Richard Wagamese on The Next Chapter

Each Monday leading up to the Canada Reads debates, The Next Chapter will interview one of the authors (or, in the case of Two Solitudes, the author's friend and editor). CBC Books is replaying these interviews here for your enjoyment.

Today, we present Shelagh Rogers' conversation with Richard Wagamese, author of Indian Horse. Carol Huynh will defend Indian Horse during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

This interview originally aired on January 21, 2013.




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Richard Wagamese is a lot like Saul Indian Horse, the main character of his latest novel, Indian Horse.

Both were inventive hockey players, using whatever they had lying around to play the game they loved. Saul used a horse turd as his puck, Richard used "balled-up hockey tape" or "splinters of wood off a broken shaft of a hockey stick." Neither had skates that fit. "I actually had to stick extra socks in the toes," Wagamese told Shelagh Rogers. And like Saul, Wagamese loved the game and the community it created.

As a kid, Wagamese played for a local team called the Teepees. "I was the odd duck because I was the only brown face in that locker room," he recalled. But he felt like a valued member of the team, especially when they were winning. "We were engendering community and brotherhood," he said. "I didn't feel weird or strange or adopted or any of those things that I carried. I just felt like a part of something marvelous." This is a feeling Saul discovers too, first as a kid playing at the residential school, then as a part of the reserve team. 

"He finds such solace in the whole ambiance of hockey. He finds abandon and freedom and joy in playing the game himself. He finds belonging and acceptance and non-judgement in being around players and being in the players' van and being in the dressing room."

But the good times didn't last, for both Saul and Wagamese. Wagamese didn't attend residential school, but his parents did, and that legacy had a long-lasting impact on his entire family. Wagamese was born into a family trying to reclaim the traditional Ojibway life, but it wasn't the same. The residential school experience cast a long shadow. "There was alcoholism in our camp, there was violence in our camp and there was abuse in our camp," he said. "The adults had lost the ability to nurture and to have any idea what family and family connections were all about." Wagamese was part of the "sixties scoop" (a term used to describe the practice of apprehending high numbers of native children and putting them into foster care or up for adoption, usually by white families); he was taken from his family and ended up in foster care in suburban Toronto, a place that "felt like Mars." As a result, Wagamese, like Saul, turned to alcohol.

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Wagamese eventually found peace. He's open about his struggles with alcoholism and PTSD and the impact the residential school system had on his family. "I know that if I don't look at my whole history and embrace the dark and hard parts, I don't know my own story. And if I don't know my own story, I can't heal myself."

Wagamese argues that the same can be said for Canada, and that's partly why he wrote Indian Horse. He wanted to share the story of the residential school system and the impact it had -- and still has -- on Canada's aboriginal people. "This book is about hockey, residential schools and redemption, but in the end, I think it's about Canada." And part of Canada's own story is the history of residential schools. "If we deny it, if we try to shove it under the carpet or try to walk away from it we are not hearing our own total national story."






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