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There I go, turn the page.

I shot this shaky video very quickly on my phone on a Saturday morning recently in Banff, Alberta. I was there for a reading/performance at the Banff Centre as part of Wordfest. As I mention in the vid, it was a fun, enlightening and rewarding experience, but it sadly marked the end of a tremendous journey for me. Wordfest was the last scheduled event on what ended up being a national “tour” in support of my book Midnight Sweatlodge. To wrap it up, I wanted to send out a brief message of thanks before returning home (and show off that beautiful natural backdrop) so I recorded that clip and put it on YouTube. I’d like to extend that thanks and elaborate a bit more here on what this amazing experience has meant to me.

Midnight Sweatlodge was published in June 2011 by Theytus Books. It’s a collection of short stories about some of the unique experiences of First Nations youth in this country, all tied together by a common theme. I wrote most of the stories when I was a teenager growing up on Wasauksing First Nation (“Aasinabe” was for a Grade 12 English assignment and “Dust” came around the same time, shortly after the killing of Dudley George). Creative writing was a fun and challenging artistic outlet for me, and I wrote stories not only to pass the time but to also record some of the compelling, tragic, and funny experiences going on around me. It was a hobby, but I dreamed that one day I would be able to publish some of them in a book. However, I put the stories aside for a long time once I started university, and they stayed in the periphery as my journalism career kicked into gear.

Then in 2004 I decided to revisit some of the stories in hopes of eventually finding avenues for publication. I applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to revise them and tie them together with the theme of healing in the sweatlodge. I got the funding and spent two months finding ways to bring six stories with six very different voices together. I ended up dropping two of them altogether (you can find one of those stories here). The four that ended up in Midnight Sweatlodge were bound by an overarching narrative that attempted to bring the four main voices together. It was a challenge to do, but overall I was pretty satisfied with how it worked. Then I put the whole thing on the shelf again.

Throughout this whole process, I had been sharing some of these stories with friends via email. They were very helpful with feedback and encouragement. After revisiting some of those discussions, I finally decided in 2009 to shop it around. I mailed manuscripts to a few different Canadian publishers. After a couple of rejection letters, I got one later that summer that began this unexpected journey. To my absolute delight, Theytus offered me a publishing contract. The dream I had as a kid on the rez was coming true.

Theytus paired me with editor Jordan Wheeler, which was another unexpected thrill. I read his book Brothers in Arms when I was 16 and it was one of the books that really inspired me to pursue written storytelling. I couldn’t believe I would be working with one of my idols to make my own book a reality. We spent about a year sending it back and forth with recommendations and revisions. Jordan helped me tighten up the stories and overall, he made me a better writer. Finally, the book came out in June of 2011.

I thought I would have one book launch/reading, and that would be it. Everything that’s happened since has far exceeded any expectations I had of what life as an author would be like for me. I’ve had readings and workshops at events across the country over the last year and a half. It’s been a hugely rewarding thrill and I’m extremely thankful, first and foremost to Theytus Books for taking a chance on me and helping make my dream a reality. The entire staff has been a delight to work with, and I have to thank them and Jordan Wheeler for all their invaluable help.

I’d also like to say chi-miigwetch to my family and friends, and the people of Wasauksing who inspired these stories. CBC (my day job) deserves huge credit for letting me take the time off to take these trips, and also for helping promote my book. Thanks to sodiumpump for all the web help and support with the online presence. Thanks to independent and mainstream media across the country for helping spread the word, and thanks to the festivals who have invited me to share my book in places I never thought I’d get to. Another big chi-miigwetch goes to the veteran authors who have guided me on my way since my book saw the light of day. And last but not least, the biggest thanks goes to you, the reader. I humbly appreciate you checking out my book! I’m writing a novel right now that explores one of the themes only slightly explored in Midnight Sweatlodge. Hopefully it will be out someday soon. Chi-miigwetch!

Burning Sage Beneath Skyscrapers

This week I learned that Anishinaabe elder Lillian McGregor went on her journey to the spirit world. She passed away in late April after a long illness, and I just found out a few days ago through my mother. She was a great mentor to me and countless other young Aboriginal people who have walked the streets of Toronto. Last week the Globe and Mail published a great homage to her life and career that recounted how she moved to the city at a young age, and made it her mission in later years to help kids from First Nations become comfortable in the Big Smoke. For me and my peers, she became a vital link between two worlds, and the legacy of urban elders like her is essential in helping our youth take control of their destiny as they build a new Canada.

I first moved to Toronto in the fall of 1998 to study Journalism at Ryerson University. I was 19 years old and already had experience living away from home. I spent a year in Germany as an exchange student when I was 17. There, I expected to feel like a foreigner and adjusted as such, and my host country’s affinity for my culture made it one of the best experiences of my life. But when many Aboriginal kids move to cities for post-secondary studies, it’s like being a foreigner on their traditional lands. Therefore, they have to seek out others like them for a sense of home, and they need the guidance of elders to reassure them they’re on a good path.

That’s where Lillian came in. When I started at Ryerson, there were only about 50 other Aboriginal students out of some 14,000, and it took me a few weeks to find them. We had a small peer support group that met regularly, but we didn’t have a regular visiting elder. So we planned monthly field trips to Dodem Kanonhsa, the urban lodge on St. Clair East. We met Lillian there, who was the Elder-in-Residence at the University of Toronto. We smudged, and sat and talked most of the time. She was there to listen to us and to bring us back down to earth when the city became overwhelming. She always told us to stick together, and to make sure we went back home once in a while. She reminded us that what we were doing was good, and that our career paths would benefit our people as a whole. Although we were at a different school altogether, she assured us her door was always open at U of T for us to drop in for a visit.

I graduated from Ryerson in 2002 and moved away from Toronto in 2006. I lost touch with Lillian after that, and for that I blame myself. But her words will always be with me, and I credit her among many others for keeping me on this path as a journalist and an author. Transitioning into an urban Anishinaabe wasn’t as difficult for me as it was for others. My mother is Canadian, and I’m extremely close with the half of my relatives that are non-Native. My home community of Wasauksing is essentially right beside the town of Parry Sound. So I’ve had lots of contact with the “outside” world since birth.

But for many other youth, it’s not that easy. Sure, it’s hard for anyone from a small town or a rural community to move to the big city. But in Canada, reserves were created to exclude Aboriginal people from the rest of society. And it takes many generations to shake that imposed “outsider” mentality. Also, unlike other cultures, there are no “Little (insert name of reserve/nation)” communities in most big cities. So finding people like you can be extremely difficult, all the while trying to maneuver vast, constricting expanses of concrete, glass, noise, and strange faces.

As long as our elders are there to guide us, young Aboriginal people will forge an even greater direction in this country. More and more are moving to the cities, more confident than ever in who they are and who they’ll become. And that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of elders like Lillian. Miigwetch, Lillian. Baamaapii.

I’m Ojibway, and I vote

One of my old Winnipeg connections shared this video with me via Facebook. Doug Thomas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs created it to engage Aboriginal people in the Canadian federal election campaign and encourage them to vote. It’s simple, straightforward, and honest – and hopefully, it’s effective. I already voted in the advance polls, and I hope my Aboriginal brothers and sisters across the country follow suit tomorrow on election day. As so beautifully articulated in the above piece, it’s about being counted, and most importantly, being heard.

First Nations leaders across Canada are encouraging all of us to vote. As we grow as a people, they want us to become a much more formidable presence in the Canadian political theatre. In many ridings across the country, we have the ability to sway the results. Aboriginal voter turnout is usually generally much lower than the rest of the population, but grassroots activists and leaders are trying to reverse that trend.

However, there’s been a movement afoot for years rooted in academia that urges Aboriginal Canadians NOT to vote. Intellectuals cite a variety of reasons for abstaining from the democratic process. Some say it compromises our sovereignty as nations. Others say it keeps us subservient in the traditional Canadian political hierarchy. While I have the utmost respect for some of these illustrious thinkers, I couldn’t disagree more.

This country and political system were forced upon us. We were strong-armed into signing deals that kept us subordinate and in the periphery. Today, many of our communities continue to suffer because of these old colonial ways and they’re still on a long path to healing. But excluding ourselves from the process that determines the leadership and direction of the entire system won’t solve these problems. We are a part of it, whether we like it or not, and it’s up to us to start exercising this basic democratic right. Federal leaders need to be aware of us and our potential as political juggernauts.

I vote in every election, from my rez right up to my federal riding. When you’re on the rez, It’s difficult to see how your vote will trickle down into any sort of meaningful change in your community. But as our numbers grow, and as we become more engaged in Canadian society at large, we won’t be ignored anymore. Our problems are Canada’s problems, and the only way Canada will recognize that is if we become engaged in Canada’s system.

I voted this year because I believe our people need to embrace Canadian politics and shape it to suit us. Even in cities, we’re becoming more visible. We’re emerging in many professional scopes. We need to obtain and develop the tools of Canadian democracy to carve out our own special place in it. Stepping aside will only keep us on the outside, perpetually looking in as our own rights outlined by this country deteriorate. These rights define us as a people in Canada. By voting, we’re standing up for them, and more importantly, we’re standing up for ourselves and future generations. I voted because I’m proud of who I am and I believe in the power of our people.

For a great list of ridings where the Aboriginal vote could make or break leaders, read this exceptional post by mediaINDIGENA’s Rick Harp.

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