A timely Facebook memory came up in my feed this week, of an event that happened three years ago at Toronto’s Another Story Bookshop.
It was an evening to mark the relaunch of the iconic memoir Halfbreed, by Métis author Maria Campbell. When the book was first published in 1973, an editor removed two pages containing Ms. Campbell’s recounting of being sexually assaulted by an RCMP officer when she was 14; the reissue restored those pages.
I was there that night as a special guest, to interview Ms. Campbell. I arrived late and was nervous as hell when I got to the packed bookstore. And when I arrived, I saw that in the front row was another special guest: Stó:lō writer Lee Maracle, who passed away last week, on Remembrance Day, in Surrey, B.C., at the age of 71.
There I was, with two of the great matriarchs of Indigenous literature who, along with Beatrice Mosionier, were the women who wrote the books I stole off my mother’s bedside and read in secret when I was a girl. Halfbreed. Ms. Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree. Then, much later, Ms. Maracle’s I Am Woman.
Those books spoke with the never-broken voices of Indigenous women – women who lived on the margins of greater Canadian society, toiling through poverty, racism, sexism, oppression and violence. These books spoke to my growing bones, teaching me how the world viewed us. These books explained to me why my mother cried at night, even when she could not.
As I weaved my way through the bookstore, I marvelled that the event wasn’t happening in a grand venue such as Massey Hall. If this was for a Margaret Atwood book, that is where we’d be, I thought. By this stage in these writers’ lives, Ms. Campbell and Ms. Maracle should have been sitting comfortably on small fortunes, with endowed academic positions and television deals laying at their feet.
But no. Canadian society has never understood them.
When Ms. Maracle first started writing, she was told that no one wanted to read books by Indigenous women – so she started a petition to prove publishers wrong. She and other Indigenous women had to push their way into “Canadian” literature by the strength of their voices and an absolute refusal to be silenced.
“If you want to understand Canada, you have to listen to the voices of Indigenous women.”
That’s what Ms. Maracle said at the 2020 Margaret Laurence Lecture, in which the Writers’ Trust of Canada asks one author every year to speak on the topic of “a writer’s life.” It was pure power – an absolute gut punch to Canadian literature that only she could give. “Not a big fan of Margaret Laurence,” she boldly said about the lecture’s namesake, in the lecture itself. “Reading The Diviners and its half-breed in class, once, was enough for me.”
In September, Ms. Maracle joined me on the CBC Radio show Ideas, where she spoke about how, as an Indigenous person, she could never uphold an author such as Ms. Laurence, who disparaged our very being by creating a “half-breed” character she casually dismissed by race, with no regard to our humanity. Instead of righteously upholding the canon of CanLit, Ms. Maracle demanded it be torn down. She believed the history of racism in colonial literature needs to be taught.
She did so in I Am Woman, her unflinching bestseller first published in 1988 about the consequences of colonialism on Indigenous women. It wound up being shortlisted for Canada Reads after nearly three decades on the market.
“No language is neutral,” she said in the Margaret Laurence lecture, paraphrasing her cherished fellow poet Dionne Brand. “Words are sacred, they have power, they have impact.”
And so it is not enough to say Ms. Maracle paved the way for writers such as myself or Katherena Vermette, Cherie Dimaline or Alicia Elliott. She stormed the doors.
The last time I spoke to Lee was during that Ideas broadcast, two months ago. What the listeners of that show may not have known was all the times we spent together as friends. The late-night car rides back from literary events from small-town Ontario. The laughter. How she talked me through how I was going to structure my second book, All Our Relations. How we’d sit together on her porch in Toronto, where she tried to teach me how to write poetry – her light hand, guiding my leaden one.
I ended the broadcast by telling her I loved her. She said she loved me too.
“No word is ever unheard,” she wrote. “Sound never leaves the atmosphere.”
Each one of her words was a call to action – an address to the world, to the skies, water and land. A call to us.
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