Maria Campbell on the pain and relief of re-releasing Halfbreed with uncut account of RCMP rape
Métis author says the published version of her 1973 memoir 'didn't tell the complete story'
This story was originally published on Nov 29, 2019.
Nearly five decades after Maria Campbell first published her seminal memoir Halfbreed, she says she finally feels like it's finished.
That's because the first version of the book was incomplete. Two integral pages detailing her account of being raped by a Mountie when she was 14 years old had been excised.
Those long-lost pages were discovered last year in an unpublished manuscript, and now the memoir has been re-released intact for the first time.
"I feel like it's finished now, because it never felt finished for me," Campbell said. "I always felt like there was a part of it that was missing, and that it didn't tell the complete story."
The Métis author, broadcaster and filmmaker joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio to discuss Halfbreed's legacy and continued relevance today.
Campbell was only 33 when she published Halfbreed, but it reads like the memoir of someone who's lived a long life.
It is both joyful and tragic as it describes growing up in a Métis family in rural Saskatchewan, and Campbell's search for self-discovery amid poverty, substance abuse and restrictive colonial laws.
Her publisher Jack McClelland told her it would be a best-seller and that it would open up a world of opportunity for her — and he was right.
But he insisted that in order to get there, she'd have to remove the passages about her rape, she said. He said the RCMP would issue an injunction and stop the book from ever seeing the light of day, and that Campbell would be dragged before the courts, but would never see justice.
Campbell held firm. This was an integral part of her story, and the stories of many other Indigenous women and girls. She told him that if he removed those pages, she wouldn't consent to publishing.
He promised he would keep them in, she said. But when the first batch of books arrived at her home, the pages were nowhere to be found. She felt betrayed.
"I trusted him," she said. "I was angry with him at the time, but I understood, you know, later why he did it."
Lost pages found again
Young and naive, Campbell says she never thought to keep a paper trail. She hadn't kept a copy of her original manuscript, so the pages were gone.
Until two researchers — Simon Fraser University Indigenous studies professor Deanna Reder and her research assistant Alix Shield — discovered them in the McClelland & Stewart archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
With Campbell's permission, they published the pages — marked with big red Xs — online. Shortly after, McClelland & Stewart announced they would reprint the book in its entirety. It hit shelves Nov. 2.
Seeing those pages again after all those years was difficult, Campbell says. They paint a grisly scene.
Three officers came to Campbell's rural Saskatchewan home in the 1950s looking for her father's hidden cache of meat. As a Métis man, he had no hunting rights and was considered an illegal poacher.
While two of the officers searched the home, a third questioned Campbell, she wrote, insisting she knew where the meat was and telling her she was "too pretty to go to jail."
Then he grabbed her arm, she wrote, dragged her to her grandmother's bed and raped her.
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She didn't tell her father what had happened until the book was about to be published, she said.
"I let it go. So when I saw it again ... all of that was all opened up again," she said, her voice catching.
"The memory of telling my father, you know, exposing my family to goodness knows what, because it was a lot of fear back then when the book was published, when we thought that it was going to be left in.
"But even today, you know, I don't know what can happen. Indigenous people have a great fear of the police."
Since the book came out again, she says she's been contacted by several women with similar stories, echoing her same fear.
"All of it same thing — there was this fear of not talking about it, you can't talk about it," she said, "Because even if nothing happens to you, something could happen to members of your family."
The Saskatchewan RCMP last year called Campbell's story "highly concerning" and vowed to look into it. As It Happens has reached out for an update on the case, but the RCMP did not immediately respond.
A story of warmth and hope
Despite those two difficult pages — as well as Campbell's accounts of racism, oppression, depression and addiction — Halfbreed is often a warm and joyous book.
She paints a rich picture of her childhood home, her close-knit family, her great-grandmother's wisdom and strength, and her people's resistance and resilience.
"I think that's been the hardest throughout my [life], you know, since the book was published is that so many people think that I had such a hard life. And we were poor, but our people are really strong there. They're very joyful people," she said.
"We laugh through everything, we sing and dance through everything and, you know, when I look at my own community with all of the stuff that happened in that community and to our people, we have some amazing people that have come out of there."
She says it's no coincidence Halfbreed is coming out again now, when it's perhaps more relevant than ever.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission described in disturbing detail what happened to the 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children who were removed from their communities and forced to attend residential schools. The Sixties Scoop settlement revealed impact of child welfare removal on Indigenous families. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry laid bare what it called Canada's genocide on Indigenous women and two-spirt people.
And all of these issues are ongoing. Justice Canada is currently fighting an order to compensate First Nations children impacted by the on-reserve child welfare system.
"We have lots of amazing, wonderful things that happen. I can't afford to go out and buy all the books that are written by Indigenous people today, where at one time I could. I can't keep track of all of the young people who are graduating with PhDs and starting to get to jobs in places of authority," she said.
"But for every single time that happens, it's like we've lost another hundred kids."
- Listen to Maria Campbell read an excerpt from her memoir Halfbreed:
Still, Campbell says she is as optimistic now as she was in 1973, when she concluded her book with the words: "I believe that one day very soon people will set aside their differences and come together as one."
"I know that we have to keep working, but there's lots of other people coming behind us. And it's not just Indigenous people; it's all of us are going to have to work together. We've got to think about our great-grandchildren," she told Off.
"What gives me hope are kids because ... they're thinking about what's happening to our Earth, what's happening to our land, what's happening to our water. Young people give me hope. They give me hope because they know that if that doesn't change, it's all finished."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.