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Poetry as a means of healing?

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They say time heals all wounds. Is it really true? What and how long does it take to come to terms with the harrowing experiences? Is it even possible?

Native Canadians have been struggling with various issues throughout the centuries. Discrimination, abuse, colonization and trauma are just a few examples out of many. Recently, more and more Aboriginal people have started to share their stories through different media such as written stories, music, dancing and also poetry.

Poetry and the issue of residential school

Rosanna Deerchild

Rosanna Deerchild is a Native Canadian poet, writer and radio broadcaster. She comes from O-Pipon-Na-Piwan Cree Nation at South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba. In 2009, Deerchild’s received Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for poetry collection "this is a small northern town". In 2016 Deerchild published her second book titled "calling down the sky", which gives an account of her mother's residential school experience. Furthermore, since 2014 she has been a host of the CBC radio show "Unreserved", a programme about Indigenous communities and cultures.

"The second time", a poem from the collection "calling down the sky" addresses the issue of silence and of not sharing. In the poem the person speaking asks her mother to talk about her past and memories from the residential school, however, the mother repeatedly says no. Eventually, the daughter refrains from asking further questions about her mother’s past and focuses on the present. She starts to inquire about her mother’s health problems for example diabetes or arthritis and also the weather. Surprisingly, the mother doesn’t refuse to answer any of those questions, on the contrary, she answers all of them.

In the interview with Shelagh Rogers, in the programme "Next Chapter", Deerchild mentions that she had neither known that her mother attended the residential school nor had heard the phrase “residential school” before she went to high school. She first heard the name from her Native history teacher.

He came into our class and started teaching the true history of Canada, and one of those things was residential school. He was taking attendance and he called my name. I said "Here." He looked up, paused and said, "I know you who are. I went to residential school with your mother," which was a punch in the gut. (Source: Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story through poetry (2016)

Having discovered the truth about her mother’s past, Deerchild started to ask about her experiences from that period. Nevertheless, Rosanna’s mother remained silent.

i ask mama
about residential school
she says no
i ask her again
she says no
the third time
i stop listen
to her silence

the second time ( 2015)

Eventually, the author of the poem decided to stop troubling her mother with the questions as she noticed that they make her more withdrawn. It was only when Deerchild began to touch upon more worldly matters such as her mother’s condition or the weather that the mother started to talk. Through such casual talk, Rosanna and her mother had the opportunity to bond. With time, the mother slowly felt more confident in and was ready to voice her experiences.

Rosanna Deerchild with Edna Ferguson, her mother

In 2016 Edna Ferguson was a guest in her daughter's programme "Unreserved", in which she revealed her story and gave reasons for her silence.

I kept everything to myself. I didn't want to talk about it. I thought people would laugh at me or say, 'Don't make up a story.' That's what they used to say when we went home after school. They didn't believe what we were talking about. What happened at school. What the nuns were doing. What the priests were doing. ( Source: Poetry as witness: Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story Social Sharing (2016)

In 2010, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Winnipeg, Rosanna and her mother went to listen to testimonies by residential school survivors'. It was during that event that Edna Ferguson decided to put her experiences into words. Her healing process was documented in her daughter's poetry collection.

Sometimes it is not only the parent who suffers due to the traumatic past. Frequently, the people who experienced distressing events unintentionally transfer their trauma to their offspring. Consequently, the children or grandchildren of the victims are burden with their ancestors’ “postmemory”. Even though they had never witnessed those events, they are constantly haunted by the symptoms of trauma, e.g. insomnia, hallucinations or flashbacks. Rosanna Deerchild was oppressed by her mother’s traumatic experiences. Thanks to Edna’s reconciliation with the past, Rosanna was also able to deal with her memories from childhood and stop being hunted by them .

The past is not forgotten

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer and academic. In her writing, she confronts the issues of Indigenous people of Canada. She has released three books. "Islands of Decolonial Love", her first album of poetry and music, was published in 2013.

In her poem, "i am a graffiti" Simpson discusses the reconciliation, the issue of colonization and discrimination.

In an interview when asked what inspired her to write "i am a graffiti" she answered that the idea came to her when she was watching the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After having seen the ceremony she felt upset, not reconcilled.

While some incredible work came out of the TRC and some survivors found solace in it, the Canadian government was not honourable and forthcoming in the TRC process, and it felt manipulative to me. If felt like this was a process to neutralize Indigenous anger without talking about returning land, sharing power, and decolonizing Canada. Canada tried to assimilate Indigenous peoples, mistakes were made, it didn’t work. I am still here. I am graffiti. (New Constellations 2020)

Simpson doesn’t believe in reconciliation as she compares the attempt to reunite as “a new big pink eraser” For her the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to make the white people feel better, not the Natives. According to the poet, the reconciliation programme is only a means of erasing the distressing past. However, Simpson claims she can’t be erased because she is a graffiti. She will continue to exist in the history of Canada regardless of the white people’s attempt to rub her out.

except, i am graffiti.
except, mistakes were made.

i am a graffiti (2015)

In her poem, Simpson also compares the traumatic history of the Native Canadians to an exploding bomb. The experience that should last only a second is compared to the long and painful history of the Indigenous people.

the bomb went off in slow motion
over a century instead of a fractionated second
it’s too much to process,

i am a graffiti (2015)

Poetry can be a means of expressing one’s emotions and experiences. Through writing one can reveal and confront the hidden past, which can lead to healing. Deerchild shows that at first many people, including her mother, don’t want to discuss certain issues because of fear or embarrassment. However, when given time they voluntarily began to voice their traumas and tell their stories. Nevertheless, sometimes poetry can also serve as a means of expressing oneself and one’s opinions. In her poem "i am a graffiti", Simpson gives an account of her anger and disappointment concerning the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She argues that one hundred years old suffering can’t be forgotten and forgiven so easily. The Native peoples’ history is an integral part of Canadian history and they won’t be erased. They are graffiti. Their history is a dark and irremovable stain on the country’s history.

Acknowledgments :


the second time by Rosanna Deerchild

i am a graffiti by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson


New Constellations

Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story through poetry-CBC'

Poetry as witness: Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story

Social Sharing


Rosanna Deerchild, Edna Ferguson -photo

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson - photo

Poetry photo

Rosanna Deerchild photo

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