Indigenous authors pull works after anthology publisher keeps contributor with violent past

Six female authors have removed their contributions from an upcoming Indigenous anthology after the publisher decided not to remove a contribution by a poet who has been convicted of domestic assault.

Despite open letter, editor and publisher stand by decision

Author Erica Violet-Lee initiated the open letter and withdrew her work from the anthology. (Rachel Malena-Chan)

Six female authors have removed their contributions from an upcoming Indigenous anthology after the publisher decided not to remove a contribution by a poet who has been convicted of domestic assault.

The authors penned an open letter to the University of Regina Press about the book, titled kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly, when they discovered contributor Neal McLeod pled guilty to charges against him in 2014.

"Much of our writing is an expression of our experiences with the ongoing, violent impacts of colonization," reads part of the letter.

"We know the intricacies of this violence: racism has deep roots here, entangled with misogyny and patriarchy. As Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people, we are too familiar with the verbal, physical, and psychological abuse that is a key part of colonialism, attempting to make Indigenous women's experiences invisible, and therefore, disposable.

"We want to see the end of violence that is freely and inconsequentially directed at our bodies, minds, and well-being."

The writers requested the removal of McLeod, an award-winning poet from James Smith First Nation, Sask., from the anthology and for the U of R and other institutions to call out abuse and name abusers publicly.

Editor Jesse Archibald-Barber said a number of the writers have told him of their past experiences with violence. Archibald-Barber, an associate professor of Indigenous literature at First Nations University of Canada, said he believes there needs to be a national dialogue about violence within Indigenous communities.

However, he said stands by his decision to include McLeod's writings.

"The open letter they posted does give a bit of a misrepresentation of what this anthology is about," he said.

"It's not about holding up abuse, it's not about supporting male patriarchy, or suppressing anyone's voice. The anthology includes a vast historical record of Indigenous history and literature in all its beauty and ugliness. There has to be a process beyond moral judgment and I chose not to censor any writer."

'Redemption for violent men'

U of R Press publisher Bruce Walsh also said while he understands the concerns outlined in the open letter, he stands by Archibald-Barber's decision to include McLeod's poetry.

U of R Press offered to provide additional space for the authors of the letter in the anthology to write about violence toward women, but that offer was declined, said Walsh.

Including McLeod's writings was a chance to publish someone who has stood up and taken ownership of their actions, Walsh added, noting McLeod underwent "intensive therapy" after pleading guilty and resigned his teaching position at Trent University.

"I believe there can be redemption for violent men, just as there can be for anyone," said Walsh.

"Writing provides a means to promote healing for so many like Neal, shaped by intergenerational trauma and colonialism."

Walsh said removing McLeod's entry against the wishes of the editor would abandon the editors' academic freedom.

Accountability an act of love: letter-writer

But accountability is also important, argued Erica Violet-Lee, a Cree activist who initiated the open letter.

"When we demand accountability of men who have harmed women and therefore our communities, it's a deep act of love. What example does it set for boys if men are allowed to abuse women without consequences?

"Native men aren't disposable; but there's a big difference between throwing someone away and holding them accountable for their actions."

Letter signatory and Haisla novelist Eden Robinson, whose book Son of a Trickster is on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, said she believes violence against women needs to be addressed, even among her small circle of fellow Indigenous authors.

"It's a little painful because I have worked with Neal … we had a good working relationship," said Robinson.

"Aside from the individuals involved, our society seems to let a lot of violence against women slide and I think changing that begins with everybody."

As of Friday afternoon, 65 prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices across the country had signed the letter in solidarity.

The U of R Press plans to establish an Indigenous Advisory Board to assist with guidance on similar issues in the future, said Walsh.

The anthology, due to be published in spring 2018, features early Cree missionary writings, speeches of historical treaty chiefs, prison writings from Louis Riel, elder stories and contemporary Indigenous writers.