Turtle Island Reads audience picks Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse

Looking for a new book? The audience at the inaugural Turtle Island Reads event - in Kahnawake and on social media - chose the Ojibwa writer's 2012 novel about an alcoholic coming to terms with his residential-school past.

Quebec Writers' Federation and McGill to donate contenders' books to all English high schools in Quebec

Richard Wagamese's 2012 novel Indian Horse tells the story of an alcoholic coming to terms with his residential-school past. (CBC)

Looking for a new book? 

The audience at the inaugural Turtle Island Reads event - in Kahnawake and on social media - chose Indian Horse, the Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese's 2012 novel about an alcoholic coming to terms with his residential-school past, to put at the top of their must-read list.

More than 160 people turned out to the live-streamed public event on Wednesday evening at the Kahnawake Survival School on Montreal's South Shore, which showcased three recent stories written by and about Indigenous Canadians.

Indian Horse, Nobody Cries at Bingo, and The Back of the Turtle are the three books in Turtle Island Reads.

Co-hosted by CBC's Sonali Karnick and Waubgeshig Rice, the battle-of-the-books event drew thousands of viewers to CBC Montreal's Facebook page.

Here's a recap of the livestream: 

The spectators filled the school's gymnasium to watch three advocates each champion one book of fiction written by an Indigenous Canadian author. 

Here's a look at the advocates and the books they were defending.

Heather White (left), Elma Moses and Gage Karahkwi:io Diabo championed their Indigenous Canadian literary choices at the Sept. 21 event co-sponsored by CBC Montreal in Kahnawake, Que. (CBC)

Indian Horse, defended by Heather White

Heather White, a high school teacher in Kahnawake who plays Caitlin in the APTN show Mohawk Girls, championed Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre), which was also a finalist on CBC's Canada Reads in 2013.

White, whose father was a survivor of Indian residential schools, said Wagamese's book "paints this painfully accurate picture of life within these schools."

"What his book does is opens that door to non-Indigenous people to say, 'You know what? This land you're living on – this country that is supposed to be the land of the free – it came at a cost.'"

Ultimately, the character of Saul Indian Horse endures, and White said his story underscores the resilience of Indigenous people, their connection to the land and the strength of kinship.

Nobody Cries at Bingo, defended by Elma Moses

Elma Moses, a storyteller and professor of First Peoples Studies at Concordia University, defended Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont (Thistledown Press). An autobiographical novel told in a series of vignettes through the voice of a young girl, Dumont's book was at times hilarious, at times poignant, Moses said.

"One of the things that drew me to the book is the fact that Dawn's mom is a very strong woman," said Moses.

"Although she has to deal with violence, she doesn't give up. She learns how to drive a truck and, in the middle of the night, she takes her family and escapes the violence."

The Back of the Turtle, defended by Gage Diabo

Gage Karahkwi:io Diabo, a musician, actor, local Kahnawake radio co-host and master's degree student in First Peoples' literatures at Concordia University, fought for The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King (HarperCollins).

King's novel is set in the present, with the endangered planet a major theme, but "it discusses the environment in a fun way – one that makes you want to continue reading it and not just curl up in a ball and be sad about it," said Diabo.

The main character, he said, is flawed, in defiance of the stereotype of Aboriginal people as "caretakers of the land."

But that, he said, forces readers to take a hard look at themselves.

The Turtle Island Reads event, which drew its inspiration from CBC's Canada Reads, was a collaboration with community leaders on the Kahnawake Mohawk territory, the Quebec Writers' Federation and McGill University's Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas and the Faculty of Arts.

Copies of all three books will be donated to all 114 English-language high schools across the province with the costs covered by the QWF, McGill's Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas and the Faculty of Arts.

A full house

More than 150 spectators filled the gymnasium at Kahnawake Survival School for the 2016 Turtle Island Reads event. (Loreen Pindera/CBC)
The Kahnawake Survival School's gymnasium was packed for the event.

Montrealer Wanda Potrykus got lost in Kahnawake, trying to find school, but finally found it and was "so pleased to be here."

Potrykus came carrying a satchel full of books that she recommends, including a signed copy of Thomas King's Massey Lecture series from 2003, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative.

"I'm a one-woman booster of First Nations literature," Potrykus said.

"Every time a friend asks, 'What can I read?' I recommend First Nations literature. I've lent my books to people from Romania, from Syria, a lot of different places.

"When I heard about Turtle Island Reads, I thought I'd come."