Louise Bernice Halfe is the type of person who remembers simple acts of kindness, such as the Grade 2 teacher who sent home a bag of high-heeled shoes for her mother – even though she and her family lived in a log shack in the bush.
Ms. Halfe, who was given a Cree name by an elder that loosely translates to “Sky Dancer” in English, also remembers the Coke she was offered by a stranger who spotted her in a hotel lobby when she was a child – a gesture that followed a painful incident with family that saw Ms. Halfe running to try to report violence to police.
“I thought that was such a beautiful act of kindness,” she said. “I’m ready to cry now – I’ve never forgotten it.”
Ms. Halfe, a residential school survivor, is sharing her journey as she takes on her new role as Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. The Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons announced her appointment last week, making her the ninth poet to serve in the position – and the first from an Indigenous community.
Ms. Halfe said she is excited and hopeful about taking on the job, including being able to spotlight other Indigenous writers across the country.
Ms. Halfe has been recognized for incorporating Cree language and teachings into her work, which includes the poetry collections Bear Bones and Feathers (1994), Blue Marrow (1998), The Crooked Good (2007), Burning In This Midnight Dream (2016) and Sôhkêyihta (2018). Her latest work, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, is due to be published this spring by Ontario press Brick Books.
Ms. Halfe, who previously served as Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, is from Saddle Lake Reserve in central Alberta.
She is also a survivor of the Blue Quills Residential School, an experience that she says left her without a sense of heritage and prompted her to face key questions – including what her purpose in life would be. Through the help of therapists and elders in her community, she says she was able to find out “who the heck Louise Bernice Halfe was.”
“I think I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m curious about life. I love to read. I love to investigate peoples’ thoughts and reactions, and it doesn’t matter what age group they’re from. I’m just curious. ‘How did you survive? How did you do it? How do you live?’”
Ms. Halfe’s talent as a poet to draw from her own lived experiences and those of her community are bound to help educate Canadians through the art she will produce as Poet Laureate, noted Métis Senator Yvonne Boyer, who said she was thrilled by Ms. Halfe’s appointment to the role.
“Her historic appointment as the first Poet Laureate who is a residential school survivor sends an important message to Indigenous people across this country, especially our young ones,” she said. “It shows them that our people have a place in every part of government.”
The Canadian literary community is also welcoming Ms. Halfe’s arrival to the position, which lasts for a two-year term and includes writing new works of poetry to mark important occasions in Parliament, and advising the parliamentary librarian.
“Louise Bernice Halfe is a skilled and innovative poet and writer whose work has contributed an incredible amount to the growth and diversification of Canada’s poetry landscape,” the League of Canadian Poets said in a statement. “Appointing [her] to the role of Canada’s Poet Laureate is an honour to the role itself, a beautiful and symbolic step towards raising the stature of poetry and Indigenous poets in Canada.”
Scott Griffin, founder of the annual Griffin Poetry Prize, said Ms. Halfe’s appointment “reaffirms the fact that poetry is relevant and important to all nations, cultures, genders and ethnicities.”
Ms. Halfe sees her new role as contributing to the ongoing process of reconciliation with Indigenous people – but points out that all Canadians must share in that responsibility, stressing the importance of basic shared teachings such as respect, patience and kindness.
“We should hold ourselves accountable to that – and the ability to listen with heart.”
With a report from Tabassum Siddiqui
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