Here’s an essay I wrote last November, and let lie. My thinking has evolved since then, as has the Canadian literary scene, not least via the publication of Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters, an anthology edited by Joseph Boyden and featuring a constellation of major Canadian lights including Ms. Atwood. I applaud all those involved, and hope they appreciate my sincere appreciation of their dedication to addressing the issues therein. I’m glad they’ve done that book. I won’t rush out to read it. I hope and expect that it will change society, that their status and skill will shift public discourse.
Me, I am just an indigenous woman doing my level best to live a life that cannot be summarised as part of the ‘plight of Aboriginal women.’
I’m also aware of how much work John Ralston Saul has done these past years, championing a revision of perspective vis a vis Indigenous Canada. A man of his stature brings quite a lot of attention to thoughts that otherwise, remain low and small and easily trampled in the flood of prevailing thought.
So, in light of the publication of Kwe, and also the latest work of John Ralston Saul, this essay may be redundant. The Poem of Silence may be unnecessary. The heavy hitters are out there, slugging away in the public spotlight. A little person like me, freelancing at a non-prodigious rate, far away from the centres of cultural influence, i seem to have missed the boat. Heck, i even missed out on the local call for an anthology of essays on the topic of indigenous-settler relationships, and i might have at least been considered for that one.
The irony of the reality that i, as an indigenous canadian woman writer, could so easily miss the moment for my voice to be relevant, brings me a much-appreciated sense of levity about this piece. I did not feel any levity whatsoever when i wrote it. Now, my righteous indignation is tempered by the unavoidable admission that there’s a corner of my fury filled up with the knowledge that public giants being interested in the ‘plight’ of my kind does not equate public interest in my thoughts on me.
Far greater people than me have watched the boat sail, and they have been automatically excluded based on race, age, gender, geography, or lack of personal connections. Me? I’m just lazy – and/or too occupied with other things. It’s my job as a freelancer to hunt opportunities – not the job of opportunities to hunt for me. A writer has what s/he makes happen for her/himself. So much of that is timing.
I haven’t become a big fish in the Canadian Culture scene. I am unlikely ever to do so, fury being not equivalent to ambition, diligent production of work, skill and connections.Artistic ego aside, i am fine with that.
I do have this little essay. It may be unfair. It seems badly timed.
Ms. Atwood probably will never even see it. If she should, i’m sure she’ll take it for what it is – minor thought from a minor writer.
I almost decided to throw this essay away, gentle reader, because i feared i’d be wasting your time, given that there are much better writers than i talking about this. Still, it involves my close family history, a credential that hasn’t much weight compared to producing a canon of respected writing. It does compel me, though, to publish it where it belongs, in my own blog.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s an Open Letter i never sent, and will not now send, to Margaret Atwood.
In October of 2014, it was my honour to host an evening with Mark Abley, for Edmonton’s LitFest http://www.litfestalberta.com/. He presented an excerpt from Conversations With a Dead Man: Duncan Campbell Scott. I presented an Artistic Response, from an Aboriginal viewpoint.
My father went to the schools, until he was 12. He survived. So many didn’t.
My father was a gifted self-taught musician; but he was also a soldier, because that was a steady gig that would get him off the Reserve. I firmly believe he’d have rather spent his life singing, playing guitar, playing fiddle, rebuilding instruments. He did all those things. But he was under no illusions whatsoever that there was a road open to a big ole Ojibway boy from the Soo to make a living wage as an artist.
I am speaking for him now, though I hesitate, because i wouldn’t want to humiliate or embarrass him, or my family. He wasn’t one to complain, though he also spent a lot of years raising hell on behalf of others.
He died at 53.
His life is not my focus here. I simply want to position myself to you. I am the daughter of a musician, a soldier, an Indian who dared to make a life off-reserve, and insisted that his children do the same.
He never said much about the schools. But he said enough. And I have heard from other survivors. By now, I hope all Canadians would have taken the time to have heard from survivors, respectfully, patiently, and with humility.
But no matter how hard we listen, there are thousands of voices missing.
People have tried to shout me down, in public settings, for bringing up the travesty of the Residential Schools. I am not a child in a TB-infested hellhole presided over by homicidal perverts. So, I get to keep talking.
I don’t do it nearly as eloquently as some of the great Indigenous artists I take as role models: Joy Harjo, Buffy Ste. Marie, Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, Gregory Scofield, Maria Campbell… the list is long and illustrious, and getting longer all the time.
But no matter how long the list, there are thousands of names missing.
Thousands of children never got to develop nor share their voice. How many poets were killed a-aborning by Duncan Campbell Scott and his department? He wore the title of Director, with all the benefits appertaining. So yes, he must wear the responsibility for leading a department that willfully, to all our nation’s shame, destroyed communities, families, languages…
It is not enough to feel bad about this. If it were, Indigenous Canadians would not face the highest rates of suicide and incarceration of any demographic group in our land.
It is not enough to feel guilty about this. If it were, all the good Second Nations descendants who ever stood up and admitted, it is a dirty crime, a real shame that this happened, would not still feel, as so many do, a bit nervous and defensive in the presence of Aboriginal Canadians.
There are many things we all must do together to heal the Holocaust that happened here.
I am asking you to do the right thing in Poetic Terms. Here is my proposal.
Margaret Atwood, as editor of the New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1982), that offered Scott 11 pages of poetry, more pages than any other English-language poet in our country, can you commit to this change? In future editions, put in an equal number of blank pages, in honour of the thousands of voices he silenced while crafting his poetry.
To all other poets, I also offer this opportunity: include The Poem of Silence in your next book, as I do in mine.
The Poem of Silence is 11 blank pages, to equal the pages in our most respected national anthology, given to the head of the Genocidal department that robbed us all of truly diverse portraits of our country.
11 pages are truly not nearly enough. But let those pages stand as a poem, to show your acknowledgement of what we have all lost.
We did not have to have this Holocaust in order for me, or any Indigenous Canadians, to be writing in English. I have learned other languages without need to be tortured, starved, raped, beaten or deprived of home and dignity.
We are only now beginning to understand how perilous short-term thinking is for our species. Margaret, your own canon of writing addresses this peril again and again, eloquently. Speak now about how short-term thinking is what valued expedient decision after expedient decision vis a vis the Residential Schools. Racism played its part, too. We need to move beyond both those things.
I call on the Poets among us to show how to do this.
I call on you, Margaret, to be a leader in this regard.
After all, Hitler wrote poetry, too – very sentimental poetry about his mom and Motherhood. History does not use his poetry to excuse his villainy.
If you even think to argue that Duncan Campbell Scott was a better poet than Hitler, stop. You’ve just put them in a category together. And they belong there; although perhaps Scott is better paralleled with Adolf Eichmann, just a man doing a job.
We can do better. Please take up your responsibility as an Elder in the Literary Community, and consider publishing the Poem Of Silence, Ms. Atwood.
Poets of all communities and persuasions, I ask you also to join me in this, in committing the Poem of Silence. Not the silence that comes when people are too ashamed, guilty and angry to listen; but the silence in which we can all take in, grieve and decide to honour those thousands of children.
We cannot give them back their tongues to speak the truth of their experience and so enrich this land, as so many Aboriginal writers do today. We can give them space in our work, symbolic space wherein we acknowledge that their death and destruction was a loss to us all.
We can let the Poem of Silence remind us to never again be silent ourselves, in the face of evil. We can let the Poem of Silence stand as testament to how much we love and honour the miracle of our own ability to give voice to the Great Mystery.
All my Relations
Anna Marie Sewell
Post Script: Here is a great, inspiring video, wherein the great Murray Sinclair, and a few other great people, address our current moment and the future of Canada. Eloquent, timely, hopeful, and hopefully signifying true change for the better.