Richard Wagamese on hockey, residential schools and our national identity


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First aired on North by Northwest (21/4/12)

Richard Wagamese's 11th novel, Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibway boy who grows up to become a hockey star. Along the way, however, he loses his parents, loses his grandmother, is abused in a residential school and fights racism the entire way.

This is not the book Wagamese set out to write. "I had in my mind what I was going to write was 'Shoeless Joe does ice hockey,'" he revealed to North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay in a recent interview. In the book, there's a dream sequence where Saul has a one-on-one shoot-out with Vladislav Tretiak, the goalie of the Soviet Union national team in the 1972 Summit Series. That was supposed to be the entire story. "It was actually a novella."

That all changed as Wagamese sat down and wrote Saul's story. The story keep speaking to him, telling him that there was more he could say about the young man and his journey to hockey glory. "The symbiosis of residential schools and hockey" became a fundamental part of Indian Horse "because the energy of the story told me this is where we were going to go."

At first, Wagamese shied away from writing about residential schools. Even though his parents both went through the residential school system, making Wagamese "a second-generation survivor," he felt he didn't know enough about what really went on inside these infamous institutions to be an authoritative voice on the subject. But as much as he tried to avoid it, residential schools kept popping up. So, Wagamese then turned to his experience as a journalist. In the 1970s and 1980s, he interviewed hundreds of residential school survivors about several different subjects. No matter what they started talking about, their residential school experience kept coming up.

"I got these horrendous, horrifying stories told to me," Wagamese said. These stories stayed with him, even decades later. "I never forgot their impact and the way their stories made me feel as a person." He mined these feelings when writing Indian Horse. "I wanted to write similar experiences in this book so people would have that same visceral impact."

Wagamese had first-hand experience with the other elements of the story, having played competitive hockey "at one level or another" until he was 39 years old."The description of the game, the feeling of camaraderie, the pure energy and abandon that's built into wasn't very difficult to reach in and describe all that."

Neither was describing the racism Saul faced, or the complex emotions it conjured within him. "That's very, very real to me," Wagamese said. "I remember exactly how it felt to be segregated, separated and made to be a mockery of. I remember being physically attacked and beaten just because I was brown."

Like Saul, Wagamese struggled with this for years. He also struggled with anger issues and violence and developed a drinking problem. "I couldn't figure out what it was," he said. "I just thought I was looney tunes." Through therapy, Wagamese identified and and dealt with the problem "so that the waves of fear, terror, anxiety and all that stuff doesn't control me anymore."

Indian Horse isn't Wagamese's story. It's Saul's. But Wagamese's own story gave him the courage to put Saul's story out in the world. He's hopeful that it will inspire others to look for answers, and for ways to heal. Wagemese felt very alone when dealing with his demons, and that's a feeling he doesn't want anyone else to experience. "The things that my character is uncovering and able to resolve for himself are things that anybody who has suffered trauma to that degree is capable of uncovering and healing," he said. "I was motivated by getting that out."

Wagamese also wanted to show the world that residential schools are just as much a part of the Canadian identity as hockey. As Canadians, we need to accept and acknowledge this before we can more forward as nation. "The history of Canada includes the history of residential schools," he said. "Part of our national psyche has been damaged and needs healing because of the influence of those institutions and its part of our Canadian story. So let's write about it."

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