The Mythical Indigenous Protagonist
Katherena Vermette’s new novel, and how we read indigenous fiction
“Moving is the only hope,” a media presence who really should remain nameless recently said of a troubled Northern Ontario community. A predictable settler solution, to which the author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor provides the best response: “Social malaise doesn’t come with a street address,” he says. “It comes with history.”
How did we come to accept the street-address view, which has an undeniable pedigree in this country? Historically, settler literature, from James Fenimore Cooper to John Richardson, has portrayed pre-contact land as empty, treacherous and hostile toward those who seek to conquer and civilize it. As the scholar and author Margery Fee points out, this narrative of an unforgiving “no man’s land” contributed to and even heroized the settlement of Canada. Stories are powerful and pervasive, and this narrative persists today.
It is not confined to the realm of historical writing. As readers, we are missing the point on a grand scale if we do not take into account the politics of land in indigenous fiction. In the work of Métis poet and author Katherena Vermette, this manifests as an exploration of indigenous characters in urban neighbourhoods.
Vermette’s view of urban life was powerfully articulated in North End Love Songs, a collection of poetry that acknowledges her complicated relationship with Winnipeg’s North End. Vermette grew up in this neighbourhood in the late 1980s and early ’90s and still considers it her home—warts and all. Winnipeg activist and co-founder of Red Rising Magazine Lenard Monkman speaks of his experience growing up in the North End: “During my teenage years and for a good majority of my 20s … you’d always leave the house on alert, always watching out in case. I think that’s just part of the way it is growing up in the inner city.”
The land we grow up on is home, and home, as anyone who grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks knows, is more than a collection of hostile statistics and news stories. It is your community. In The Break, her stunning debut novel, Vermette revisits the North End, still choosing her words with a poet’s precision. She takes on the unruly task of weaving ten narrative voices, most of them female. A family tree at the book’s beginning proves useful. But before we meet any of them, we meet the land.
The Break, we are told by an unseen narrator, is a section of undeveloped territory “just west of McPhillips Street.” “Hydro land” is the designation given to this space, as the narrator says: “likely set aside in the days before anything was out there. When all that low land on the west side of the Red River was only tall grasses and rabbits.” The Break is defined in settler terms—land as empty and valueless until validated by electricity. In an equally poignant and pithy history lesson, we learn how distribution of land in the North End of the city shaped the rights of its residents: “That was when you had to own a certain amount of land to vote, and all those lots were made just inches smaller,” the narrator says of the property around the Break.
For Stella, a Métis woman who gave the Break its name, “if only in her head,” this land parallels an internal fracture. Grief over the unresolved loss of her mother has slowly colonized Stella, causing her to retreat from her family. She feels the loss most acutely in the break from her Kookom, who raised her while her mother battled addiction.
Although hoping to escape her pain by moving to the “better side of McPhillips,” as an optimistic real estate agent says, and through her daily responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, Stella instead finds herself in a frozen state. The story begins when she witnesses a violent sexual assault unfold in the Break through her window one evening and does little more than call the police. She chooses to attend to her crying children, leaving the victim to fend for herself. When she learns that the victim was a family member, the effects of severing ties with her family become clear.
A support structure built away from her community, dependent on a new life with her non-indigenous husband and their kids, turns out to have its drawbacks. Stella appears as a passive, even selfish character at times, but make no mistake, every woman in this book is actively working to survive.
Whether or not a broken bone heals harder, as the adage goes, the women in The Break constantly seek to harden themselves against the challenges they face, with varying degrees of success. This reality is exhausting, and makes it difficult for them to do anything other than survive. Cheryl, Stella’s aunty, drinks more than she would like to, and smokes like a chimney, “loving the dirty smoke in her throat.” Her friend Rita often defaults to hostility as a means of self-protection. Stella’s cousin Louisa, a social worker, struggles to keep it together for both family and clients after her partner abandons her.
I look at my files, all the poor, young children already with epic stories, their mothers mean or sad. The empty space where their fathers are supposed to be … I can’t seem to be a social worker right now, I think. I can only be a left woman.
I am trying to feel it. Like if I can just feel it then I can describe it, give it a name and a label and then deal with it … I am trying to fight back the tears because I don’t want to cry here, not at work where I am supposed to be hard and unemotional, but I can’t. I look up to the pictures pinned to my corkboard—my two boys, my family, my man—they all blur too.
In both The Break and North End Love Songs, families gather strength from each other, but their connection to the land is never out of the picture. In her poetry, Vermette makes this link through metaphor, comparing aunties and uncles to trees, and invoking the currents of the Red River:
those ones she can
the strong dark bark
rest her small body
within their round arms
their sharp leaves
reach out over the river
she watches how
the waves fold
into each other
While the older generation is imbued with the hardiness of an elm, the youth, delicate and resilient, possess bird-like attributes “poised for flight / one small foot / on the curb.”
In The Break, this seems truest for the female characters. The support structures built by these women to maintain each other can sometimes exclude men, even “good men,” from the picture. Since she cannot reconcile her fierce independence with her vulnerability, Louisa finds herself with a kind and loving partner whom she cannot fully trust. She knows this is one of the reasons for his departure: “maybe he’s gone forever, like I always thought he would be. Sick of me and all my bullshit. Sick of my never giving him what he wants. I don’t blame him. I’m pretty sick of me too.”
Vermette has placed most of her protagonists at the nucleus of their familial support structures because this is indeed a role women play. And one of the critical responses to the book has been to marvel at the strength and resilience of its women. While accurate, this response is problematic in its superficiality. Although there is much media talk of indigenous resilience as if it is an otherworldly cultural gift, it in fact takes significant daily maintenance. It is precisely this effort that Vermette focuses on—countless moments marked by a blinking back of tears and a hardening of the jaw. The persistent anxiety about speaking out at times when simply having a voice may be dangerous. To leave these moments unacknowledged is to relegate indigenous women to the mythical realm—the noble and long-suffering Pocahontas. It ignores the socio-political underpinnings that create the need for such strength.
And what happens when strength reaches its limits? When sisters cannot be there for each other, or mothers are not there for their children? The Break explores the idea in a novelistic context. Nowhere in this book are the limits of resilience stretched more thin than with the character of Phoenix. She possesses a brutality that shocks the women of the older generation. Besides devastating violence, her actions signify a direct threat to the protective, female-focused support network they have counted on for generations. But Phoenix is a product of her environment—she cannot count on her mother, who is consumed by her own suffering. Like Louisa, Phoenix is also hardening herself to face the world, but without role models the results are destructive. She is left in the hands of the state, incarcerated.
This brings up another issue with the critical treatment of The Break. It has already been considered by reviewers as a whodunit mystery and a police procedural, which unfortunately takes the work completely out of context. It is, in fact, a powerful indictment of the real-life police investigation of crimes involving indigenous victims in Winnipeg, both female and male.
After the assault witnessed by Stella, the investigators are seen by her family as a further threat to their safety, rather than its saviours. And it is easy to understand why. Officer Scott, who is Métis, is eager to help but admits to himself at one point that all the women in the family he is trying to help look the same to him: “same long dark hair, straight and shiny, same almond eyes, almost.” His partner, Officer Christie, is a TV cop stereotype: gruff, doughnut loving and utterly racist. He openly acknowledges having no interest in serving and protecting these women, whom he calls “dime a dozen.” Even his expression is a cliché, but it is one drawn from reality.
In 2015, Maclean’s magazine placed Winnipeg at the heart of “Canada’s racism problem.” The story came out following the death of Tina Fontaine, whose body was discovered by police divers while searching for the body of Faron Hall, a Dakota man. Fontaine’s family expressed hope that her death might ignite greater interest in the thousands of unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and men.
This is a subject Katherena Vermette has direct experience with. When she was 14, her brother Donovan disappeared after a night out with friends. In North End Love Songs, Vermette addresses the attitudes held by the police who investigated the incident:
indians go missing
they tell the family
indians go missing
blue suits shrug
no sense looking
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
“They [the police] didn’t understand, or for whatever reason, it wasn’t relayed that he was a kid. My parents felt that my brother’s disappearance wasn’t taken seriously,” Vermette said, in a 2014 interview.
Six months after his disappearance, Donovan’s body was recovered in Lake Winnipeg. “We were broken,” Vermette said. “We never repaired from that fracture that happened. We had started the journey of my brother’s disappearance with a lot of energy and a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. That really drove us for a long time, trying to find answers. And then they never came. He was a good kid. And he should have been treated like one.”
This experience, as well as the death of Fontaine, prompted Vermette’s affiliation with Drag the Red, a group of Winnipeg volunteers who dredge the river in search of lost family members. Many of those they are looking for are the victims of cases the police consider closed. In 2016, working with an all-women crew, Vermette co-wrote and co-directed a short film about Drag the Red, called This River. In a scene from the film, she expresses her frustration with police apathy: “[They] won’t look unless they’re certain someone has gone in. They say it’s futile.” For the members of Drag the Red, pulling a dredge from the muddy waters with no idea what they will find, taking action is the only solution.
A generous storyteller, Vermette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.
Let us look instead at the history behind the social malaise. Let us look at these characters as survivors and leaders within a damaged support structure, but not defined by it. And let us look at what is working: family, community, neighbourhood. People. As Stella’s Kookom says: “it means so much to have people. It is everything.” In The Break, we see the complex and occasionally pernicious nature of relationships, but we also see their undeniable beauty.