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Kill the Indian

May 6, 2019

I’ve just finished reading Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. It’s not often I read a book and feel compelled when I finish it to hold the book to my heart for several seconds before I can bear to put it down. This was one of those rare occasions. Even when the book is on its shelf it will remain very close to my heart. I’d say “Oh, my God”, but, given the story, bringing the word God in seems wholly inappropriate.

indian horse

For anyone who doesn’t know, Wagamese is a brilliant First Nations writer, who sadly died two years ago. His New York Times obituary is worth a read. This is the fourth novel of his that I’ve read. The other three moved me, but this one nearly broke my heart.

Around the world, Canada is generally perceived as a “nice” country, one that welcomes immigrants and embraces multiculturalism. Hell, we’re so laid back marijuana is legal.

What few people outside Canada (and many people inside Canada) don’t know is that, for more than a century, the Canadian government was responsible for the mental and physical torture of generations of First Nations children. During this period the government funded the residential schools, run throughout the country by Christian churches. Government agents would scour First Nations communities and abduct every child they could find. The avowed intention of these schools was to “kill the Indian in the child”.

A residential school in Northern Ontario is the setting for much of this novel, in which Saul Indian Horse finds temporary escape from the horrors by playing hockey. Hockey is a sport about which I know very little and care even less, yet somehow Wagamese managed to imbue in me the joy Saul felt on the ice.

In recent years I’ve had visitors who’ve voiced surprise when they’ve learnt about Canada’s dark secret. As a primer on the subject I’ve recommended Thomas King’s book The Inconvenient Indian. In future I shall recommend Indian Horse.

If you have any interest in learning more about how very not nice Canada has historically been, do watch this Al Jazeera documentary.

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