What Dene author Katlia Lafferty hopes to achieve as Canada's first climate writer-in-residence
This interview originally aired on March 26, 2022.
Northern Dene author and journalist Katlia (Katłįà) Lafferty writes out of where she is from — the people and the land of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Her memoir, Northern Wildflower, topped the bestseller list in the Northwest Territories in 2018.
Her debut 2020 novel, Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat'a, is set in Canada's far North and is about a community being stalked by a dark presence as it comes into contact with different characters throughout the narrative.
Lafferty is also a student in the joint Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders doctoral program at the University of Victoria. She dedicates her work and her studies to supporting climate change initiatives and advocacy on issues that bear great impact on Indigenous peoples.
Her third book, This House is Not a Home, will be published in September 2022. The intergenerational coming-of-age novel follows Kǫ̀, a Dene man who grew up entirely on the land before being taken to residential school. When he finally returns home, he struggles to connect with his family.
Lafferty was named the first climate writer-in-residence by the West Vancouver Memorial Library earlier this year. The position, which was part of the library's Climate Future initiative, took place from January to April 2022.
Lafferty spoke with Shelagh Rogers about what it meant to be named to the innovative role.
What does it mean to be a climate writer-in-residence?
Katlia Lafferty: Well, it's a very big responsibility, and I'm taking it very seriously. We have an emergency on our hands that we need to bring people together and connect and talk about. And that's basically what this role is. I'm just thankful that I have the opportunity to do this work.
Before we go further, would you like to introduce yourself about who you are? And, as they would say in Newfoundland, who knit you together?
Katlia Lafferty: I was primarily raised by my grandparents. My grandmother, Alice Lafferty, was born and raised in Denendeh on an island in the north arm of the Great Slave Lake. She grew up there on the land until she was in her 20s and then moved into Yellowknife, which we call Sambaa K'e, Northwest Territories. And there she met my papa, who was from the Lac la Biche. He was Métis — his mother was full Cree, and his father was American.
We have an emergency on our hands that we need to bring people together to connect and talk about.
My grandmother's grandmother was named Catherine — whom I'm named after, Catherine Bouvier. She's a very big name in the North. She's a matriarch, and she was the first woman to be a mail carrier to all the different communities by dog teams. So she was very strong and she was the granddaughter of François Beaulieu, who led Alexander Mackenzie down the Mackenzie River.
So there's a lot of history there that I'm still exploring, but those are my roots.
What plans are starting to gel in your mind for what you would like to do in your residency?
Katlia Lafferty: Libraries are a great place, and so we're going to be rolling out quite a few programs. We're going to be looking at Braiding Sweetgrass with one of the book clubs. And we're going to be working with some youth on nature as character. We're going to really ground ourselves and talk about how important place-based learning is.
So we're going to choose an element that we want to base our writing around the perspective of — whether that be a flower or a tree or the ocean — we can immerse ourselves in that, and be that. And then we're going to walk through what a conflict would look like and what the solution would look like. So we're also going to be having some conversations around climate anxiety, which is something that is a huge thing right now for youth, especially.
We're going to be working with some elders in some of the surrounding nations — Squamish for sure — on building a program around the seven generations, which is based on the principles of taking care of the land for the next generations ahead of us and what that looks like.
You write about this yearning to seek justice in your book, Northern Wildflower. Where does that come from?
Katlia Lafferty: I lived in poverty when I was young, and I had a lot of addiction in my family. Now in my older years, I know that it all came from colonization and the impact that that had on my family. I think I just always didn't put a lot of emphasis on money. That's where I start to look to the way we live our lives right now. It's all centred around money and the importance of money and how much money you can get capitalizing on this and that.
And that is a lot of where global warming is coming from. And that is the reason why it's not stopping — there's too much money invested into corporations that are polluting and there's nothing in it for the corporations that are going to turn the switch off. Until there's something in it for them, they're going to keep going as business as usual. So I write about money in Northern Wildflower and how it was first introduced to the North not that long ago.
I think we have to remember that at the end of the day, is it going to be money or is it going to be clean water and a clean Earth?
People think money has been around for a long time. I mean, it has, but in the North it really hasn't. There's a book called We Remember the Coming of the White Man, and it's a compilation of stories by elders in the North talking about how they remember money coming into the communities and how it was useless to them.
They're like, "We don't get what this is going to do for us while we're living out on the land? It looks like buttons; it's not going to help us at all." I think we have to remember that at the end of the day, is it going to be money or is it going to be clean water and a clean Earth?
How can historic Indigenous respect for the environment be incorporated into our current environmental practices?
Katlia Lafferty: There are many different Indigenous stories across Turtle Island, and most of them have an element of the importance of animals and the importance of nature in our stories, our teachings and their lessons. We need to go back to those teachings. I don't want to pan-Indigenize, but just speaking from my own community, I think we've always been caretakers of the land and we've always been the guardians of the land.
We've always been caretakers and guardians of the land.
The more we can fall in line with the principles of the laws of Indigenous nations, the better. We have to get right down to it and really think, "How am I living my life and how can I change?"
Katlia Lafferty's comments have been edited for length and clarity.