Thunder Bay

Canada Reads: 5 Lessons from Birdie author Tracey Lindberg in Thunder Bay

Canada Reads author Tracey Lindberg visited Thunder Bay and in a warm, witty and thought-provoking discussion shared some of her thoughts on what readers might take away from her debut novel, Birdie.

'Grotesque events can happen to you, but it's not you,' Lindberg says

Tracey Lindberg spoke to a full house at the Waverley branch of the Thunder Bay Public Library on Mon. March 7. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

Canada Reads author Tracey Lindberg visited Thunder Bay, Ont., and in a warm, witty and thought-provoking discussion shared some of her thoughts on what readers might take away from her debut novel, Birdie.

The book tells the story of Bernice Meetoos, who leaves her Cree community in northern Alberta and travels to British Columbia in a search for home, and hope, after a childhood shattered by sexual abuse.

Here are five things the audience at the Thunder Bay Public Library learned from Lindberg, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa and an activist for the rights of indigenous women and children.

1. Where the author and main character meet

The answer to that question is complicated, and varies from day-to-day, Lindberg said.

"Today, I feel full-on Bernice."

She explained that earlier in the day she delivered a very open and revealing speech to students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school in Thunder Bay.
Tracey Lindberg is a law professor at the University of Ottawa. She shared her experiences as an aboriginal women in law with students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school in Thunder Bay. It is an all-First Nations school (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"Having peeled back the layers, to be able to say to them, gross things can happen. Grotesque events can happen to you, but it's not you," she said.

"The part of me that wrote the book is absolutely here today, and I can say lots she experienced."

But on a different day, Lindberg feels separate from Birdie and all she has lived. "It becomes an expression of the possibility or potential of all indigenous peoples, or some indigenous people."

2. Use your words

Birdie is a novel rich in Aboriginal concepts and culture, and sometimes Lindberg couldn't find the appropriate English word to describe the emotions and relationships her Cree characters were experiencing. 

But she came up with a very literal solution, by simply creating the words she needed, such as "motherlove", "sistercousin" and "fearanger".

"Somebody had called them compound words, and I don't think of them that way," Lindberg said. "I just think of them as big enough. Finally, there was a word big enough to encompass what I was feeling or thinking and I would press them together and they made sense to me."

3. The Beachcombers still matter

The Beachcombers ran on CBC-TV from 1972 - 1990. One of the characters was a First Nations man named Jesse Jim, portrayed by Pat John. He was a business partner to Bruno Gerussi's Nick Adonidas.
Chief Dan George (left) and Pat John appeared on The Beachcombers on CBC-TV, during its 18-year run. John portrayed Jesse Jim. (pinterest)

Lindberg cheerfully admitted she had a picture of Jesse hanging in her bedroom when she was growing up.

"He was gainfully employed. He was attractive. He was an Indian man on TV," said Lindberg.

"That was it. You'd see Buffy Ste. Marie on Sesame Street and that was the extant of it. In terms of iconic, that was the only person I saw on tv until, I'm sure, my teens," said Lindberg.

Leonardo DiCaprio's role in the film The Revenant suggests things haven't changed much, said Lindberg.

"There is still a skewed perspective of who is the imaginable Indian and that's a male dominated form and it's often the sort of awful, stigmatized, savagery that goes along with it," she said.

4. Familes are born and made

Bernice is also on a quest to find a sense of belonging, and to create a family, whether or not those people are blood relations, said Lindberg.

Bernice decides the healthiest people around her are these three women - her auntie Val, cousin Frida, and Lola, who runs the bakery where Bernice works.

"In that, there is all sorts of forgiveness, unspoken, and all sorts of kindness, and also an adjudication about the worth of kind people around you and that nobody is the worst thing they ever did. People are the best they do," said Lindberg.

Lola is white, and her inclusion in the family can surprise people, said Lindberg.

"Lola is metaphorically Canada", Lindberg said chuckling. "She's a little bit of a bigot at times, but she's loving and kind and well-intentioned and she's good."

5. The art of reconciliation

Birdie hit stores shelves the same week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its final report.

The timing was completely coincidental said Lindberg, but she did offer her thoughts on how art can open up the conversation around reconciliation and starting over.
Tracey Lindberg (left), the author of Birdie, signs books for audience members at a Canada Reads event in Thunder Bay. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"These things are never solved in a courtroom. These things are never solved in a city council room... These things are solved in our kitchens, in our living rooms," she said.

"Art allows us into other people's bedrooms, other people's kitchens, other people's homes," she added.

Lindberg said since the book was published she has heard from people that they now look at Indigenous women in a different way.

"Maybe that's what art can offer us, in term of change — that we can change one heart at a time," she said. 

"Maybe we've been too mindful. We've been thinking about changing people's minds and dictating through law and legislation where people go," she said. "Maybe it's actually about changing the way people feel."