'Heaven's like West Edmonton Mall': Collecting stories from elders

Author Richard Van Camp knew he wanted to dedicate his life to telling stories after an Elder shared her experience with the afterlife. Van Camp says stories are the “soul fire” we need right now – in the pandemic and onward.

Author Richard Van Camp says stories are the “soul fire” we need this winter.

In his latest book, Richard Van Camp explores storytelling as a way of bringing people closer together, even when we're physically further apart due to the pandemic. (William Au)

As a teenager, Richard Van Camp knew what he wanted to do with his life after an elder shared her vision of heaven with him.

When he was 19 years old, he got a job driving a "big ol' one-ton handy bus" to escort elders wherever they wanted to go – mostly Bingo games, grocery runs and doctor's visits – around Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

One day he was called to go to Chipewyan Elder Maria Brown's home to pick her up.

He remembers waiting for Brown inside her front door. She stood at the top of the stairs and called down to him, "Richard, did I ever tell you about the time I died?"

Chipewyan Elder Maria Brown inspired Van Camp to tell stories. (Gladys Rehm)

He was speechless.

"Oh, I died. I died in my sleep," she said. "You wanna know what heaven's like?"

"Sure!" he yelled back.

"Heaven," she continued, "is like West Edmonton Mall."

That was the moment he realized he wanted to gather stories, write stories and retell stories for the rest of his life.

"When you hear a great story - when you hear just an 'oh my goodness'-miracle-story," he says, "You just want to run out and tell 20 people, you want to share that good news and you want to connect people with that story."

After Brown's story (heaven was filled with bright colours, and joyful young women who had unlimited access to free yarn, by the way) Van Camp ran out to Radio Shack to buy a tape recorder. He began recording and transcribing stories from the elders, and would give them a copy in print.

Listen to Maria Brown talk about heaven to Richard Van Camp in 1992.

Since then, Van Camp has gone on to write 24 books – including novels, short stories, an illustrated children's book, and a soon-to-published graphic novel series. He lives in Edmonton with his wife, University of Alberta professor Keavy Martin (also a story scholar), and their six-year-old son Edzazii (whose name is inspired by the Tlicho Dene word for "bone marrow").   

Stories can floor us with awe. I think that storytelling is medicine. I think it's soul fire. I think it reminds us of what it means to be human.- Richard Van Camp


Stories as "medicine" in a pandemic

This summer, Van Camp served as Storyteller in Residence at the Calgary Public Library. He says the role was meant to be "a lighthouse for people" amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Calgary Public Library members were able to book virtual one-on-one time with Van Camp this summer, while he served as Storyteller in Residence. (Submitted by Richard Van Camp)

He helped approximately 200 people tell their own stories, digitize family memories and helped them get closer to publication on their dream writing projects.

Van Camp says stories are exactly what we need right now.

Stories remind us that "all storms pass," he says because they help remind us "we've been here before."

Van Camp's library workshops, Gathering Our Family Medicines Together, went well beyond just gathering stories.

He believes the downtime offered by social distancing measures are an opportunity to reclaim all family medicines – stories, recipes, gardening tips – anything that can bring comfort and connection.  

It's both a time to move slowly with family (he's more present at home with his son and wife than ever), and act quickly.

"If there's anything I've learned," he says, "It's this: use this time now. Don't wait to hold back your love. Share it now. Let people know exactly what they mean to you."  

 "If you have a crush on somebody, come clean and say, 'Hey, I'm crazy about you!' …What have you got to lose?"


Written and produced by Kate Adach.


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