Transforming Stories

Reviewed by Margery Fee

Cecil Paul was born in 1931 on the Kitlope River into the Killer Whale Clan of the Xenaksiala (now part of the Haisla).Wa’xaid is his chiefly name, meaning “the good river,” and the book is a canoe into which we step to hear his stories of a stunningly beautiful territory. This story has many narrative threads, including how his birthplace healed him from the hate and alcoholism that came from his treatment at the Port Alberni residential school. As a return gift to the land, he began a trip in his magic canoe to save it from clear-cut logging in 1990. Many others joined him in the paddling, and now the Kitlope Conservancy / Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees (1996- ) is a major part of the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world, the Great Bear Rainforest. The name Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees translates as “the land of milky blue waters and the sacred stories contained in this place,” reminding us that, as Jeannette Armstrong puts it, the land speaks and we need to learn from it to survive. This book is a small beautiful inspiration, containing photographs and endpaper maps, and with detailed endnotes by Briony Penn that set the story into cultural and historical context. If you teach Eden Robinson’s work, you should read this book.

Joseph Dandurand is a member of the Kwantlen First Nation. He has written and produced plays in Canada and the US: he is currently the Director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre and the Indigenous Storyteller in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library. Sh:lam (The Doctor), his third book of poetry, is narrated by the “doctor,” the latter an inadequate translation that still refuses other colonizing possibilities such as “witch doctor” or “shaman.” In his preface, Dandurand calls this voice a Healer. Central is the sh:lam’s ability to transform and to transcend time, space and death. However, he cannot always heal himself: in some lives, he finds himself in the alleys of the downtown East Side of Vancouver, where desperate people “search for one more hit of paradise,” sharing his needle with his lover as they leap “over the filth and the mayhem.” The sh:lam travels back and forth through time, from the devastation of the smallpox epidemics to the origin of the world to residential school to the gold rush to recent stories of missing and murdered women. The sh:lam takes revenge on the predators: “by the touch of my hand / I have erased him”—the pedophile priest and the mass murdering pig farmer become “dirt to be dug up in history / of the forgotten.”  The poem is full of flashing insight:

In the cedar forest

there are little people

and they collect all that the

world has lost.


the fish

come home once again

repeating their brilliant life.

Hungry children in residential school are given “a bowl of cold nothing.” Formally, the poems are free verse, but the last lines of each poem shorten, often to one word each: the rush of transformation, flight or the hustle for drugs followed by a slow recognition of peace, oblivion or understanding.  One such ending reads

the dogs bark and form

the words







and I become

what I am

and that





The healer has now been honoured and remembered by Dandurand.

Darrel McLeod grew up in Smith, Alberta. He tells the story of a loving family disintegrating under the pressures of racism, residential schools, and poverty. The stories, love, and vitality of his mother, Bertha, account for her son’s dedication to understanding her and telling an honest story of his family. Devastated by racism, grief and rage, she erupted into violence. He writes, “At the time, we all wanted to move past the terror of those moments as quickly as we could.” Here he recounts and reflects on them, stark and painful though they were. McLeod struggled with abuse, his sexual identity, suicides of siblings, and his own constant self-questioning while remaining alive to the world and people around him. Here he pays tribute not only to his mother, but to his sister and grandfather and others who cared for him in a hard, often chaotic world. Mamaskatch was the 2018 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction.

This review “Transforming Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jan. 2020. Web.

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