“We’re selling an opportunity to understand our history, to know our people and to share our vision of turning a 60-year nightmare around. We’re creating new memories for our children.” – Ktunaxa Chief Sophie Pierre
St. Eugene is a former Indian Residential School, which has been made over into a resort, complete with casino and golf course, nestled in a bend of the St. Mary River, facing blue mountains, high in the Kootenay plains of what is now southeastern British Columbia.
It was my fortune to be hired as an instructor at St. Eugene’s recent Writers’ Conference, a small but intense gathering. At present, this young conference draws local BC writers and a contingent from neighbouring Montana. I can foresee a day when, if it survives this start-up phase, the St. Eugene Writers’ Conference becomes too prestigious to hire the likes of me. That day could dawn anytime. Meanwhile, I let myself be drawn in, how could I not?
My own father went to Church-run schools on the Garden River Reserve. I expect his Anishinaabe mother did, too, as I suppose his Mi’gmaq father went to those schools in his territory, Listuguj. Dad didn’t talk much about his school days, but he did walk into the bush, aged 12, to go to work at his uncles’ logging camp, rather than continue past grade eight, which was the cut-off for Day Schools. Later, he and my mom boarded a younger cousin while she was in highschool. When I and my siblings came of school age, far from that history, out in Alberta, his one adamant stand was that we would not go to the Catholic school. And he spent our school days standing by, ready to go do battle on our behalf. He had cause. Local Indigenous neighbours also called on him for advocacy. Those were hard days. He didn’t live to see his youngest three through, they had to find their strength in Mom and in their own fierce souls.
So, how could I not answer the invitation to go see how a community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are reclaiming and transforming their history? How could I not want to contribute, however slightly it might benefit others?
How was it? Weird. Discomfiting. Inspiring. Scary. Fun. Ambivalent, ambiguous, messy, beautiful, bizarre and human.
People weren’t clamouring to sign up for my tutelage in poetry. I’m not a master, just a journeywoman. Apart from time-santified masters, the respect accorded poets in the general run of things can be summed up by a phrase I’ve heard deployed in many settings over the decades of my non-illustrious, yet persistent, career – ‘poet and writer.’
To identify as a poet is risky, for it is emotionally vulnerable work. And in this place, that risk is great, given the traumatic history confronted here in so many ways.
So my class was small. That allowed us the time to explore both intensive peer editing and co-creating new poems. And then, we took on the task of creating sound recordings.
Each student chose a poem from among those we’d workshopped together. Then, I led them through constructing soundscapes for their chosen piece. We used found sound – voice, handclaps, distortions of ambient sound – and prerecorded loops, arranged by the students into settings for their readings of their work.
Composition and arrangement, like poetry, are disciplines that require time and application. I’m proud of what these intrepid student poets accomplished in very short order, over the course of 2 days. They graciously allowed me to post their recordings here.
If you listen, I believe you can hear a certain resonance. Two young poets whose work grapples with bullying, psychological turmoil and the soul’s quest for strength, made these recordings in the basement of a former Residential School, now a resort through which a community grapples with those same issues.
I am profoundly grateful to all the people enacting this long transformation. It’s no simple thing. There are many in the community – how can it be otherwise? – who refuse to set foot on the grounds, their family history there is too dark and painful. Others fared better in that school. All their history informs the reality there now.It has taken decades to effect the transformation of St. Eugene, a transformation very much still a work in progress.
The Writers’ Conference is one aspect of that transformation. It brings together a diverse team, headed by Keith Liggett, a soulful, remarkable character who has spent seven years, heart on his sleeve, working with the various stakeholders, community interests and sponsors who need to be in place for this conference to become the vision he holds and speaks, of a world-class gathering place for writers. And poets.
May the day come, in good ways, bringing healing, grace and joy to all involved. May the river flow clean, the mountains shine blue in clear morning sun, and the mourning doves sing like souls released.
All my relations,