CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize
Patti-Kay Hamilton: "Get to work before it's too late"
Change is good—just ask Patti-Kay Hamilton. After three decades as a radio journalist for CBC North, she switched storytelling platforms and embraced the written word. The result: winning the 2014 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her story, "The Hunter and the Swan," is a richly observed meditation on a white swan spotted by a hunter in a remote northern hunting camp. In between baking butter tarts for a local cafe and paddling down the river, Patti-Kay stopped to chat about her love for the Northwest Territories and the woman who inspired her to get writing.
What inspired you to tell this story?
Connection between northern people and wildlife and wilderness moves me deeply.
Who is "The Hunter" in your story? What made you decide to write it from his perspective?
My husband is "The Hunter." We have a camp on the Tazin River. We discovered it on a canoe trip 20 years ago and return every fall to hunt moose. The story is written from his point of view because it was his experience. I was just the observer and enjoyed listening to his reflections.
What is your own relationship with the swan?
Conflicted. As humans do we let nature take its course or interfere?
What is life like for you in the Northwest Territories?
Right now we’re in the midst of a monster forest fire. Dense smoke turned day into night and a slurry of ash and sap rained down coating cars, porches and turning everything as grey as a zombie flick. Young ravens have found their voice and wake us at 4:30 shrieking and a bear is chasing golfers on the third hole. I can hear the roar of the Slave River rapids from my bedroom window even in winter. White pelicans soar over our backyard and buffalo roam around my cabin. Our ski trail is the ancient portage route used by First Peoples and all of the early explorers. Most importantly there is the people and all of their tales.
How does your community’s culture of trapping and hunting influence your writing?
The North is a gold mine of inspiration. The link between northern people and the wilderness is one element but there is much more. Hearts ripped out by residential schools. That pain has only just begun to seep from wounds that need healing and influences everything from our politics to our intimate relationships. Youth are killing themselves. People in my neighboring community of Ft. Chipewyan have been advised not to eat too much fish or moose because of contamination from the tar sands upstream. In a land of huge lakes people are drinking bottled water because they’re afraid and the forest is on fire.
You worked for CBC North for more than 30 years. When you retired, what made you decide to write?
I retired so I could write stories not heard on radio.
What was one book that hugely influenced your life? How?
I have been steeped in stories and books since before I could read. The storyteller who inspired me most was my late mother-in-law Mary Karkagie Cadieux. She told her stories in a quiet, humble way when we were cooking around a campfire, cutting dry meat or sitting in the bottom of a skiff on a stormy day. She enriched my life and taught me that a story is a gift that needs to be shared. Mary grew up in a skin tent near Drum Lake. Until she was a teen she spoke only her own language and didn’t see a non-Dene person until she was a young woman. She was a better hunter than most men and listening to her stories of myth, monsters and the awful splendour of fire, floods and lightning was magic. Losing her was the incentive to retire and get to work before it was too late.
For thirty years Patti-Kay Hamilton shared the stories of northern people on CBC North as a radio journalist, including contributions to Peter Gzowski’s Morningside. In 1985 she was a member of the team that won the Gabriel Award for excellence in broadcast journalism. Since retiring three years ago, Hamilton has been stretching her creative muscles and exploring new ways of telling stories. Since then she has been published in Up Here Magazine and Coming Home, the first anthology of work by NWT writers. Hamilton lives in Fort Smith, NWT on the banks of the mighty Slave River alongside Wood Buffalo National Park with her husband and black lab, where she hunts, skis, paddles wild water and coaches children in biathlon.