Laurie D. Graham’s second collection of poems requires a bit of mental pinball to follow its complicated construction of the past and present. Until I read the poems in conjunction with the endnotes and references, I was confused. But Graham has done extensive research on explorers and settlers in Canadian history, and the poems open up once they are considered alongside the notes about sources and composition.
Settler Education is largely focused on the 1885 Northwest Rebellion (or Resistance, depending on your viewpoint). Graham is sympathetic to First Nations peoples and in most cases critical of the white colonials who saw the land as theirs for occupation and exploitation. Negotiating cultural difference is profoundly difficult at the best of times, but it’s impossible when violence is the means of communication. And these poems argue that violence is not confined to armaments of war. It can also involve institutionally mandated starvation as a result of the destruction of food sources.
The book opens with a poem called “Number One Canadian,” about the train from Toronto to Vancouver. Given the importance of trains to the creation of Canada as we know it, it’s a great place to start, and Graham’s powerful imagery asserts itself instantly, as does her subject: the dynamics of power. The luxury of being able to shower on the train is contrasted with “the bacon rancid in the fort / and the Cree starving through winter,” and tree planters who suffer to pay off student loans in “an economy of impatience.”
The poems shuttle back in history to consider Henry Kelsey, Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Big Bear (mistahimaskwa), and lesser-known figures such as Theresa Gowanlock, whose published account of being held hostage after the Frog Lake tragedy forms the basis of one of the poems here. Places such as Batoche, Fort Edmonton Park, Fort Pitt, and Elk Island Park situate the poems firmly in the landscape of the country.
The individual verses are not long by line count, but are often spread over several pages, giving a sense of open space, which is fitting for the book’s topic. “The Train Back,” which ends the collection, is a prose poem that brings the journey not to a close, but to another point of departure for reflection. Settler Education takes effort to appreciate. It’s worth it.