You know how some books come along and forever change the way you think and feel? Up Ghost River is that book for me. Edmund Metatawabin is a former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, is a Cree writer, educator and activist. As outstanding as his achievements today are, he was a boy with a very troubled and conflicted past. At 7 years of age, his parents, who thought they were doing right by their son, had him pack up all his belongings and head to a residential school in Northern Ontario, known as St. Anne’s. What they didn’t know is that ultimately St. Anne’s would one day be referred to as one of Canada’s worst residential school. It’s become notorious for it’s bizarre punishments and treatment of the students.
Up Ghost River is a look back on some of the horrific experiences that Edmund had to endure each year his parents sent him (and his siblings) to St. Anne’s. Experiencing sexual abuse and inhumane treatment does a number on Edmund’s psyche and in an effort to blur these horrific memories, he begins to numb the pain with alcohol. But his decision to heal using alcohol ultimately costs him his family. So he does the only thing he can do to get them back, he seeks to regain hope and strength in Alberta. As shared on the publishers site,
In Alberta, Metatawabin 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. (source)
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Edmund Metatawabin and this man is endlessly working at uncovering the wrongdoings of the St. Anne’s staff. When we met, he was visiting Toronto in the middle of winter, working to get documents released that will expose these teachers actions. He was quiet in nature, but you could see the fight in his eyes, his determination. As he shares in this CBC article,
“All we want is justice,” he said. “All we want is movement that will make me feel ‘Oh, finally it’s over. Finally it’s over. They believe me.” (source)
This is a really hard book to read. It recounts some really difficult scenes and when reading, you’re going to cringe and squirm. The difference is that when you’re reading, you’re going to know that this isn’t a fictional book, this did happen and someone lived it and that’s exactly why this book is so important and why everyone should read it. It’s a part of our country’s history, but as Edmund demonstrates in Up Ghost River, experiences don’t have to define who we are or who we’re going to be. We, as individuals, have the power to choose how we react to negative experiences. This is the story of one man’s attempt to take back his life. Today, Edmund Metatawabin is an activist and an educator for the next generation of residential school survivors. A big part of accepting his past is understanding his Cree culture which continues to help him heal. I truly believe that every Canadian should read this book.
Need further convincing? Watch the book trailer below: