to walk in the shoes of someone else?

p1040269That’s the heart of this book. To see through someone else’s eyes, walk in their shoes, and imagine what life might be like if you were born in a different time, place and body.

 

p1040246Thanks to everyone who came from the Houston Writer’s Guild and the local chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. And thanks to my amazing husband and son who have supported me in this work and celebrated along side of me.

If you live in the Houston area and would like to buy a copy of the book, please contact Brazos Bookstore or your local Barnes & Noble. Hopefully they’ll have some in stock soon, or can easily order them in. And, of course, you can get them through your favourite online retailer. You can also request that your local library bring in a copy. All you’ll need is the basic book information found by clicking here.

p1040268And if you belong to a book club, church group, school or conversation circle and you’d like to buy copies for your members and have me come and speak, please get in touch through this website. I’ll help you figure out how we can make that happen!

 

 

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Time To Celebrate – and Work – Together Stateside!

12322475_895983110470947_683162362249974662_oI am beyond thrilled with how much In This Together has connected with readers, teachers, reconciliation advocates, and politicians in Canada. Since it launched in April, it has become a regional as well as National Post bestseller and has gone to a second printing. And every week I hear from someone by email, on Twitter, on Facebook and beyond about how one – or more – of the stories really spoke to their experiences or blew their mind (in a good way).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is obviously a Canadian entity. The journey and relationships this book speaks to are largely Canadian, as are the voices. But at least one of the authors talks about her European heritage, her work in New Zealand, and minority Indigenous language issues. Another author lives and works in New York City. Yet another speaks about his cross-border travels to Indigenous gatherings and protests, showing how the Medicine Line (49th parallel) is really just a geo-political construct.

So I am ready to launch In This Together in the US, where I now live, and I hope it connects with people here too. Not just around our often shared histories of colonization, residential schools, good intentions, and broken treaty promises. But around our struggles today to deal with systemic racism and discrimination. Because that’s what is at the heart of this collection, these fifteen personal stories and ‘aha moments’. And here in the US, where we’re faced almost daily with an innocent black man being killed by police, or by police (of many different ethnicities) being targeted in retribution, we need these kinds of stories. We need to look deep into our histories, systems, and own hearts to see how we can move forward with empathy and understanding. How we really are all in this together.

If you’re in the Houston area, I hope you’ll come out to our book birthday party on Saturday, October 15 from 3-5pm at Off the Vine Bistro (2685 Dulles Avenue in Missouri City) to have some punch, snacks (including Indigenous-East Indian fusion bannock), and fun with other folks. We are also lucky to have artist Catherine Gauche Visagie doing exquisite face painting for all ages with the theme of “seeing with new eyes”. Please RSVP directly with me through this site or through my Facebook event page.

If you’re an author, academic or activist elsewhere and you’d like to set up a panel discussion, please get in touch through the contact page. If you’re a book club, church group, nonprofit or school, please ask me how you can get books in bulk at a discount – I would love to come and chat with your group either in person or via Skype!

Off 6 coffee house series ready to kick off!

180sWhen I moved to the Houston area a few months ago, I was a little in shock. But recently a good friend told me a great saying: “Bloom where you’re planted.” So that’s what I’m doing.

In the different towns and suburbs I’ve lived in across North America, one thing has always helped me feel rooted in the local community: coffee houses and open mic series. It’s a great way to connect with other artistic folks of all stripes, and share our love of words and music and self-expression. So when I looked around my area and didn’t find anything like it, I decided to set one up.

Now, in partnership with the lovely Namita Asthana of Off the Vine Bistro, our monthly series Off 6 will start up on Tuesday, September 13 @ 7pm. I’m lining up some local professionals to come in as headliners, putting together door prizes for open mic participants, and Namita is hard at work figuring out some delicious specials that evening (did I mention there will be student and senior discounts?). So please bring your poetry, prose, songs, spoken word and join us – or just your clapping hands. Because every artist needs an audience!

For more info, please check out the Off 6 online home here. Or contact me through this website. Hope to see you soon!

 

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Review of Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea is a poignant book I devoured in two sittings. I thought the multiple viewpoints and tiny (2-3 page chapters) would bother me, but instead author Ruta Sepetys handled them masterfully and it kept the pace moving at a clip. It is a tough read emotionally because of the subject matter and the desperate situation of the civilians caught up in WW2, but that historic setting is one of the things that makes it such an important book, of course. We in North America don’t hear enough about the experiences of Eastern Europeans during this period – especially those outside of urban centres – and even as a historian I had never heard of the sinking of the Gustloff, one of the greatest maritime disasters.
I felt my breath catch in my throat a few times, either because of the beauty of the spare writing or the heartbreak the characters endured. I hope everyone will read this. It is powerful example of how everyday people – children, teenagers – get caught up in world events and can become refugees in their quest for survival. But that we can be resilient and find beauty, friendship and love along the way.

How Contrarians Read a Book on Reconciliation: Jonathan Kay and In This Together

12322475_895983110470947_683162362249974662_oDisclaimer: What follows are my own ideas and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher (Brindle & Glass) and contributors. Also, I recognize the weirdness of two settlers discussing some of these ideas back and forth. But as some of my colleagues have told me, “we’re sick and tired of explaining this crap. You settlers need to teach each other some of this.’ Or, as Lee Maracle said on a panel recently to the largely non-Indigenous audience: “You do the work.”

 

Last week, a sharp-eyed contributor to the anthology, In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation, forwarded me a link. Apparently, Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief at The Walrus had published a quasi-review of In This Together called “How First Nations Became a Prop for White Activists.”

The headline was the first clue the ‘review’ might be a little controversial. Then, once I opened the link I saw Kay’s piece was actually in the Argument section of the magazine, not in the Book section. He’d used it as a launching pad for an opinion piece. “Walrusgate” had begun.

The Internet seems to agree that Kay was brought in to lead The Walrus in 2014 to stir things up. I’ve never been a fan of pundits and even Calgary’s Tom Flanagan said on CBC last year that he regretted his inflammatory style of debate – not only around the misconstrued child pornography comments that triggered his downfall, but around issues concerning Indigenous people and colonialism in Canada. But to each his own, I guess. I know lots of “natural contrarians”, and while they tend to be a little exhausting, they do force me to analyze my positions and communicate them in new ways.

Kay and I would probably butt heads a lot, but I think we’d share some common ground based on what I’ve read of his book, Among the Truthers, and our general skeptical approach to life. In many ways he sounds like a more extreme version of my engineer-atheist-rationalist husband. And we manage to have good discussions and stay married.

In fact, there are quite a few parts of Kay’s opinion piece I agreed with:

  1. In This Together is a poignant and well-intentioned book, and one that deserves to be bought and read.”
  2. “The path toward reconciliation doesn’t always run through Ottawa or Rome. Reconciliation also can take place at the level of friends, family members and neighbours.”
  3. “The need for reconciliation is very real. No humane or reasonable person would deny this.”

 

And I believe that Kay is in favour of reconciliation and already on his way down that path since he capitalized ‘Indigenous’ throughout his piece, which advocates of indigenizing writing and publishing like Greg Younging have pushed for. [this seems a major shift from his 2007 piece “Off the reservation”.]

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I’m happy Kay engaged with the book. That in itself shows it was successful. After all, one of our main missions was to get people reading and thinking about reconciliation outside the ivory tower, especially among non-Indigenous people who don’t consider themselves ‘allies’.

He also apparently read quite a lot of it, despite the obvious time pressures of the 21st century – although I think he skipped over a few parts. While Kay has highlighted some areas I think are important for the dialogue around reconciliation, I have to disagree with him that he’s looked at the collection as a whole. In the pundit tradition, it seems he dipped into the collection and selected only those bits that fit his argument.

He’s right that “well meaning” or “nice Canadians” who have just become aware of the Indian Residential School system and the country’s colonial past and present, tend to start with settler fragility and then move on to “settler guilt” (sometimes known as white liberal guilt) quite quickly. As scholars of colonialism and reconciliation show, both are pretty self-serving. Both are also very human initial reactions to news that disrupts the narratives you’ve been carrying around your entire life.

Writers and people in Canada’s dominant ‘cultural class’ (as we might call them), generally pride themselves on empathy. I’m not suggesting that reconciliation is a linear journey, but like that old Stages of Grief model, for many there is a predictable chugging from fragility to guilt and then toward (hopefully) a constructive decolonization of our lives.

Unlike Kay, I don’t think there’s a monolithic intellectual class in our country. It’s true that some settler activists (don’t even get me started on the white-Indigenous binary that Kay perpetuates) are recovering Marxists with a case of ‘romantic primitivism’ and they should be schooled in decolonization right alongside the rest of us. But I don’t think readers will find many within the pages of In This Together.

The Indigenous intellectual, political and business classes I’ve become familiar with over the past few years, for example, don’t necessarily follow in the communist footsteps Kay describes. Those that spoke at the Walrus Talks Aboriginal City event in Edmonton last year such as Jessica Bolduc, Douglas Cardinal, Roberta Jamieson and Patti LaBoucane Benson are, from what I can tell, coming out of activism firmly rooted in Indigenous cultures and traditions. Overlaying Marxism is a colonial act in and of itself. And, besides, I don’t know anyone in the History and other departments I frequented engaging with Marxism much anymore anyway. A decade ago (and it may be changing in the academy now, but it’s hard to know because so little of that work trickles out into the mainstream) it’s all Michel Foucault and Edward Said and combining anti-racist, intersectional feminist theories. In the activism I’ve seen, I hear more about social media strategies than Marx.

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Another place where Kay and I agree is that any stereotypes created by non-Indigenous people are dangerous. As Daniel Francis showed in his book The Imaginary Indian back in 1992, settlers have often used their images of Indigenous folks for their own political and entertainment ends. Some well-meaning environmentalists, as Kay notes, have jumped on the ‘Ecological Indian’ bandwagon, totally ignoring (or dismissing) those who advocate for development of resources (even if it’s within a self-governing and sustainable framework) or hunting of certain species (say, whales or seals). It is just as colonial and paternalistic to do this, of course. And that’s exactly what I said to a group of youth at a Greenpeace conference earlier this year after my Cree co-panelist Miranda Jimmy (co-founder of Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton), told them to beware cultural appropriation and “sticking a feather” in things.

You also won’t hear me propping up one religion over another, although as a confirmed agnostic I do see the appeal of Indigenous spiritualities for disaffected Christians, just as I see how Buddhism and Jainism have attracted adherents from Western societies. Nevertheless, a close reading of all the pieces in the collection shows a remarkable balance. In fact, one of the examples Kay draws on for his argument around animism, Antoine Mountain’s essay, talks about the latter’s involvement in the Indian Ecumenical Conferences. My reading of this piece – where he refers to ‘God’ (not the Creator) – is of religious syncretism. Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair, also speaks of his appreciation for Christianity in his frank conversation with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers where he reveals he actually planned on becoming a Catholic priest up until he went to university, and that he still draws on different spiritual traditions to find the direction and uplift he needs.

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Perhaps this point just illustrates how different people read differently. I see Indigenous writer Carleigh Baker talking about the Vittrekwas on the Peel River in the Yukon not as “preternaturally wise and selfless environmentalists” but as a family with deep roots in the area who put up with the “under-prepared dumbasses” (her words) of Baker’s crew.

I read Steven Cooper as saying in his essay that Indigenous peoples had whole, functional families and communities – who yes, had “harsh times”, as he says, and feuds and wars and all that fun stuff. But there was a wholeness and sense of order that was hugely, and intentionally disrupted by colonization, especially the Residential School System.

And, if the pendulum has swung toward appreciation after decades of government-legislated denigration of Indigenous life ways (see: banning of potlatch, Thirst Dance, Pass System), that might be a needed correction in the short term. Think of it as affirmative action for Indigeneity. For many Canadians within the dominant culture, they are awakening to all the fantastic learning and relationships that can happen by being open to Indigenous cultures, so understandably they’re excited. Even so, no one in this anthology is saying that whitewashing the past is a good thing. Zacharias Kunuk, the Igloolik-based filmmaker talks in his essay, “The Perfect Tool,” about a documentary project he worked on called Inuit Cree Reconciliation about the 1770 coming together of the traditional enemies in this “old-time Indian war story.” [Interestingly enough, Kay quotes another part of this page for a different argument. Did he just miss this?]

Kay also argues that settler Canadians don’t know about the violence pre-contact because Indigenous folks have “oral cultures, so there are few written sources to document the true fabric of ancient life.” First off, oral histories together with cultural artifacts such as buffalo hides, actually detail warfare, epidemics and community stories – the good, the bad and the ugly. If you talk to a Cree person in Treaty 6 territory, they might have some stories for you about the Blackfoot in Treaty 8 – and vice versa. And the edgy banter between the Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in comes from many generations of rivalries or outright warfare.

While I’m sure this wasn’t Kay’s intention, he’s really insulting oral histories here, and showed that widespread ignorance – even among some of Canada’s smartest folks – persists despite the decades since Delgamuukw and Victor Buffalo and all those other major court decisions. I’d really hoped it wasn’t just Indigenous peoples, Traditional Knowledge experts, historians and anthropologists who now agreed that oral histories have durable content and weight. Guess we all still have some work to do.

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Finally, on to the “Magical-seeming Aboriginals.” This can also be a damaging stereotype out there in the wide world, but I haven’t met too many of these mythical beings in the pages of In This Together. What I have met are foul-mouthed realists; determined activists; vulnerable folks stripped of half their identity before they were born; former addicts who are making amends; Survivors and intergenerational survivors; and yes, a few truly inspirational people. I’ve never met Carol at The Painted Pony in Kamloops, BC, for example, but Katherin Edwards assures me she actually is “an angel”.

I’ve had the distinct honour of spending time with Elders in various territories the past few years and, like Elders in many traditions who are steeped in culture, tradition and spirituality, they do exude the kind of wisdom and peace – and winking dry humour – you find in someone like the Dalai Lama. I think of the way my grandmother used to speak of Pope Jean Paul II, or my secular parents’ generation talks of John Lennon and John F. Kennedy. Those people exist in the world, and sometimes they get talked about in books.

And sometimes those Elders I’ve met do seem magical because of their capacity for love, forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of all they and their peoples have faced through the Indian Residential School System and other colonial laws and policies. But then again, like the authors of this collection, I am looking for some magic in this life. We may think critically about the world around us but as writers and storytellers we use imagery and metaphor to delve into meaning and wrestle with our personal demons on the page.

I think any Canadian trying to parse their place in reconciliation – whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous – is probably going through something similar. We wanted to put this anthology out there to make that process transparent. To show people it was okay to be unsure, awkward, and stumbling.  Essays on any topic – but especially reconciliation – often take place in the middle of someone’s thought process. As one of the contributors noted, the collection is perhaps imperfect, but it’s like a snapshot of the conversations happening today.

Like Kay, I am wearing the editor hat as I write this. We both bring together a variety of perspectives in order to stimulate readers to, hopefully, think more deeply. He has his own perspective, which he expressed in his opinion piece. I hope readers will look at the entire collection from cover to cover and come to their own conclusions. And I hope they will, like Kay – keep the conversation going.

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Oh, and one last thing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 Calls to Action, not recommendations. And I think there’s a big difference.

 

Happy National Aboriginal Day!

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Reconciliation Talk at Indigenous Arts Festival @ Fort York in Toronto

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© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.