In town last month to animate a public conversation with Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize winner Thomas King, Rosanna Deerchild arrived out of breath, cradling her notes and the “50 million questions” she had prepared. Many greeted her, saying they loved her show, CBC Radio’s nationally broadcast Unreserved. She gave this reporter time for an interview, just minutes before going “on.”
On her show, Deerchild tells stories of Indigenous Canada, among these the tragic ones, the issues of poverty and its fallout of which the Canadian public is becoming increasingly aware. But she also highlights the commitment, courage, talent and creativity that flourish among indigenous people, through stories and profiles that appeal to all Canadians. Topics range from maple syrup to medicine, and many things else in between — music, art, poetry and community.
Radio is the most intimate medium, because you can hear people speaking, literally, in their own voice. When Deerchild talks to people waiting in line for treaty payments, she brings the listener right into the centre of that reality: A woman laughs at the seeming absurdity of being given $5 a year by Ottawa; a child says he hasn’t learned about treaties in school; and a history professor talks about the payment’s symbolic significance. Throughout, the subject is handled with grace and humor, illuminating a topic unfamiliar to many.
At the show’s beginning in 2014, the veteran journalist and broadcaster noted, “It is very exciting to me that we as Indigenous Peoples are picking up the pen, the microphone, the camera and all those other tools, and writing, and for some stories —like the residential school chapter—re-writing and correcting what really happened.”
In this, she plays a key role, not only by presenting the stories of others, but through her own voice. Co-founder and member of the Aboriginal Writers Collective since 1999, Deerchild is a poet. Her first book, This is a Small Northern Town, describes a kid’s life in a remote community with an immediacy that cannot be achieved in a news report.
In building bridges and destroying stereotypes, Deerchild’s most powerful voice may be her softest. Reading from her own work, she no longer sounds like a broadcaster. Her voice subtly acquires a music heard in the speech of people from the north—a momentary lingering on the last tone of a phrase, infusing her words with even more emotional impact than they have on the printed page.
In the conversation with King, Deerchild made a brief reference to her own work, agreeing with King that reading out loud is part of the creative process. “I feel that a poem or a story is not alive until you literally blow breath into it and give it life.”
King, who also writes poetry, remarked that in all his writing, poetry is the most difficult. “You are working with a narrow little box and you have to make sure everything works. With a novel, I can screw up a couple of chapters. Nobody cares. They skip right across them.”
This observation rings true in Calling Down the Sky, Deerchild’s 2015 poetry collection. The subject is difficult, not well known before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) revealed the history of residential schools.
“You might be surprised that many indigenous people didn’t know about residential schools,” Deerchild said. “I, myself, was not aware until I was in my late teens and was taught by my Grade 11 Native Studies teacher. One day in class, taking attendance, he paused at my name and said ‘I went to residential school with your mother.’ I spoke to him afterwards and heard the first truth about my mother’s life, this horrible thing, a cultural genocide, and that my mother was part of it.”
Deerchild’s mother, Edna Ferguson, went to three residential schools between the ages of four and 14.
As a child, Deerchild felt a pervasive sadness in her mother that she could not comprehend.
mama is always
just out of reach
a bird I could watch
but never catch
a closed jar
my angry hands
“She would not talk about it for many years. It wasn’t until the TRC came to Winnipeg that she finally acquiesced to hearing other survivors. She said, ‘My girl, I am ready to speak.’ So I went up to a person leading a sharing circle and asked if my mother could join. I was told there was no room, to which I replied, ‘My mother has been waiting for 50 years.’ Instead, I took her to tea by the Red River and told her I would hear and write her story—and nobody would be able to tell her to be quiet anymore.”
Deerchild, also a mother, crafts her poetry from bits of real talk caught gingerly during “an amazing journey” of five years, interspersed with stunning imagery. Her words convey the essence of the trauma that residential schools caused to generations of children.
boys buzzed bald
blown of all their wishes
would I call down the sun
would I call down the moon
if they came for my girls
would I call down the sky
what solace would I find
there in the silence
To watch Rosanna Deerchild talk about Calling down the sky, visit cbc.ca/beta/arts/exhibitionists/cbc-host-rosanna-deerchild. For info on Unreserved visit cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/about