“Hockey’s grace and poetry make men beautiful.” – Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

I have read exactly two books about hockey.

The first, the Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, is now a celebrated story, so quintessentially CanCon that it counts among its adaptations both a National Film Board animated short and the five-dollar bill. There are those who may find it ironic that the iconic work—translated from the original French Le chandail de hockey—is undeniably more Québécois than Canadian but after all the sport is our nation’s game, and indeed, part of the very fabric of our identity.

It is the second book, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse – titled after the English-language surname imposed by the Zhaunagush (white colonizers) on an Ojibway family – that calls into question these very assumptions.

For Saul Indian Horse, the central character and narrator of the story, hockey is an escape, at first metaphorically and then literally, from life at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School (the word ‘life’ here being hyperbolic; for Saul and the other Aboriginal children at the residential school, existence has been reduced to the singular act of surviving).

St. Jerome’s is described as “hell on earth” but despite the torment and many abuses suffered by students at the school and documented by Saul, for the reader the pain is less of a vivid, visceral experience as it is a dulled registering and then repressing of emotion. There is a distance to Saul’s descriptions of his time spent at the school; a fog, the same greyness of the tasteless gruel fed to the students, and produced by a reluctance to reflect on the ordeal of the situation, envelopes all of St. Jerome’s.

It is only when Saul is playing hockey that the fog lifts and he can see clearly again. Saul is first introduced to the game by Father Leboutilier, the young priest at St. Jerome’s who loves hockey so much that he coaches a handful of boys and puts together a team for the school.  Saul is enraptured by the stop-and-starts of gameplay and the scramble of the scrimmage but soon enough, he can read the game, slow the rhythms behind the movements of both puck and players, and anticipate the flow of play. In other words, he has a God-given talent for the game, and it is this divine framing of both sport and skillset by Father Leboutilier that convinces the school to allow Saul to leave St. Jerome’s in order to pursue hockey, join a reserve team, and play Native tournaments.

But once outside the residential school system and even with the promise of all the hockey he could ever want to play, it is still not a world without its darkness for Saul. Hockey elevates him, lifts him up and takes him above and beyond being a victim. It serves as a buffer for the anger and the grievance he feels for what has been taken from him, his family, and his community by the Zhaunagush, but this is gradually worn down as his team encounters widespread, systemic discrimination and profoundly personal harassment when they begin to play off-reserve and against white teams. Saul continues evolving as a player, advancing through the ranks of elite athletes until he’s vying for a spot on the Leafs feeder team. His efforts to hold onto both his dignity and his integrity for the sport, however, do not move forward. Eventually, even the electric intensity of hockey cuts outs for Saul and the world goes dark again, the “great game” revealed as only a Wizard of Oz sleight of hand for hiding his hurt, not a total transition into Technicolor.

In Indian Horse, Ojibway author Wagamese has created a rich and nuanced portrayal of a grief that is hard to give voice to: because the pain had seemed immemorial—an intergenerational inheritance—or was, consciously, deemed immemorable—a threat to one’s very survival. Like Saul, and for many in the Indian Residential School System, there were no words for the pain because the words themselves had also been taken away. Whether unintended or done deliberately in acknowledgement of this, a quiet lyricism permeates much of Wagamese’s work; the effect makes for storytelling that is surprisingly visual, be it the haunting bleakness of St. Jerome’s or the multidimensional plane of the ice rink where energies, movements, and intentions can all be seen and read by Saul during gameplay.

Those who don’t know much about the sport and worry that the story would be lost on them should know that Indian Horse is not a hockey book, not really, but one about the human capacity for hurting, and healing, ourselves. For those who don’t know much about the Indian Residential School System, its legacy, and the process of reconciliation, the story is thus a good starting point—Wagamese’s free talk on Thursday, October 31st at 2 pm in the Lillooet Room in Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is another.

This post is a follow-up to last week’s report on the TRC B.C. National event panel “Institutions of Memory” and discussion of the role of academic institutions in the process of reconciliation.

While Mike DeGagné, President and Vice-Chancellor of Nipissing University and former executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, acknowledged the university as an “academy of assimilation,” he argued that it was still well positioned to foster understanding among its students of the history and impact of the Indian Residential Schools. An example of how this is being done at Nipissing University is by making the book Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools available to all first-year students when they move into on-campus housing—not unlike a Gideon Bible in a motel bed-stand. However, as not everyone may feel compelled to read the book, the university must do even more; instead of just preaching to the choir, the goal is reaching everyone, including those who graduate from high school without ever having learned about the Indian Residential School System. An important second step, said DeGagné, is then making sure that the teachings and the truth of what happened are integrated into the curriculum, as well as taken outside of the university and back to communities.

Jonathan Dewar, director of the Shingwauk Residential School Centre (SRSC) and special advisor to the president for the Residential School Legacy at Algoma University, spoke at length about the value of doing just that.

At Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on what was once the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Indian Residential Schools property, there is now an education and visitor centre devoted to the research, collection, preservation, and display of the history of the residential school system. The SRSC is also the site of “Remember the Children: National Residential Schools Photo Identification Project,” an initiative between the centre and the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, which provides safe space for survivors to look through photos of their time at the schools and fill in the gaps in their memories in order to engage with the past and begin to move on from their trauma. The heartful and heartening discussion of projects and programming at the SRSC, and their role in supporting the healing journey of residential school survivors and families, was not only a reminder of the importance of having a National Research Centre (NRC), but provided a powerful and positive example for university involvement in the reconciliation process.

In particular, Dewar emphasized that commitment and guidance of community members were required in order to make the program a success. He also called attention to the reciprocal nature of the relationship between community and academia; while librarians and archivists cannot do the work that survivors do, survivors need the expertise of librarians and archivists, who can make materials like photos, records, and reports, accessible and thus transformative for individuals.

According to Shelley Sinclair, university archivist at the University of Manitoba, there are some 200 terabytes of materials for the NRC, including survivor testimonies and recordings of TRC events. And while the National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba will act as a central repository for a country-wide distributed research network (including a proposed site on UBC campus), it is also intended to be public, open to community input, and interactive. In order to achieve this, digitization of materials is not in of itself a solution, a means to an end, or a way of bypassing the need for involvement of librarians and their skills as information professionals. This was made clear by the panellists in response to a comment from the audience that questioned the need for a physical centre when technology could one day allow all materials to be put on an external hard-drive and sent out to individuals, putting the materials and documents of the residential school system into the hands of survivors. While having an institution charged with the ownership of school records may seem paternalistic, the panellists explained that stewardship is required in order to provide and apply a classification scheme or organization structure for easy retrieval of materials and a way for people to make sense of the wealth of information and materials available to them. Having a central repository also creates the possibility of interactivity by allowing community-generated contributions and annotations to be added to a document by an individual but then shared with everyone.

Interestingly, a follow-up question provided an additional criticism of digital technologies, but from a perspective that this time saw digitization as a threat rather than a quick fix to issues of access. One audience member worried that concepts like a research portal and online access to data were too individualistic, isolated from community, divorced from the tradition of sharing circles, and at odds with the holistic ways of knowing within Aboriginal communities. The question was not so much about finding materials, but rather how one could possibly take in all the data and derive wisdom from it.

Camille Callison, Indigenous Services librarian at the University of Manitoba, replied to the comment by first emphasizing that the NRC was only intended for materials related to the residential school system, and was not a repository of all Indigenous knowledge, community wisdom, or language materials. The centre would also not supplant or replace Elder teachings, experiential learning, or other channels of transmitting knowledge. Finally, she discussed best practices for Indigenous librarianship and knowledge stewardship and how they would apply to and inform the planning and work of the NRC, such as the need to seek direction from communities when developing protocols for access, and consider that intellectual property and copyright are inherently culturally determined values and concepts.

For more information on Indigenous information management, knowledge organization, and librarianship, see Xwi7xwa Library’s research guide. To read Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools, check out UBC Library’s holdings page or download the ebook and individual chapters for free online.

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