Edmonton woman pens graphic novel about aboriginal gang violence and healing

The Edmonton author of a graphic novel due out in May hopes young aboriginal people will find hope and healing through her story.

Author used her experience as counsellor to craft main character

Author Patti Laboucane-Benson and illustrator Kelly Mellings have worked together on projects before, The Outside Circle is their latest collaboration. (The Outside Circle/Kelly Mellings )

The Edmonton author of a graphic novel hopes young aboriginal people will find hope and healing through her story. 

Patti Laboucane-Benson wrote The Outside Circle, now available in some stores, in collaboration with illustrator Kelly Mellings 

It's the story of Pete, a young aboriginal man wrapped up in gang life in Edmonton who winds up in jail and, through a unique healing program, realizes he needs to make changes in his life.

"Pete's story is a story that's pretty common," said Laboucane-Benson, "even the healing story is getting to be more common."

Laboucane-Benson has worked for Native Counselling Services of Alberta for nearly two decades and based the book on the work and research she's done on historic trauma healing programs.

"(Pete) is a composite of so many men and women I've met or worked with," said Laboucane-Benson reflecting on the main character in the book. 

In the novel, Pete comes to learn about the struggles of aboriginal people in Canada due to colonization, and also discovers his own family history.

"My goal in this book was to tell the truth, whether it was an ex-gang member that picked it up or someone from the government who's in charge of policy." 

Rather than publishing something academic or writing a textbook, Laboucane-Benson wanted to create a graphic novel so her research could appeal to more people. 

The idea of making the story of residential school trauma more accessible to the public also interested Edmonton illustrator, Kelly Mellings who agreed to illustrate the book with the hope that The Outside Circle can help clear up prejudices. 

Artist immersed himself in aboriginal culture

"You often get in conversations about things and you hear the same kind of arguments from people who only know one side, like, why doesn't that guy just get a job, or why are there so many Native people in jails?," he said.

"I could give (this book) to them and say, read this, maybe think about this."

Mellings immersed himself in aboriginal culture as preparation to illustrate the book. He visited the remote Northern community of Tlicho, N.W.T., to teach drawing classes to aboriginal children. He also participated in sweats and smudge ceremonies, and toured a former residential school. 

"I was just imagining my own daughter being taken away from home, from her culture and being yelled at like that," he said. "You don't realize how close to home it is and how recently all that stuff has happened."

Mellings said he felt a lot of pressure as a white man to do justice to Pete's story.

"You want to get it right. I took a very long time on the book. In the end I think the work gets to where it needs to be for the subject matter."

Laboucane-Benson said Mellings' work brings the graphic novel to life.

"I think there's a profound feeling of spiritualism and pain, grief, and loss -- all of that was communicated so beautifully by Kelly," she said. "That's a very difficult thing to do if I was to describe that in a regular novel."

Laboucan-Benson said she hopes the book will be used across Canada in high schools and universities.

"My goal was to write this for my son's generation," she said.

"There should not be this divide between First People and the rest of Canada. We've got to come together and work together." 


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