As It Happens

Twitter project taught this Cree author about Indigenous strength and humour — and got him a book deal

Author Paul Seesequasis has a new book coming out filled with beautiful vintage photographs of Indigenous life in Canada — and he has his mother to thank.
Paul Seesequasis, writer and editor, is optimistic that perceptions of indigenous peoples are changing. (Red Works)

Story transcript

Sharing archival photos of Indigenous life on Twitter has not only taught author Paul Seesequasis about the strength and humour of his mother's generation — but it also netted him a book deal.

The Saskatchewan Plains Cree writer and journalist started posting the images two years ago, while the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were dominating the headlines.

Inspired by a comment from his residential school survivor mother that "we don't hear enough positive stories about Indigenous life during that time," he started digging up old images in public archives of Aboriginal Peoples across Canada from the 1940s to the 1970s.

​​"And from there I started posting them up on Twitter and later on Facebook, and just started to receive a very positive response and that kind of gave me the momentum to keep going," Seesequasis told As It Happens.

Penguin Random House took notice and will be collecting the images in a book called Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun, due to hit shelves in the fall of 2018. 

Seesequasis spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about the photos. Here is a part of their conversation.

SB: Were you looking for just images that depicted positive scenes of Indigenous life?

PS: I was looking for images that captured the resilience and the integrity of communities across Canada during that time. So, in that essence, yes, positive.

But I was also looking for photos that captured the sense of personality of people, as well as people going about their day-to-day lives, as opposed to posed photographs.

SB:  Are there a couple that really stand out for you as meeting your objectives?

PS: One would be by Richard Harrington, who was up in Nunavut, or what is now Nunavut, in the late '40s and early '50s, and he took one called "Foot Race." 

It's just a marvelous photo. It captures humour and joy and day-to-day life, and I think that one stands out.

As does a photo by Rosemary Eaton of a Dene boy in Saskatchewan, and he's dressed in a very beautiful beaded jacket and he has this lead dog bedside him and the dog is sort of snuggling against his leg, and there's just something very warm in that photo that when its posted, people have responded to.

To me, it's photos like that, they just speak to something in our hearts or in how we view them that captures a moment as much as a photograph can, and captures the integrity of the subjects themselves. 

SB: Tell me about some of the responses you've been getting.

PS: I'm getting responses from people saying, 'Oh, that's my late father' or 'That's my auntie, that's my uncle,' or 'Oh my god, that's me and I was 16 with my dog and I've never seen this photo before.'

I think sometimes it is the process of reclamation, of people being able to reclaim their families or how their ancestors lived with the land, as well as culture and traditions.

SB: What have you personally learned about Indigenous identity through curating these photos? 

PS: The first thing I've learned is respect for the hardships that people went through ... particularly in instances when there's starvation, near starvation, residential schools — all that process that attempted to shatter the sense of community within different regions.

But at the same time how, despite that, people were able to hold it together. And without their resilience and without their determination, you know, our languages would not be here, the culture would not be here in the way it is. And I think we're seeing now a new generation coming up that is really reaping the benefits of what the previous generations were able to do.

And then there's the humour and the tall stories that also come out with the photos, and that's also part of oral history and a very rewarding thing to be a small part of.

SB: Tell me one of those humorous stories. I understand there's one about a boy and a cigarette.

PS: Oh yeah, there's one where Jacob Partridge, who is Kuujjuaq, and Rosemary Eaton, who is one of the pioneering photojournalists ... just happened to be there this day he had his first cigarette. And I think he was probably having it, as he said, to show off to her, 'cause he was 16 at the time.

You can sort of see that he's kind of playing with the camera a bit and feeling quite proud of himself. Now, you know, 50 years later, he's laughing about that.

SB: So, I've got to ask you what your mom thinks of all this?

PS: I think she thinks it keeps me out of trouble. Maybe she thinks I spend too much time on the computer, I'm not sure. We'll know when the book comes out how she feels about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Paul Seesequasis.