Fifty years ago, as a reporter with the CBC Northern Service, I moved to Yellowknife, a town revelling in its frontier mentality of hard rock miners, two-fisted drinkers and independent tough-minded characters.
The first Northern book I read was Yellowknife, by the local Baptist minister, Ray Price. It was commissioned and published to commemorate Yellowknife’s history as part of a Northwest Territories centennial celebration in 1970 and billed as “a rip-roaring, funny, exciting and violent saga of modern pioneering.”
The book seemed to be the entire body of Northern literary works. It is still in my bookcase, and still fun to read, but rather than a reflection of the “good old days,” it’s become a testament in sharp contrast to the wonderful and progressive changes that have come about across the North – an explosion of books and media.
Nowhere is that explosion more visible than in the heart of downtown Yellowknife. The Book Cellar, owned by Judith Drinnan, is one of the vibrant and attractive shops in the city, with one full wall devoted to Northern publications. “We have nearly 1,000 adult titles and 700 children’s titles in our Northern section,” Drinnan says proudly.
A block away, the public library is an equally vibrant part of the community, with active reading and writing sections for children and teens, and an increasing commitment to developing Northern literature.
Historically, there have been three types of Northern writers, including several like myself and Giller Prize winner Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) who have lived and worked in the North and, in fiction or memoir, continue to write about it.
Others made the North their permanent home and became its storytellers. People like Fran Hurcomb, who moved to Yellowknife in the 1970s and a few years ago published a marvellous 200 photo/narrative simply called Old Town that reflects the town’s unique history and character in a way words alone cannot.
Above all, there is the emerging cadre of Indigenous writers, prolific and successful.
Drinnan is most impressed by the works of Richard Van Camp, a Dene Tlicho (Dogrib) writer who was born in Fort Smith and who has written and published 22 books in 22 years across many genres. His novel, A Blanket of Butterflies has been nominated for an Eisner Award. Van Camp’s children’s books have been translated into Cree, South Slavey and Chipewyan, the languages of the southern NWT. “We are all witness now to a time of incredible reclaiming of stories,” Van Camp tells me. He credits books, even comics and other media as, “a great way to showcase our cultural dignity and who we are as Northerners.”
Van Camp promotes every writer, and says in the months ahead several authors will be on the Northern scene with new books. “This is a golden time where publishers, agents, editors and booksellers are marvelling at how hungry the world is to hear from Northerners writing from their own experiences. Just look at the bestseller lists right now in Canada and you will see the rising chorus of award-winning and soul-inspiring Northern, First Nations, Métis and Inuit voices showing readers just how beautiful we are.”
The emergence of Northern and Indigenous literature is just as exciting and progressive in the new Nunavut territory. Most of these communities are small and full book stores like Yellowknife’s Book Cellar are not yet profitable.
However, book corners are emerging in the larger centres such as Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet on the west coast of Hudson Bay.
Darrin Nichol, director of the Nunavut Development Corporation, says adding a book section to Ivalu, a retail outlet that carries superb Inuit sculptures, jewellery and music, “is critical to Northern culture.”
At Ivalu, my memoir, True North Rising, is happily squeezed between autobiographies by the first Inuk to play in the NHL, Jordin Tootoo, and the first Premier of Nunavut, Paul Okalik, and framed even more fully by a half-dozen other “true North“ works. Considering my objective was to tell the remarkable stories of once-radical Indigenous activists who rightly challenged policies of colonialism and marginalization and created a new and better Northern society for all, it is gratifying to see so many striving to do the same in northern literature.
Similarly in Iqaluit, Eva Aariak, also a former Nunavut Premier, has opened Malikkaat, a gift shop with the most exquisite Inuit art and handicrafts of fur, bone ivory and baleen. One wall is now almost entirely devoted to books, including a few dozen Northern children’s books, beautifully illustrated and nearly all depicting ancient Inuit legends, culture and, of course, the land and the frozen ocean.
Turn the cover of any of these books and another quite remarkable story emerges. All are published by Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned company determined to preserve and promote Inuit stories and writers.
Inhabit Media taps federal and territorial government cultural programs for support, works with governments and Inuit organizations to ensure the Inuit language is strengthened, with the result that almost every book is available in the two predominant Inuit dialects, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.
Inhabit Media is gathering southern attention with Una Huna?: What Is This?, a colourful children’s book by Juno award-winning singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark, depicting a child’s first glimpse of the outside world when a ship and its captain sail into her father’s camp to trade.
Aglukark’s book is in stark contrast with the riveting nationally acclaimed Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, an internationally celebrated throat singer and pop artist who was born in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She sets out the hard and harsh realities of growing up in the territory today.
From a personal perspective, being by good fortune a witness to remarkable young men and women fighting for their peoples’ rights and thereby changing the North and Canada, to now see Northerners – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – embarking on a course that in a shorter time may redefine the Canadian literary landscape is gratifying, heartening and inspiring.