Up Ghost River Without a Paddle

When Edmund Metatawabin’s (Ed) residential school memoir, Up Ghost River, jumped off the new-books shelf of the Yukon Public Library and landed in my book bag on top of Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, I was tempted to blow my whistle and send him to the penalty box for obstruction.

I was hunting for some light-hearted reading material to take my mind off the shrinking days and growing nights and was happy to find the recent autobiographies of two of Canada’s greatest hockey legends, which I hoped would finally explain to me why Bobby never passed the puck and what Gordie used to sharpen his elbows. The last thing I was looking for was a residential school summary of sexual abuse and other infamies, but Ed was in the bag where he remained while I learned that Bob’s book missed the net and Gord’s is a Cup-winning hat-trick.

Like most of my fellow red, white and blue Canadians (red neck, white skin, blue collar), who spend most of their lives working hard to stay ahead of the hungry wolf, I was aware that Canada was a horribly racist and narrow-minded country in the middle of the last century and our beloved forefathers and foremothers instigated many official policy blunders such as concentration camps for innocent Nissei in WWII and the outrageous institution of residential schools for the innocent children of Canada’s original inhabitants, to name just two monumental mistakes,  but my knowledge and understanding of the horrid schools was only fueled by news stories and a couple of conversations with survivors who verified the stories were true and ugly.

Then, I started reading Ed’s book, and got so caught up in his story I lost the better part of two nights and a day before I concluded Up Ghost River might be one of the best-written books I’ve ever read and a lot more Canadian than reading about how retired hockey players blew (Orr) or saved (Howe) their money.

Although it’s impossible to say whether Ed or his ghost writer, Alexandra Shimo, a former Maclean’s editor who champions the environment, at-risk women, and native youth, is responsible for it, Up Ghost River changes voice three times in the course of spinning Ed’s yarn.

The Table of Contents has only two parts, before and after the systemic sexual abuse, but it’s actually a three-part book. When he was a kid dumped into the St. Anne’s Catholic residential school in his home village on the banks of the Albany River in northern Ontario, the story is told in the voice of a young boy who doesn’t understand what is happening to him, or why, but he knows he doesn’t like it and it’s not right.

When he reaches young adulthood, marries a white blonde, has three children, and finally gets a university degree in between his losing struggle with alchoholism, the voice changes to that of a man who increasingly hates himself and finally loses the bottle. In this part of the book, you can’t help but pitying him because we’ve all known hopeless drunks and it’s no secret they have to help themselves first before anyone else can do anything for them.

After his wife kicked him out of Ontario and he had many failed attempts at beating the booze the “white man’s way”, which was AA meetings, he went to Edmonton where some Cree elders were trying things like healing circles, sweat lodges and other traditional methods of making a drinker get back in touch with his roots.

It took ten months with many setbacks but the thing that was blocking his recovery was denial. He had never told anybody, especially his wife who never stopped loving him, about the repeated rapes of his teenage years, and when he finally confronted those realities, to his healer first then his wife, the floodgates opened up inside him and the third voice of the narrative emerged–a highly intelligent, mature man with a bone to pick for the thoughtless ogres, including Catholic nuns, who tormented his early years.

He reunited with his wife and children, went back to school and got a masters degree, amazed how easy studying was with no booze or drugs in the picture, then went back to the Albany River and got himself elected Chief by a landslide, and began changing all the things that were wrong.

That was 20 years ago and the things he has accomplished are there for all to read in this incredible book.

And if a good producer, editor, and scriptwriter ever get ahold of Ed’s story, they could make the greatest revenge movie of all-time, about a great man with a good sense of humour who rose above it all because he was right and the sovereign country called Canada was wrong. And the Catholic church should hang its head in shame and infamy for eternity.

I’d like to apologize to Ed Ten Sunrises for reading two hockey books before his.

And while all this was going on, I was sitting in movie theaters watching westerns and rooting for the cowboys.

It makes we want to stop writing…for now.

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