Duncan McCue reflects on his unusual nickname in The Shoe Boy
This interview originally aired on May 9, 2020.
As a teenager, Duncan McCue didn't know how to trap or speak Cree. But that didn't stop him from spending a winter on the trapline with a Cree family in northern Quebec, on James Bay.
In 2016, McCue spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Shoe Boy.
Childhood on the move
"I'm an Anishinaabe Ojibwa from a small community in southern Ontario, and we moved to northern Quebec when I was 11. I went from being the only Native kid in my school to living on a reserve, where the kids started calling me 'waamishtikushiiu,' which means 'whiteman,' because I didn't speak Cree. For me, it was a huge culture shock. I didn't fit in at the school.
"The dropout rate was almost 90 per cent. The kids I was going to school with were four or five years older than me and they were tough. My parents decided that it would be best for me to head south and continue my education, so I went away to a boarding school. When I graduated, my dad asked if I wanted to take a year off and spend some time on a trapline, I loved the connection I had with the Cree, so I said yes."
A nickname with history
"I stayed with a Cree family. Robbie Matthews, Sr. ended up being quite a mentor to me. He called me the Shoe Boy, and for the longest time, I didn't know what it meant. I was there to learn about living off the land. There's a pecking order in hunting families and I was definitely at the bottom of it.
I didn't know how to trap; I was a pretty lousy hunter.
"I didn't know how to trap. I was a pretty lousy hunter. I did what I could around the camp, like sweeping out the cabin. Robbie called me Shoe Boy, and I think that was a reference to the residential school system. He lived in the village of Chisasibi, but he did go away to residential a school and I think that was a reference to the menial tasks the students were often asked to do."
Connecting with the land
"Robbie, his son Bruce, and the other boys spent a lot of time trying to teach me the values of being a hunter and how important it was to be connected to the land and understand the movement of the animals. Slowly, I started to take these lessons, and Robbie's spiritual connection to the land started to become something that I could understand.
"Toward the end of my time there, I could recognize where to set a beaver trap, I was snaring rabbits, and bringing down some ptarmigan. All these things made me feel connected to my Indigenous identity in a way that I hadn't before.
Slowly, I started to take these lessons, and Robbie's spiritual connection to the land started to become something that I could understand.
"Leaving, for me, was a bit bittersweet. I had gone through this difficult period of doubting myself and my Indigenous identity and being out on the trapline gave me some connection to a deeper, longer history."
Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed.