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Deuxième partie. Mémoire(s) et migrations

Métis and first nations autobiographies as a means of healing

Eszter Szenczi

Texte intégral

1Under the Constitutional Act of 1982, Canada’s Aboriginal people fall into three categories: Métis, First Nations, and Inuit. It recognizes the existing Aboriginal rights in Canada which protect the cultures of the Native people. That was a huge step forward and contributed tremendously to the awakening of Canada’s Indigenous population.

2Out of the three groups, the Métis, a people of mixed European and Indian ancestry, represent a distinct people with a unique culture and history. Emerged from two cultures, they have raised the attention of postcolonial theorists focusing on the impacts of the mixture of identity and culture. This hybridity is reflected in a lust for a third space where “unity is not found in the sum of its parts, but emerges from the process of opening a third space within which other elements encounter and transform each other” (Homi Bhabha 1998: 208). It is not a static place but it is changing and evolving over time.

3The tension originating from the Métis’ cultural hybridity led to numerous efforts to reduce Native despair. One strategy that seemed to be effective was “passing” insomuch as pretending to belong to mainstream society brought privileges that would not have been accessible otherwise. However, with skin too dark, “passing” was limited to those born with Caucasian looks. And even them, surrounded by the less fortunate fellows or family, were constantly reminded of their origin.

4Another method of mitigating the tension coming from the Métis descent is writing. Michel Foucault claims that literature speaks of taboo subjects, listens to the words of the “insane,” and explores human desire and sexuality as the most fascinating and unlimited source of taboos and insanity (Katherine Joanne Durnin 2001: 33). The taboo in this case is racism which ‘sees the racially hybrid person as a sign of transgression through the crossing of a race boundary established and policed by social norms and practices” (34). Frederic Jameson calls it the “political unconscious” (36) which needs to be revealed to the public.

5Aboriginal groups had been in great need of literary self-representation as non-Native writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries made it obvious for the reader that the Natives’ only choice lay in following the ways of the White man. As a result, Aboriginal literature seeks to reveal the devastating effects of public policy which has been implemented since the colonization of North America, and the enactment of the infamous Indian Act of 1876. The absence of the representation in history means that the Natives must find their own sense of self through a dialogue with a society still burdened by the colonial past (Durnin 2001: 39).

6Jo-Ann Episkenew, professor at the First Nations University, maintains that although Harold Cardinal was the first Aboriginal person to “write back” in The Unjust Society (1969), it was Maria Campbell who reached both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with her autobiography Halfbreed (2001: 125). In the 1970s –when Halfbreed was penned–Western society was going through a period of social upheaval (Episkenew 2009). Canadians were inundated with stories of racial intolerance in the American South. Young people started to question the reliability of their history taught at Canadian schools which described Indigenous people in the past tense. To colonize the history of the colonial regime, Campbell starts her work with an objective account of Métis historical events culminating with the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. By retelling history from the Métis point of view, she redefines the national collective myth that justifies the settlers’ existence as a new nation (Episkenew 2009).

7Halfbreed is a classic account of a young Native woman’s struggle to survive, to come to terms with the past, and to build a better future. It is a story of self-discovery and an act of self-definition. Campbell needed to understand how her identity had been constructed for her. In her book she realizes that Christianity was a powerful agent of colonization which imposed multiple controls.

8Campbell was thirty-three when she wrote Halfbreed since her personal trauma continued to haunt her. A friend of hers advised her to write Halfbreed as a therapy to organize her thoughts so that she should get control over them (Episkenew 2009). Moreover, she used her work to forward her political agenda, to improve the conditions of the Métis by offering insight into their situation (Heikkilä 2009). Campbell admits that “Through writing Halfbreed I was able to analyze my life and my community, and to analyze the community around me. It was a very difficult process, but it gave me life.” She adds that “I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a halfbreed woman in our country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and the dreams” (Campbell 1973: 2).

9Campbell, like 150,000 of other Aboriginal children of the decade, was forced to attend one of Canada’s infamous residential schools. These schools had been operating since the 19th century as the Canadian government believed it was responsible for educating and caring for the country’s Native population. “It thought their best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Ideally, they would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and Native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations”. Campbell loathed the school in Beauval and recalls: “I remember the last day of school, and the sense of freedom I felt when Dad came for me” (47).

10As Campbell grows up, she “stop [s] being the idealistically shiny-eyed young woman” (184) but her mother’s death turns her life into a nightmare. Campbell’s “account of her early marriage, loss of her siblings, birth of her children, abuse by her husband, her own abuse of drugs, suicidal depression, experience of racism exploded Canada’s naïve notions of being a caring and charitable country” (Emma LaRocque 2010: 91). Although Canada is one of the world’s most secure and prosperous countries, its Indigenous peoples are significantly disadvantaged.

11Just like Campbell, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier belongs to this generation of Métis writers who decided to share their life stories with their readers to reduce their own pain. In Search of April Raintree (1983), written ten years after Halfbreed, is a fictional autobiography which presents the story of two Métis girls’ identity quest. In a letter to Culleton, Campbell writes that Culleton’s novel “is a powerful story because […] it deals with the sickness in our society and our people. It is the kind of writing that will begin the healing of our people, and help the dominant society understand and feel the lives of a people it almost destroyed” (Episkenew 2009: 14).

12April, the narrator of In Search of April Raintree, shares her story of how she attempts to discover ways to fight against the prejudices she experiences on a daily basis. Aboriginal Canadians frequently face racism and prejudice; and labelling people in a negative manner has a lasting detrimental impact on the targets of the prejudice. Stereotypes over-generalise and point to a reference while losing sight of the bigger picture. Using people as symbols with generalisation is dehumanizing and represents a burden for those stereotyped.

13April’s fight against prejudice goes hand in hand with her wish to become white in order to induce a positive stereotype projected on the colonizer. She considers it crucial since Métis were treated even worse than the First Nations as the Euro-Canadians dreaded miscegenation. According to Raquel Scherr Salgado, this fear “is precisely the fear of weakening the distinction between self and other…” (2004: 46).

14The growing Aboriginal diasporas eliced fear and so there were strong attempts to reconstruct purified identities and avoid hybridity in North America. Thus, for some, being a Métis entailed a treatment even worse than what the First Nations endorsed. April complains that “It would be better to be a full-blooded Indian or full-blooded Caucasian. But being a halfbreed, well, there’s just nothing there… what have the Métis people got? Nothing. Being a halfbreed, you feel only the shortcomings of both sides” (1999: 142).

15For April and Cheryl their parents emerge as the first sources of culture as for all children. Owing to the parents’ obsession with alcohol, however, the Raintree children soon land in separate foster homes where their divergent acculturation begins. This Canadian practice of fostering Aboriginal children out into white families marked the “60s Scoop.” Being socialized and acculturated into a Euro-Canadian society, a substantial number of the adoptees faced cultural and identity confusion when starting their adult years. For transracial adoptees, identity issues may have been even more difficult owing to the duality of their reunion experience.

16At the Dions’ April is taught how to be a good White girl, how to pray in French and please her foster parents. But after a few years, April is relocated to the money-grubbing DeRosier home where a totally different approach is taken towards her. April’s description of life there is one that many Indigenous foster children would recognize. In numerous foster homes, a so-called “native girl syndrome” was diagnosed among Native children.

17It starts out with the fighting, the running away, the lies. Next come the accusations that everyone in the world is against you. There are the sullen, uncooperative silences, the feeling sorry for yourselves. And when you go on your own, you get pregnant right away, or you can’t find or keep jobs. So you will start with alcohol and drugs. From there you get into shoplifting and prostitution, and in and out of jail. You’ll live with men who abuse you. And on it goes. You’ll end up like your parents, living off society (Culleton 1999: 62).

18While April cherishes an illusion in her whiteness, Cheryl is stuck in the past. After finding her still alcoholic father, her idealized picture of her heroic people is ruined and she cannot come to terms with reality. Aboriginal stereotypes like being alcoholics may cause self-fulfilling prophecies that can induce intrapersonal expectations. Likewise, Cheryl sinks into a spiral of depression and prostitutes herself. It seems that the native girl syndrome defeats her. Cheryl’s identity is built upon a fragile foundation acquired from books which she read zealously as a child. When reality crushes her as a young woman, her identity crumbles and finally she commits suicide just like her mother did years earlier.

19Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree and Richard Wagamese’s Keeper’n Me can be described as –life writings– that straddle the boundaries of autobiography and fiction. Although Wagamese is of Ojibwa origin, his novels serve the same function as those of Campbell’s and Culleton’s. His experiences resemble the ordeal that caused long-lasting trauma in April: he was removed from his family to be placed in foster care, and several forced dislocations triggered enormous disturbance in him. Garnet, the book’s main character’s foremost desire is to reconnect with his family and to heal from the pain.

20Wagamese provides an insight into an Alberta that is still invisible to most non-Native Albertans. He describes his own struggle and that of those who got “scooped up” during the 1950s, ‘60s. His book is a humorous study in retribalization for Aboriginal people who have been distanced by residential schools, and foster parents (Coates, Melnyk 2009). Wagamese holds up a positive approach though, reciting his friend’s saying in One Story, One Song: “it is our brokenness that leads us to healing. Each of us, in our own way, lives a fractured life. There would be no need for spirituality if this weren’t so” (Wagamese 2011: 171).

21Wagamese started his career as a journalist but articles “do not have the ability to awaken an emotional response from the reader” (Coates, Melnyk 2009: 144), so he turned to the novel as a means to make non-Natives understand the lives of Aboriginal people. The first part of Keeper’n Me recalls his memories about foster care, while the larger part deals with Garnet’s subsequent life and reclamation of his identity.

22Keeper’n Me describes the consequences of the policies that damage both children and parents. When the child welfare authorities remove Garnet from his family, they prevent him from achieving the psychosocial integration necessary for healthy emotional development. In the meantime, his parents’ self-esteem, especially his mother’s is also damaged, causing her endless shame. Generations of Native people grew up without any parental role models as a result of being imprisoned in residential schools; and when they became parents themselves, they had no skills bringing up children. Garnet’s mother is absent when her son returns to White Dog since she is “Scared that you [Garnet] hate her for losing you all those years ago. Scared that you won’t like her when you meet her and that you’ll turn around and disappear again. Scared when she lost you she lost the right to be your mother” (46).

23Wagamese leaves his foster family at a young age and spends several years wandering the country. He describes his life on the streets with booze as a source of false courage: “I was addicted to the esteem of others and I was addicted to the alcohol it took to do the things it took to earn me the esteem. I absolutely needed both” (85). Garnet, like April, comes to understand that Indian identity is a deficit and a source of embarrassment. He says “Growing up in all-white homes, going to all-white schools, playing with all-white kids can get a guy to start thinking and reacting all-white himself after a while” (12).

24To guide Garnet on his healing journey, Wagamese creates him an Elder, Keeper, who also suffered dislocation. He is also seeking healing since he did not avail himself of the teaching offered him in his younger years. He is given a second chance when he helps his mentor’s grandson. As a stranger to reserve life, Garnet has much to learn, and with the help of Keeper and Garnet’s family, he regains his place within his Ojibwa culture.

25Keeper’n Me is only the beginning of undoing the harm of a traumatic history. Wagamese’s stories act as vehicles of cultural transmission by linking one generation to the next. Wagamese does not dwell on dispossession or victimization in his novels but includes the “others” in his story. Like many other Native writers, Wagamese sees people of European descent as the most dispossessed since they were disinherited and brought up to think they are superior to everyone else (Coates, Melnyk 2009). In an interview he said that to find the joy of life was often hard but indispensable for personal healing:

“But I discovered that my trauma isn’t a life sentence and that I can find ways and means and techniques and skills to harness it. […] If I’m talking to my wife and she says something or there’s a tone and it automatically kicks in, somehow I can stop myself and say ‘It’s okay. It’s 4: 30 in the afternoon on Tuesday. It’s 2012, not 1962’” (Liisa Hannus 2012).

26Wagamese’s work is part of a new phase of Aboriginal literature in Canada with less need for resistance. Instead, it focuses on consolidation and healing as a way towards transformation. He maintains that “When you survive something titanic, it makes you stronger. It can make you wise and gentle if you’ve learned the lesson well. In the end, you’re not a survivor any more. You’ve become who you were created to be” (Wagamese 2011: 193).

27In the 1970s, it was Campbell who first addressed both Native and non-Native writers to inform them about what it is like to be a Métis in Canadian society. She showed Aboriginal people that literature can be used as a tool for political change by exposing the racism that exists in Canada (Episkenew 1999). She started writing Halfbreed out of anger and frustration. What she said had rarely been said by Indigenous women in North America. The racism and sexism she went through is something that was experienced by many Aboriginal women. Campbell lifted the cloak of silence from women who found themselves in similar situations. Halfbreed established a new literary trend that encourages Native writers to create realistic images of the Aboriginals peoples (Janice Acoose 1995: 105).

28Ten years later, Culleton employs a different strategy: she exposes the “truth” based not only on her own story but on the stories of other foster children. Her book indicates how Aboriginal literature has transformed from an account of the author’s life to fiction based on many lives. She engaged herself in writing in order to heal Indigenous people and advance social justice in settler society. As she explains, silence leads to isolation and feelings that the Natives are alone with their experiences. But reading literature by other Indigenous people can be a healing tool for both writer and reader. In Search of April Raintree shows future writers that they can work in the medium of fiction to regain culture, and identity.

29Wagamese’s Keeper’n Me takes up the theme of cultural reclamation with which Mosionier leaves her readers (Episkenew 1999). His book is an invaluable source for those who seek to understand the devastating consequences of a patriarchal society. His approach, however, is the most positive out of the three novels. He is consciously looking for healing techniques to understand and finally get over the traumas he experienced. Neither Halfbreed nor In Search of April Raintree offers much hope of healing from the trauma of racism. Mosionier’s April can only sense that she needs to return to her people. Wagamese’s novel moves to the next step: he transforms the novel into a healing narrative. He spends only 20 out of 214 pages dealing with the trauma Garnet experienced (Episkenew 1999).

30All contemporary Canadian Aboriginal literature contains some political agenda. Each book analysed here corrects the inaccurate depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream literature, and seeks peace and remedy in writing. Regarding their themes, the more recent these books are, the less harsh they point to past injustices. Instead of chastising the non-Natives for the Natives’ miseries, these novels consciously search for healing.


Works Cited

Acoose Janice, Iskwewak – Kah’Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princess Nor Easy Squaws, Toronto, Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press, 1995.

Bhabha Homi, “Cultures in between”, in D. Bennett (ed.) Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity, London, Routledge, 1998.

Campbell Maria, Halfbreed, Halifax, Goodread Biographies, 1973.

Coates Donna and Melnyk George, Wild Words: Essays on Alberta Literature, Edmonton, Athabasca University Press, 2009.

Culleton Beatrice, In Search of April Raintree, Winnipeg, Portage & Main Press, 1999.

Durnin Katherine Loanne, Métis Representations in English and Franco-Canadian Literature, Ottawa, National Library of Canada, 2001.

Episkenew Jo-Ann. “Aboriginal policy through literary eyes”, in Inroads, January 1 2001, no 10. Montreal: [].

Episkenew Jo-Ann, Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, Winnipeg, Manitoba UP, 2009.

Episkenew Jo-Ann, “The Effects of Readers’ Responses on the Development of Aboriginal Literature in Canada: A Study of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree, and Richard Wagamese’s Keeper’n Me”, in In Search of April Raintree, Critical Edition, Winnipeg, Portage & Main Press, 1999.

Hannus Liisa, “VBC Views – A Talk with Richard Wagamese”, February 24 2012: [], 18 May 2013.

Heikkilä verna, “Blankets of Shame: Emotional Representation in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed.” in The Electronic Journal of the Department of English at the University of Helsinki, vol. 5, 2009.

Hier Sean P. and Singh Bolaria, Identity and Belonging: Rethinking Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Society, Toronto, Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2006.

LaRoque Emma, “The Métis in English Canadian Literature”, [], 07 May 2013.

Salgado Raquel Scherr, “Misceg-narrations”, in SanSan Kwan, Kenneth Speirs and Naomi Zack (ed.) Mixing It Up, Multiracial Subjects, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2004.

Wagamese Richard, Keeper ‘N Me, Toront, Doubleday Canada, 1994.

Wagamese Richard, One Story, One Song, Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011.

Wagamese Richard, interview: [], 24 February 2013.


Eszter Szenczi est enseignante diplômée d’anglais et de français depuis 2006. En 2008, elle a commencé à enseigner pour une période de sept ans, soutenu une maîtrise en études canadiennes et s’est vu attribuer une bourse de recherches à Toronto. Elle a commencé ses études de doctorat en 2009 et publie depuis des articles sur la littérature canadienne autochtone, enseigne aux étudiants étrangers et participe à des colloques internationaux. En 2012, elle a pris part au voyage d’études « Penser le Canada » complété par des stages à Ottawa. Elle poursuit ses recherches entre Brno, Bolzano et Ottawa et termine à présent son doctorat.

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