Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

True North: Waubgeshig Rice and Eden Robinson

Moderated by Susan Birkwood of Carleton University, True North was a Sunday evening discussion with two Indigenous authors: Waubgeshig Rice and Eden Robinson.  Coincidentally, CBC broadcasts two podcasts, Unreserved and Reclaimed, both of which feature Indigenous voices and emerging music, on Sunday evenings. I listened to both as I drove home. A quick listen to each show reveals the depth and breadth of talent in Canada’s Indigenous communities, as well as passion, humour, and verve.  I hope Sunday night does not become an Indigenous programming ghetto. The sold-out crowd which responded gleefully to Rice and Robinson’s banter and reflection indicated that a wide audience for such programming certainly exists.


Waubgeshig Rice, a writer and CBC journalist from the Wasauksing First Nation, opened with a reading from his new novel Moon of Crusted Snow. The novel is a post-apocalyptic tale about a prolonged power outage at a northern reserve. The narrative includes the appearance of an unwelcome white guest who seeks refuge from conditions further south. In the passage Rice read aloud, an elder reflects that there is no word for “apocalypse” in Ojibway.  The elder describes the Ojibway world ending over and over – first through being people forced off the land, then through losing their children to residential schools.  “We’ve been through ‘apocalypse’ after ‘apocalypse,’ but we survive,” the elder observes.


Eden Robinson, who is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, has won multiple awards for her writing, including a place on the short-list for the Giller prize. Her reading pulled the audience from an atmospheric Northern scene right into the heart of everyday life: a teenage boy dreaming of his girlfriend smoking joints, dying her hair, looking at her phone. It’s a loving scene of normalcy. Trickster Drift, however, is a story of the supernatural infusing life – the boy, Jared, is stalked by his witch mother’s psychotic ex-husband, and is confronted by the supernatural everywhere he turns. As the son of the Trickster, he must come to terms with his true nature to address the forces at work in his life.


Moderator Susan Birkwood began the evening by asking Waubgeshig Rice about his book tour. Rice shifted uncomfortably and said touring was, “You know, fine. A bit of a grind.” He paused, then continued, “But it can be fun - a fun grind.” Eden Robinson cut through the tension with a cackle and a waggle of her eyebrows.  “A ‘fun grind,’ eh??” The audience joined in her laughter and Birkwood scrambled to bring the talk back on track.


Rice tended towards darker reflection, describing how a white person recently told him that during the Ottawa tornado he had considered “going to the res” for shelter, not unlike the events in Rice’s Moon of Crusted Snow. Rice observed “He thought he would what – be welcomed? That he was entitled to be there?” Birkwood observed that the white character in Rice’s novel is “a bit of a Windigo” (an evil spirit in Algonquin-speaking people’s mythology). Rice agreed, noting that the “Windigo represents the worst of humanity – he arrives when people are at their weakest.” Rice intended his main character to be an “homage to some honourable men I knew,” pointing out that the band council in the story is also composed of admirable, capable men to combat stereotypes of reservation governments.  Robinson jumped in “but he’s (Rice’s main character) got this trouble with his wife, right?”  “Right,” Rice acknowledged, “there’s a few ‘rez’ characteristics in there too.”  


Though Eden Robinson has written pieces with more specifically political messages – one of her short stories imagines a more extreme Indian Act with violent consequences – she would not let the night be dominated entirely by serious subjects. Bubbling with ribald jokes, Robinson peopled her reflections with loving and hilarious stories of her extended family. Her works are a maniacal mish-mash of worlds. In many of Rice’s stories, the supernatural world reflects indigenous mythology as well as science fiction.  Jared is the son of a witch and the Haisla Trickster, while later in the book a ghost in a bathrobe appears and introduces himself as Arthur Dent, the main character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Birkwood wondered if Robinson’s Dr. Who references were intended to invite comparison with Indigenous mythology – a 900-year-old time lord is nothing in an indigenous timeline!  Robinson laughed, however, and said that she included them “more for my amusement” than for any specific purpose.


The evening allowed festival-goers to experience two delightfully different authors and works conveying varying aspects of the Indigenous experience, from a northern reservation community to an Indigenous boy finding his way alone in Vancouver. Themes of colonialism, Indigenous identity, and intergenerational trauma emerge organically in distinct stories and characters. Listening to more Indigenous artistic expression on the way home, I reflected on how the large the space is for Indigenous art, the more varied, nuanced and individual voices can be shared - and the richer Canada’s cultural world is for it.