Mar 13, 2017
By James Oloo
On February 9, 2017, the Saskatchewan Book Awards announced its 2017 shortlist. The Award recognizes Saskatchewan authors and publishers. This year’s winners will be announced at a ceremony on April 29 in Regina. On the shortlist were The Red Files by Lisa Bird-Wilson, the Director of Gabriel Dumont Institute Training and Employment, and Road Allowance Kitten (written by Wilfred Burton, illustrated by Christina Johns, translated by Norman Fleury, and published by Gabriel Dumont Institute Press). The two books were shortlisted for the Rasmussen, Rasmussen & Charowsky Indigenous Peoples’ Writing Award.
The Red Files was also shortlisted for Poetry Award, while Gabriel Dumont Institute Press was shortlisted for Award for Publishing in Education.
One thing sticks out as you read The Red Files. Though the poems cover a variety of topics, there is a common thread, perhaps a sash, which weaves cross its pages. It touches on the oft criticized Canada’s policies and practices towards Indigenous children. Lisa’s poems are well written and deep, often touching on the painful past – residential schools, violence, and broken promises by successive governments – and their fruits that are manifested today. The Red Files is also about an enduring hope. Across the book, the raw history of Canada’s past (and present) realities is etched upon the reader.
Lisa starts her poetry collection with photos of residential schools. The photos seem to speak louder, they are poems unto themselves. Words and images are juxtaposed to create a powerful prose. Consider the first poem, Mourning Day, which features an image of girls’ braids cut off at a residential school. The braids “cry like useless ropes on the floor.”
Lisa writes of Miss Atwater’s Class in which students are “never smiling, never/ frowning, unreadable” (a big contrast to what Gabriel Dumont Institute’s Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program is about).
There is also another theme, that of government officials making light, even attempting to erase, the painful and unfair history. The author uses imagery in the form of a letter to a superintendent of schools with complaints about the residential schools. Two points stand out. One, the names of ‘accused’ (white) teachers are blacked out; and two, the superintendent makes a claim that “as you know/ Indians are very poor witnesses”. The Red Files concludes on a very hopeful note. It is well-written, emotional, and at times quite raw.
While The Red Files calls out policies that have led to the fragmentation of Indigenous families with negative consequences through generations, Road Allowance Kitten is children’s storybook about two young Métis girls whose families are forced from their homes on the road allowance. Both books cover the topics of family, and the joys and hardships of life for Indigenous peoples.
It is amazing how, in an attempt to explain to his young daughter Rosie the significance of a visit to their home by “strange men in suits” who order the family to leave their home and move “way up north in the bush,” the father imagines the land they are forced to go to as being good: “They promised us our own land. There are lots of trees to build a log house … Maybe even a school for you!” What a beautiful book about the story of lived experiences of the Métis in the prairies. It is a story of struggle, resilience, love, displacement among the ‘Road Allowance Métis.’
Congratulations to Lisa, Wilfred, and the GDI Press on making the shortlist. Best wishes as the Awards Ceremony approaches.