Saskatchewan

Sask. teen publishes book of poetry about growing up in foster care

Joshua Heath, 17, was in and out of 13 foster homes throughout his life. Now he's published a book of poetry detailing his experiences.

Joshua Heath's 'Shopping Cart Boy' now being used in B.C. English class

Shopping Cart Boy: Poems of My Life reflects how Joshua Heath felt growing up in foster care, and dealing with the loss of a parent to addiction. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

The shopping cart wheels
Rattled on broken pavement
I looked out of my small metal prison
As my mom searched for a can or two
In the alleys of the hood
By ten we would be at Sarcan on Albert Street
Or by eleven on Grant Road
Trading cans for coins
For her cure that never helps…

Joshua Heath entered foster care as a baby and bounced around more than a dozen homes. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

That poem was written by 17-year-old Joshua Heath.

He has spent the majority of his life in foster care — 13 homes to be exact — and numerous schools by the age of 12.

"I couldn't believe how many places I had been through when we found out," said Heath, who lives in southern Saskatchewan. "It felt horrible. I didn't remember any of them."  

Heath entered foster care for the first time as a baby. In 2013, he discovered his mother had died in her sleep in the bed next to him.

Now he has found a positive outlet for his story by writing and hopes to help other teens who may be in similar situations.

The newly published book of poetry, Shopping Cart Boy: Poems of My Life, is filled with the hard-hitting realities of Heath's life: from bouncing in and out of foster care, to living with his mother, who battled a long addiction with alcohol, to being abused, homeless and other teen issues, like sex and gangs.

Sheila Webster has helped Heath discover his passion for writing, and helped him to share his experiences through pen and paper. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

Heath's first opportunity to showcase his craft came in the form of a writing seminar. It was also the first time he shared his experience with his mother's death.

"It was very well received," said Sheila Webster, Heath's guardian and writing mentor.

"He started to see a value of writing things down and started to catch on that there is a wider audience than what is around you."

Getting published

In 2018, Heath made several chapbooks — small, printed single sheets folded into books — that he sewed together with fishing wire. He took them to an Indigenous conference in Moose Jaw, Sask., that summer hoping to sell a few copies.

There, he met Ellen Hooge, a graphic designer with a small Calgary publishing agency called Siretona Creative, who agreed to let Heath sell his chapbooks at her table.

Heath holds a copy of the first chapbook he made. (Penny Smoke/CBC)

On the last day of the conference, Hooge's husband picked up the book, began to read, and offered double what Heath was asking.

"He made me read the whole book and we both cried on the way home," said Hooge.

"I thought we had to support him. I just thought he's a kid who has articulated what foster children go through and not every child can do that."

Joshua Heath poses on the red carpet of the Regina International Film Festival. (Submitted by Sheila Webster )

She and her partner Colleen McCubbin at Siretona Creative then pursued Heath to publish his book, something he said he wasn't sure he was ready for.

"We spent a lot of time working on projects manually, and trying to talk about his life and trying to weave what he went through. He has always been an oral storyteller," said Webster.

"I think kids just need to connect to things that mean something to them, and this connected with Josh."

A fundraiser was started to help produce the first 500 copies .   

During that time, Webster and Heath also made a 10-minute documentary using an iPhone as an extra component to the book. The films takes the audience to the places Heath describes in his poems.

The video, entitled Joshua: The Story of a Young First Nation Boy, was shortlisted for the 2018 Regina International Film Festival and Awards, in the Saskatchewan short documentary category.

In the classroom

Now CJ MacKinnon-Scott, a high school teacher in the northern community of Chetwynd, B.C., is using some of Heath's poems with her senior English classes.

"I think it was the courageous nature of his writing that caught my eye," said MacKinnon-Scott. "The grittiness of it just resonated with me."

Most of her students have never lived in a large city and don't share the same life experiences as Heath, but that is the reason she chose to use the poems in her classroom.

"We do have a mandate in the B.C. curriculum that we must include and work in Indigenous writing, spoken word and culture. So I use these poems as one of the things I introduce my students with," said MacKinnon-Scott.

"But I am also introducing them, the students, to a (17)-year-old boy who is writing from his own experience."

A high school English teacher in Chetwynd, B.C., uses poems from Shopping Cart Boy: Poems of My Life in her classes to show them how a teen is using creative writing to share his experiences. (Submitted by CJ MacKinnon-Scott)

Heath is no longer in foster care. The Grade 10 student said he now enjoys where he's at in life and is thinking about writing more poetry.

"I plan to keep writing, figure out what's next," said Heath. "It makes me proud because I never thought I could write a book."

About the Author

Penny Smoke

Journalist

Penny Smoke is Cree/Saulteaux and was born and raised in Saskatchewan on the Treaty 4 territory. She currently works with CBC Saskatchewan and has spent time with CBC Indigenous, CBC Storytelling Project as a reporter and as an associate producer with CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition.