Though residential schools were one of the biggest systems that disconnected Indigenous people from their communities, there are many more systems and situation that fractured young Indigenous identities and cultural ties, such as the Sixties Scoop. In her debut novel Bearskin Diary, Carol Daniels applies journalistic storytelling to explore complexities young Indigenous Canadians face growing up away from their communities and their struggle to reconnect with their heritage.
Sandy was swooped out of the arms of her mother as a newborn in the Sixties Scoop and fortunate enough to be adopted by a Ukrainian family in a small Saskatchewan town. Despite her luck of finding a loving family Sandy’s childhood and youth is tainted by the racism of her community. These memories, scattered throughout the novel, do not spare the harsh reality of racism and are painful to relive for both Sandy and the reader. From childhood insults to being chased out of a school dance, her difference is distinctly tied to her skin colour, something she begins to resent, developing a heartbreaking habit of trying to scrub the colour from her skin.
In spite of this racism Sandy’s Baba encourages her learn about and draw strength from her hertiage through books about Indigenous culture and history in Canada. Through this education, Sandy develops an academic understanding of her roots. It is not until she pursues her career as a journalist in Regina and then Saskatoon and is tasked with and driven to put a spotlight on Indigenous stories that Sandy has real contact with the community she longs for.
Sandy’s desire to know her Indigenous culture is contrasted with that of her Metis lover, Blue Greyes - raised in the city by a single white mother. Like Sandy, he grew up apart from his Indigenous culture and strived for assimilation, but he never grew out of it. Sandy meets him as he is training to become a police officer, and though he thinks that he might be able to do some good as the only indigenous man on the force, Blue’s pursuit of a career in law enforcement is another way for him to blend-in, to command respect from white and Indigenous people alike. Sandy’s desire to belong to her community and Blue’s need to blend in is a wedge in their relationship.
Reading Bearskin Diary, I could not help but compare Sandy’s character and pursuit to understand her Indigenous culture to that of Agnes in Margot Kane’s acclaimed one-woman show Moonlodge (revived this year by the National Arts Centre’s ensemble member Paula-Jean Prudat). Agnes, like Sandy, was forcefully taken from her family and adopted. While her family situation was terser than Sandy’s both women set out to recover their heritage and find identity and belonging at the powwow.
In Moonlodge, Agnes’s road trip culminates in her attendance at a powwow where she is recognised as sister. For Sandy, the powwow is a stepping stone on her path to claiming her identity. It is at the powwow that she is welcomed into the community and realises her need to be a part of it. An outsider in many ways, she is invited to the powwow by her friend and cameraman, Kyle. Though a white man, Kyle was adopted by Amos as brother when he sought healing for his drinking and depression through Indigenous practices. Kyle’s adoption by the Indigenous community contrasts Sandy’s adoption as child and paints a fuller portrait of Indigenous culture and the quest for healing.
Sandy’s spiritual growth at the powwow supports her personal growth as a journalist. Welcomed into the community, Sandy finds the strength to help break the community’s silence around the sexual assault of young women, and breaks her career as a leading Indigenous woman journalist.
Bearskin Diary spares no details and explores the complexities of what it means to be torn from your community and the challenges of healing this wound. Though Sandy is the heroine, Daniels' journalistic storytelling style presents multiple perspectives, from the heroine to the criminal, from elder to agnostic, telling a broader story about life in Saskatchewan, and Canada as a whole.
Carol Daniels will part of our festival on April 14th, alongside Paul Lynch and Abdourahman A. Waberi and