In 215, Duncan Mercredi uses poetry to mourn the lives lost and forever changed by residential schools
This interview originally aired on April 23, 2022.
Duncan Mercredi is a Cree-Métis writer and storyteller and the poet laureate of Winnipeg. His books include mahikan ka onot and Spirit of the Wolf.
Mercredi's mother spent eight years in Brandon Residential Institution and rarely talked about it. Over the years, he's written many poems about his mother, which he never planned to publish.
But when it was confirmed that the remains of at least 215 children were buried at Kamloops Residential School, he knew he had to respond. His latest collection of poetry, 215, is inspired by the children who lost their lives and the stories of his mother and other residential school survivors.
Duncan Mercredi spoke to Shelagh Rogers about the stories of his own elders that prompted him to write 215.
"I knew my mother was not from Grand Rapids, Misipawistik. She was a very quiet woman and never said much. She never talked about the residential school until much later, probably in the '60s after hydro came into the community that she started talking about some of the experiences that she had there. But she was only comfortable talking about it after a few drinks.
We had people in Grand Rapids that had gone to residential school, so we knew some of the stories that they brought back.
"We had people in Grand Rapids that had gone to residential school, so we knew some of the stories that they brought back. For her to raise what she experienced, I think, brought back a few bad memories for her."
A child's perspective
"My mother to me was the incredible woman who survived eight years in residential schools. She moved to a different village with a Second World War veteran who had his own issues, and having those two worlds collide — she managed to deal with that with a collision between the two experiences.
"A lot of times I think she would have preferred to have just left. But she stayed through what I call 'the crying times.' And it wasn't until the 1960s that she started opening up a little bit but she'd always say, 'Don't tell these stories.' When I was a boy I'd sneak downstairs and watch her at the table having her last cup of tea. She always cried a little bit silently. You could tell she was crying. I'd always ask her why. She'd say, 'It's not for you to know.'
It wasn't until the 1960s that she started opening up a little bit — but she'd always say, 'Don't tell these stories.'
"But again, in the 1960s, the stories started to come out about what she went through, what she saw. And she would say, 'Don't tell anybody this, it's not for other people to know.' So that fear of the residential institution was still within her. And it wasn't until these last few years that I started writing the pieces about her life."
The weight of loss
"My mother must have been thinking about those children that she knew and lost. But she was one of the older ones, she was eight years old when she went to residential school. My auntie was five and my uncle was nine — but they were separated. And she ended up being the caregiver to the younger kids, the ones four or five, six years old because she was eight years old.
I think losing all of those babies really affected her more than we really thought or heard or knew at the time.
"And missing or losing some of them over the years — to them, they're a family because she was taking care of them, even though they were not relatives. And I think losing all of those babies really affected her more than we really thought or heard or knew at the time. It was tough."
"When the word came out about 215, the first discovery of the unmarked graves, 'the forgotten ones,' I started gathering some of the stuff I'd written and I started writing new stuff. We always knew that children didn't come back, but nobody talked about it.
We always knew that children didn't come back, but nobody talked about it.
"I had no plans for having it published. But when I started reading the comments from people who refused to believe that this actually happened. That's when I figured this has to be heard from people who actually had mothers and fathers of residential school and experienced what they did."
LISTEN | Duncan Mercredi on CBC Winnipeg's Information Radio
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.