By Olivia Johnson
Haliburton Highlands Secondary School staff and students gained perspective with the opportunity to speak with Indigenous author and journalist Waubgeshig Rice on Monday, April 4. Christine Carr, a teacher at HHSS, organized the virtual presentation with the help of TLDSB Indigenous Education consultant Holly Groome. Schools across the board tuned in to listen to Rice tell his story and talk about his literary career.
Rice is an Anishinaabe author and journalist who currently lives in Sudbury with his wife and two children. Sudbury is also known as N’Swakamok, the traditional territory of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek. He is a member of the Bear Clan of the Anishinaabe of Wasauksing First Nation, an island community on Georgian Bay, close to Parry Sound.
Previously working as a CBC journalist for nearly 20 years, Rice is also the author of many short stories and three fictional novels, one being the bestseller Moon of the Crusted Snow.
The HHSS students and staff were able to learn about what it was like to grow up on a reserve, commonly referred to as “the Rez,” as Rice reflected on his childhood and teen years. Growing up in the ‘80s, Rice explained that it was the time that their community was trying to get back to their Anishinaabe heritage after many tragedies and traumas in their community.
“There had been lots of deaths, people dying young, lots of abuses that were perpetuated through the cycles of colonialism, being displaced, and further abuses by the state upon our people. It all just had really detrimental impacts on the community and the people,” he said. “It caused a lot of negative cycles.”
As the adults in Wasauksing First Nation began making serious efforts to find the path to healing, ensuring that the younger generation had a positive environment, Rice had started to see many parts of Anishinaabe culture coming back. Powwows were happening again, ceremonies like sweat lodges and fasting had come back, and there were lots of learning moments from the elders.
“They were empowered again to share their knowledge. There was a very deep shame attached to Anishinaabe identity for a long time because of the Indian Act, residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop, and being displaced from their homelands.”
Rice recognized that, back then, the stereotype about Indigenous people was that they were all tragic, or that reserves were a place of death and despair. He expressed the importance of remembering how close they are to their world ending; “that’s exactly what happened to our ancestors. It was the apocalypse, it was the end of their world.”
While storytelling was a sacred and immersive experience in Indigenous culture, it was when Rice started high school off of the reserve that he realized their approach to storytelling was much different. With little-to-no diversity in the reading list at that time, it being mostly white men that the students would read, Rice assumed that literature was just for white people.
“I had never seen an Indigenous story written in a book that way,” he said. “I just sort of accepted it, like, ‘OK, that’s the way it is. As much as I enjoy these books, that’s just not a world for me, my stories, or my people.’”
Rice’s perspective on the world of literature changed when his aunt began giving him books by Indigenous authors that he didn’t know about as they were not part of the high school curriculum. Seeing himself represented in a book, experiences like his own, written about and expressed proudly, was what inspired him to begin writing his own stories.
These stories, written with pen and paper at his home, were stories documenting what life was like to be an Anishinaabe kid growing up on ‘the Rez.’ Rice’s 2011 book, Midnight Sweatlodge, is a compilation of these stories that have been revised and made into a short story collection.
During the question period, Rice was asked about his journalism career at CBC, specifically asking if he had covered stories or topics that were upsetting or discomforting for him as an Indigenous person. He explained that many stories were retraumatizing, especially when it was stories and issues that his family had endured.
“The missing and murdered Indigenous women, the wider impacts of colonization, loss of language, all of those really heavy stories always severely impacted me.”
Rice said he was grateful to have many outlets to heal in his life whenever those moments were too difficult, like his partner to confide in, or his own practices like smudging. Although there were much fewer Indigenous journalists within the CBC network at the time, they were all able to come together and support each other when the stories were too much to handle.
“It was hard, but our responsibility, really, was to educate people about the Canada that they weren’t familiar with,” he said. “The Canada that they never learned about. It was upon us, as the journalists, to sort of fill in the blanks for the older generations who haven’t been taught about these topics in school.”
As an Indigenous person, Rice faced obstacles not only in his journalism career, but in his career as an author as well. Although it has gotten easier as there is more of an appetite amongst Canadians for Indigenous works, the world of literature has not always been that welcoming. Rice named Indigenous authors like Richard Wagamese and Lee Maracle as trailblazers who faced many trials and tribulations trying to publish their stories.
“It’s all about making money, of course, it’s a capitalist industry,” he said. “Historically, because Indigenous people are a relatively small part of the population, publishers wouldn’t expect to make money off of Indigenous stories and just wouldn’t publish them.”
At the beginning of his career as an author, Rice recounted the different publishers that he took his work to that, at the time, did not have an interest in publishing them. Thankfully, he found the Indigenous publishing house, Theytus Books, who gave him the home to share his stories.
Rice expressed his gratitude for all of the Indigenous storytellers who have fought for their spaces in literature and different industries.
“It’s the same in journalism, in film, in music, and so on. There have been a lot of great Indigenous creatives just fighting for their spots. That’s why I’m able to do what I’m able to do now, because of people like Richard and Lee who made space for people like me.”
As the talk was coming to an end, Rice wanted to stress the importance of people immersing themselves in Indigenous literature and stories. He explained that the settlers displacing Indigenous people led to the country, as a whole, neglecting its history and its truth all together.
“There are so many beautiful stories, so many wonderful experiences, and so many enriching lessons in Indigenous communities that have existed here for thousands of years. These are things that are enshrined within the land. When you learn these stories, cultures, and experiences, you learn more about the land around you.”
Waubgeshig Rice’s bestselling novel Moon of the Crusted Snow is available to check out at the Haliburton County Public Library. To learn more about Rice and his story, head to his website at waub.ca.