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Turtle Island Reads offered friendly competition and discussion about issues faced by Indigenous authors

Shannon Webb-Campbell (Meghan Tansey Whitton)

Reconciliation, high school reading lists, and Indigenous identities were among the topics raised at Turtle Island Reads in Montreal on Sept. 20. The lively event ­– held at McGill University, and broadcast on CBC Radio and Facebook Live – was modelled after the literary competition Canada Reads, but quickly broke into a broader discussion about issues faced by Indigenous authors, artists, and peoples in Canada today.

Hosted by CBC’s Nantali Indongo and Waubkeshig Rice, three panelists advocated for a book of their choice written by an Indigenous author. Musician Moe Clark selected Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s short story and song collection, This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press). “It challenges the literary world to take on a book that carries with it [Indigenous] oral tradition,” Clark said, lauding Simpson’s “unapologetic” inclusion of Anishinaabemowin passages throughout the book. According to Clark, it asks the reader “to question, to want to know more, and by searching to know more, deepen their understanding and knowledge beyond the book.”

Anishinaabe comedian, writer, and podcaster Ryan McMahon represented the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated novel Son of a Trickster (Knopf Canada), praising author Eden Robinson for her honest portrayal of Indigenous peoples’ path to self-realization. “It is a slice of life, and it shows the difficulty of rebuilding and shows just how much energy Indigenous people have to put forward every day of our lives just to exist.” McMahon argued that the accessibility of Robinson’s narrative builds “a doorway for non-Indigenous people to walk through.”

Mi’kmaq poet and writer Shannon Webb-Campbell related to the Cree protagonist in her chosen book, Bearskin Diary (Nightwood Editions), by Carol Daniels, who struggles to come to terms with her culture and identity as a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. “Much like Sandy, I didn’t grow up with my culture. I carried deep shame and gaps around my identity. I’ll never forget how anxious I was going to my first pow-wow,” Webb-Campbell said. For her, Daniels’ book is “a totem of truth.”

All were in agreement that while the authors masterfully tackle difficult themes – colonialism, racism (internal and external), violence, sex and drugs – these books don’t exploit trauma, which McMahon referred to as dangerous territory. “You can get into a place where you are actually exploiting Indigenous people when you start to shine a really bright light on these things,” he said.

All three panelists were keen to share stories about being courted for appearances, events, and various collaborations by the “reconciliation industry” that has emerged in Canada, in particular around the country’s sesquicentennial and Montreal 375th anniversary. Before she decides whether to commit to a project, Clarke evaluates the intention behind the invitation. “It really comes back to relationship building. Are we having a relationship here or are you using me to get what you need?” McMahon concurred: “It’s about bringing us into the stories at the beginning of the process, not when someone needs an Indigenous producer on a film.”

Ultimately, the contest was so tight – and the means of measuring support so inexact (crowd cheering) – that no book was crowned winner. However, McMahon pointed out that the fact that the battle centred around three female Indigenous authors was itself a cause for celebration.  “We are in a moment right now with Indigenous women, whether it is film or literature, or music, visual arts” said McMahon, who also spoke about the need for more Indigenous literature incorporated into educational curricula. As part of the event, the Quebec Writers’ Federation, which sponsored Turtle Islands Reads, has distributed copies of the three books to all 125 of Quebec’s English-language high schools. “When we treat young people with respect, and allow them to come to the material openly and honestly, and help work through some of the more difficult things, we are far better off,” said McMahon. “Hand-holding and shielding from difficulties is a mistake.”