Not certain where I came across this title, but this was one of the best reads this year so far. Richard Wagamese has written “Indian Horse”, a novel that revolves around a First Nations person with a drinking problem who is trying to dry out at an inpatient facility. Part of his ongoing therapy asks him to track back down his past years to try to understand why he’s chosen the paths that he has throughout his life. “You can’t change the present if you don’t understand the past” idea…
This was one of the titles chosen as part of the Canada Reads program featured in 2013, so I knew that it had a good chance of being a good read even if I’d never heard of the title or the author. And it was, my friends. It was.
Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist, has lived a tough life. His childhood was spent in the wild bush with his extended family of the Ojibway tribe from the Wabaseemong First Nation in the northern end of Ontario. (It’s also the same tribe as the author so it makes it pretty autobiographical, I would think, at least historically speaking.) As Saul gets older, his family goes through some horrible situations, and the one constant in his unstable life is his love and talent for ice hockey.
It is the comradery of the team and also his uncanny ability to “see” the game (as the elders would see into the mystical world of old) that keeps Saul on track from self-destruction for some time, but eventually, the outside world overcomes his inside strength and things change from then on.
This was far outside my normal reading, but I loved it. (It’s good to push the boundaries every now and then.) Wagamese is a great author who obviously knew what he was writing about, from the collective pain as a disenfranchised and abused child isolated from his family to the thrill of the game on the ice hockey rink. (And here I was surprised at just how exciting he made ice hockey games to read about. He described learning and playing the game in such great detail that even I, who have never played ice hockey, was involved with the outcome of each game his team played.)
The narrative builds up as the story progresses, and once it seems to reach its apex, I (as the reader) thought that was how life was going to stay for Saul. But then there is a huge twist at the end which brings things together and it took my breath away as, by that time, I’d fallen in love with troubled Saul. Interestedly, the story starts off with Saul being kept (willingly) in a residential treatment facility for his addiction, but that later more informal incarceration was a direct result of an earlier forcible incarceration of a kind during his childhood when he went to the school of hell. The earlier one put him in a cage – does the later prison cage (though of his own choices) set him free?
When the Indian Act of 1876 passed in Canada, it became compulsory for First Nation kids to attend a day, industrial or residential school as part of a large plan to assimilate Native Canadians into European-Canadian society (because we all know now that that’s the right thing to do. Sigh.) In fact, one of the key goals of this program was stated as “killing the Indian in the child” which affected more than 150,000 First Nation children and their families for generations.
With Canada being so large and spread out, this ruling (the Indian Act of 1876) meant that some young children were forced to attend boarding (or residential) schools run by mostly Catholic and Anglican churches where there was limited learning and excessive hard labor for the student body. The schools were funded in small part by the Canadian government, but not enough to meet all their financial needs which meant that the school children were frequently used in hard and manual labor, the products of which were income-producing for the schools. It was all a big mess (which might qualify for “Understatement 0f the Year”…)
Numerous records attest that, whilst in these residential schools, the students were forcibly removed from their families, their culture and their languages, some children were sterilized and purposely malnourished, and there were significant amounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both other students and staff. There were also high mortality rates for illness (notably TB) for students with inadequate (or nonexistent) medical care from untrained staff, and numerous children went missing with their families never to hear from them again.
The schools were spread across the nation, and for tribal children far from towns or landed communities, it meant being kidnapped and forcibly removed from everything they knew to a pretty hostile environment. (Not every government school engaged in this abuse, but it was quite widespread – enough that there was a government public apology not only by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but also the leaders of all the other parties in the Canadian House of Commons. And just nine days prior to this had been the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about this situation.)
The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. (Blimey!) They sound like a terrible idea, but par for the course in early English colonial days. (See also Australia, USA, etc.) However, kudos to Canada for developing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former residential school students who had been affected, both as families and through support of more and better educational opportunities for First Nation peoples.
So – a pretty serious book on serious topics, but it reads so quickly and I was so drawn into the story that it passed incredibly fast. I just loved this book on so many different levels, and you may as well.