Up Ghost River: A Chief's Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History
Edmund Metatawabin, Alexandra Shimo
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A powerful, raw yet eloquent memoir from a residential school survivor and former First Nations Chief, Up Ghost River is a necessary step toward our collective healing.
In the 1950s, 7-year-old Edmund Metatawabin was separated from his family and placed in one of Canada’s worst residential schools. St. Anne’s, in northern Ontario, is an institution now notorious for the range of punishments that staff and teachers inflicted on students. Even as Metatawabin built the trappings of a successful life—wife, kids, career—he was tormented by horrific memories. Fuelled by alcohol, the trauma from his past caught up with him, and his family and work lives imploded.
In seeking healing, Metatawabin travelled to southern Alberta. There he learned from elders, participated in native cultural training workshops that emphasize the holistic approach to personhood at the heart of Cree culture, and finally faced his alcoholism and PTSD. Metatawabin has since worked tirelessly to expose the wrongdoings of St. Anne’s, culminating in a recent court case demanding that the school records be released to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now Metatawabin’s mission is to help the next generation of residential school survivors. His story is part of the indigenous resurgence that is happening across Canada and worldwide: after years of oppression, he and others are healing themselves by rediscovering their culture and sharing their knowledge.
Coming full circle, Metatawabin’s haunting and brave narrative offers profound lessons on the importance of bearing witness, and the ability to become whole once again.
The logs by the side of the house looked the same, although now covered in snow, as did the path and the cross out back that Papa had built so Mama could pray for Rita. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I knocked on the door. Papa answered and picked me up in his arms. He carried me into the house. I took in his smell of leaves and wood smoke and buried my face in his hair. My heart felt warm against his. “My boy,” he said, and brushed my hair away from my eyes. I looked at his eyes, as his gaze shifted from worry to love.
Joseph had them by the forearms, one on either side. They were giggling. “Jesus Christ,” Joseph said. “I’m going to have to tell Mr. Cooper about this. And in the meantime, you’re both grounded. ” “Grounded? ” Nicholas asked. “What’s that? ” “It means you have to stay home! ” We all looked at him, waiting for him to tell us another punishment. “That’s it? ” Erick asked. “Yes, that’s it! ” Joseph exclaimed. “You’ll be cooped up here for a month! ” We stared at him, waiting to hear the bad part. “Stop staring! I have half a mind to ground all of you.
Everyone talked about Cardinal on campus. He had written a book the year before called The Unjust Society,7 which argued that Canada had a long history of trying to wipe out Indians through assimilation and the residential schools. After that book came out, Cardinal was everywhere, writing newspaper columns on the treaties, the reserve unemployment rates, native sovereignty, and it was all biting, deep and smart. I read his words about assimilation over again and thought about what they meant to me.
We don’t have to pay it back right away. ” “Right,” I said and sat down. I had heard that before. Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay it back until later. Mike had said those words on the way to Montreal. “Tell him we don’t want the money. ” “No, I’m not doing that. ” “I said tell him,” I growled. “Why should I? He offered. We certainly need it. ” “I am not accepting money from a white man. ” “I hate it when you say those sorts of things. ” “What sorts of things? ” “He’s not a white man! He’s my dad! ” I didn’t feel comfortable accepting a white man’s money, so we didn’t get a loan from her pa.
Tony said. He glanced at Sister Wesley and began to make his way across the icy yard. “What are you doing? ” I hissed, but I followed him. “She can still see us. ” He didn’t reply, just kept walking. “This is dumb! ” I whispered hoarsely as I followed. He quickened his pace, crossed into the icy fields beyond the yard, and began to make his way toward the forest. I ran quickly, sinking into his snowy footsteps. “We have to keep going,” he said, once we got to the spruce forest. “Where? ” “We have to go to the bush.