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Editing circle: empowering future generations of editors to better serve aboriginal stories

feature-02When Joanne Gerber accepted the position of program consultant for literary and multidisciplinary arts at the Saskatchewan Arts Board in 2005, she had one condition: that she could pursue initiatives to advance indigenous literature.

In her previous position as editor for Regina’s Coteau Books, Gerber had noticed a shortage of editors appropriately equipped to handle manuscripts by aboriginal writers. Too many texts were being clumsily handled because of cultural miscommunication, manifesting in what Gerber describes as “tone-deaf edit notes” and chronological errors. Gerber realized Canadian publishing was without an adequate supply of aboriginal editors, people who would understand the perspectives from which indigenous narratives were hewn. So, over five temperate days in late June of this year, a group of eight aboriginal authors, editors, and publishers gathered in Saskatoon to mark the inaugural meeting of the Aboriginal Editors Circle.

The initiative had been eight years in the making. It aimed to devise strategies for training a new generation of editors to better serve the works of Canada’s indigenous authors. Its slow gestation was a result of careful planning. The Arts Board, along with its AEC co-sponsors, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, made a point of undergoing multiple consultations with writers from various aboriginal communities before firmly mapping out their project’s trajectory.

Four elder-instructors with publishing experience were sought to lead workshops and discussions on how editors might approach texts to best serve indigenous orality, traditional knowledge, and cultural protocols.

“We always had a rule, from the beginning, that there always had to be more indigenous people in the room than non-indigenous,” says Gerber. “We were never trying to proscribe. We were trying to learn.”

Practically speaking, the core mandate of the AEC is not to provide training, but to facilitate the establishment of in-house publishing internships and accreditation programs for prospective editors, then encourage publishers to hire them afterward. A publishing internship at an educational press is tentatively scheduled for early in 2015. The next step is convincing universities and training colleges to incorporate into publishing programs substantive-editing courses that are mindful of aboriginal perspectives; so far, representatives from Humber College in Toronto have expressed interest.

Rita Bouvier, a Métis writer from Northern Saskatchewan who is currently completing a graduate certificate in publishing at Toronto’s Ryerson University, was the group participant responsible for drafting the philosophical concept paper around which the AEC framed its discussions.

“I [referenced] Thomas King’s Truth About Stories, that stories are all we are,” says Bouvier. “And the importance of storytelling, the tradition of storytelling.”

Central to Bouvier’s paper was the effect of colonization and its trauma of language loss on indigenous stories. “Because we’re using the colonizer’s language, the English language, the best we can do is try to translate,” she says, referencing a Cree mantra of her grandmother’s – papîyâhtak, meaning to act thoughtfully and respectfully – as key to that process.