Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

After the UN Rapporteur's Visit: A look at two special books

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Kid Lit Can with Susan Hughes

Happy autumn, kid lit lovers!

As you know, this October, James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, recently completed a nine-day mission in Canada to assess the current conditions facing First Nations. His conclusion? "Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country." Amongst other things, he suggested an increased level of funding for aboriginal students and urged the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into the "epidemic" of unresolved cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women. I don't know about you, but I'm embarrassed that the UN had to send a special delegate to Canada to look into what's really going on here. Yup, that we need the UN to tell us it's finally time to focus our attention on the First Peoples of this land and make some changes. The sad thing is that even with this rather dramatic and shaming shove to get us moving, this country may continue to plod along, delaying and denying and reneging on its promises.

What can we readers, creators and educators do to help? At the least, we can learn more about the challenges and inequities facing First Nation, Métis, and Inuit people living in Canada. In that spirit, I'd like to introduce you to two special books and their authors: As I Remember It (Theytus, 2011) written by Tara Lee Morin, and Shannen and the Dream for a School (Second Story Press, 2011) written by Janet Wilson. Hope you enjoy these interviews!

SUSAN: Tara, I learned about your book when it won second prize for the 2013 CODE's Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature, aimed at fostering a love of reading among Canadian youth. Congratulations!

TARA: I am very lucky to be part of something so important and vital to society. I just feel so blessed, and grateful. I am excited for my own community that is now going to receive books because I won this award. And yet there is so much more that can be done.

SUSAN: Can you briefly describe what your book is about, Tara?    

TARA: I like to think it is a story of hope and my coming-of-age in sometimes extremely difficult situations. It’s a book about my life and how it felt to be me. I grew up in foster care and I had “issues” that instigated often traumatic outcomes. A young runaway with suicidal tendencies, a cutter that transitions into drugs and prostitution — this book has a little of everything, including love and understanding that sometimes comes along the way.

SUSAN: Why did you choose to write about your own life story?  

TARA: I had been writing since I was so young, mostly poetry, but the book began because my mother of twenty-some years asked me to write it for her. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’d read the new pages I had written to her on the patio and she would listen intently and sometimes we would laugh or cry at the memories. She was genuine when she would tell me that she couldn’t wait to see what I would talk about next in my manuscript. Always my biggest fan. She passed away during the sixth chapter, and it was then that I promised her I would finish the book, and I did. Friends began to read it, I always shared my poetry, so why not my life in black and white? If it helps even one soul to understand themselves a little better, I would say it’s worth every raw moment of it.

SUSAN:  What was your biggest challenge in writing your book?

TARA: It’s impossible to single out one challenge. There is the division of time and priorities, the research, and then the emotional side of trying to find distance when writing about your own life. It wasn't always possible. I sometimes felt exposed as I dug into the past and remembered some of the most painful moments in my life in order to be brutally honest about my feelings. I had nightmares and sleepless nights. But there was a freedom that came from placing it on paper and sharing my story.



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SUSAN: I'm a big fan of your non-fiction book Shannen and the Dream for a School. I was thrilled for you when it was chosen as the First Nation Communities Read Selection for 2012-2013. Congratulations!

JANET: Thank you. I was surprised since I am not a First Nations author, but as I worked very closely with the subjects of the book and the story was, and is, so important and relevant, the jurors felt that this was the book they wanted to recommend, especially to young First Nations students who would be inspired by Shannen’s story. It is a good news story, after all.

SUSAN: Can you briefly describe the subject of this book, Janet?

JANET: Shannen Koostachin and her grade eight class in Attawapiskat First Nation led a campaign to get the Canadian Government to reverse their broken promise to replace their portables with a new school. Their old school was condemned in 2000 because of an oil leak that began contaminating the school twenty years before. Shannen reached out to others for support and it became the largest child-led rights movement in Canadian history.

SUSAN: Why did you choose to write about this topic?

JANET: I actually stumbled across the story while researching a book about child rights. Shannen was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. It was the first time a child was fighting for justice in a developed country. I was shocked. But I was also surprised that I wasn’t aware of this story. After doing some research, I realized that there were many things I didn’t know about life on remote reserves. I didn’t understand why there was inequity in funding not only for education but health and social services, as well. The simple truth was that the conditions in Attawapiskat would never be tolerated in a non-native community. Was that not government sanctioned racism? Shannen believed that if Canadians understood what was happening, they would support efforts to fix a system that was clearly broken. That is why I put my other book aside to write about Shannen.

SUSAN: Why did you decide to fictionalize this story instead of writing it as a straightforward nonfiction narrative?

JANET: I would call this treatment creative non-fiction. Since everyone has different recollections of what was actually said and the order in which events happened, it was impossible to recreate a true story accurately. I did extensive interviews, and wherever possible I included characters’ own words. Every word from the government was taken from transcripts or quoted from media interviews. The fictional segments mostly serve to move the narrative along and fill in the blanks. I started the book shortly after Shannen died in a car accident. I met the family a few times before I started my interviews out of respect for their privacy during this most difficult time.

SUSAN: When you and I chatted at the Eden Mills Book Festival this September, you told me that Shannen and the Dream for a School is being made into a movie. Who is producing the film and when will it be available for viewing?

JANET: The film, produced by Storypark Inc., will be a movie-of-the-week airing on the CBC. I met the screenwriter, Penny Gummerson, who writes for Arctic Air. She is Cree from northern Manitoba, and she is the perfect person to craft this story. We spent two days together in Vancouver going over my mountain of research of which only the tip made it into the book. I have no idea how long it takes to produce a movie but I know that since it is such a timely subject, they will try to get it out as soon as possible. The producers are willing to involve the family, which is essential in my view. Filming in Attawapiskat may be unrealistic due to the high cost of traveling to the reserve. Finding the right actress to play Shannen will be a challenge. She was an exceptional girl!

 



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To find out even more about the non-profit literacy organization CODE and the First Nations Communities Read campaign, you can check out these related websites: http://www.codecan.org/burt-award and http://www.bookcentre.ca/awards/first_nation_communities_read



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Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

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