Louise Bernice Halfe named Canada's new parliamentary poet laureate

Halfe is the first poet who was born and raised in an Indigenous community to hold the position.

Appointment is 'a process of reconciliation,' Halfe told CBC Radio's The House

Renowned writer Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by the Cree name Sky Dancer, has been named Canada's next parliamentary poet laureate. (The Canadian Press)

Renowned writer Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by the Cree name Sky Dancer, has been named Canada's new parliamentary poet laureate.

Halfe, who was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School in central Alberta, is the ninth poet to hold the position.

She is the first to hail from an Indigenous community.

"Being selected as the poet for Parliament is, in fact, a process of reconciliation," Halfe said in an interview on CBC Radio's The House. "It's a step forward for sure. There is no doubt about that."

Halfe said her work is about "recording the history" of her personal experiences and those of her family and community. 

"I'm sharing it from ... a very deep perspective," she said. "I'm not sterilizing the situation."

Newly-appointed Parliamentary Poet Laureate Louise Bernice Halfe — who also goes by the Cree name Sky Dancer — shares how poetry can play a role in a time of crisis and reconciliation.

Pandemic is a time for introspection

The Saskatoon wordsmith, who has won accolades for weaving Cree language and teachings into her works, previously served as Saskatchewan's second poet laureate.

Her poetry collections include Bear Bones & FeathersBlue MarrowThe Crooked Good and Burning in this Midnight Dream. Her latest poetry collection, awâsis – kinky and disheveled, is to be released in this spring.

Halfe read an excerpt from the upcoming collection to host Chris Hall — a piece called One in a Thousand, which was inspired by humorous stories the poet collected from Saskatoon's white and Indigenous communities.

Halfe said everyone, not just parliamentarians, could benefit from the whimsy and reflection offered by such work.

"I think COVID is providing that introspection," she said, adding that the ongoing pandemic hasn't disrupted the solitary lifestyle preferred by many writers.

Looking ahead to her mandate over the next two years, Halfe said her focus is on crossing barriers and fostering dialogue.

"Of utmost importance for me is a relationship so we can be friends," she said.

Highly acclaimed

Halfe has received numerous accolades throughout her career. Blue Marrow was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 1998. Burning in this Midnight Dream won the League of Canadian Poets Raymond Souster Award and the High Plains Book Award.

In 2017, Halfe won the Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize, which is given to a mid-career poet with a remarkable body of work.

"I was told that Bear Bones & Feathers may be the only book I'd ever write — I saw this as a challenge to prove them wrong! It may have become a reality if I hadn't persevered and believed I had something important to say about aboriginal history. Sylvia Vance, co-editor of the anthology Women Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada, my English prof, Ron Marken, and my Elders all believed I had the gift of voice and writing. Their encouragement gave me the confidence to keep forging," Halfe told CBC Books in 2017.

Halfe is also a trained social worker who works with Opik, a circle of Indigenous elders that supports apprehended children and their families.

The Saskatchewan poet talks about her new poetry collection, the damaging legacy of residential school, and her reconnection with her Cree roots.

"I am deeply honoured and humbled to serve the people from coast to coast to coast. My dream is that poetry will be given the same stature as that of the novel. It is a privilege to bring the First Peoples' voices and stories, poetry and whatever genre they are bringing to life to the forefront. Thank you for this gift," Halfe said in a news release.

Appointed for a two-year term, the parliamentary poet laureate's duties include writing compositions for special occasions, including for use in Parliament, and advising the parliamentary librarian.

Other previous parliamentary poet laureates include George Bowering, Pauline Michel, John Steffler, Fred Wah, Georgette LeBlanc and George Elliott Clarke.

With files from CBC Books and CBC Radio's The House

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