Over the past couple of months, I’ve devoured a number of excellent books. Two I read back-to-back on purpose in order to get two different takes on growing up Metis in Canada. One was written by a woman almost fifty years ago, and the other recently written, by a man. I was struck by the fact that a) Metis and First Nations women in Canada are still experiencing extreme racism, addiction, misogyny, poverty and violence and that things don’t appear to have improved that much in almost 50 years and b) that Metis and First Nations men also face extreme racism, homelessness, addiction, poverty and violence.
These must-read gems are:
Half-breed by Maria Campbell
From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle
After reading these two powerfully moving autobiographies, I was both saddened and outraged by the injustice these two people had to contend with, while also being totally blown away by their incredible resourcefulness, resilience, and healing- especially in terms of what they are contributing to their communities and to Canadian culture at large. In short, I got an incredible education on what it means to be a Metis person living in Canada.
The respective authors write extensively about how they were primed from birth to feel ashamed of who they were and how that morphed into internalized shame and ultimately, led them down a very dark road of self-destruction. I believe that internalized shame is what drives addictions and self-harming behaviours and must be extracted at the root through deep self-inquiry in order to loosen its destructive hold on a person’s choices. Only once we have let go of our shame can we truly love ourselves and heal and make healthy choices.
I found an eloquent quote speaking to this regarding Maria Campbell’s Half-breed by Verna Heikkilä, in her essay, “Blankets of Shame: Emotional Representation in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed”:
Maria Campbell’s autobiography Halfbreed is a story of survival, and of overcoming a sense of shame related to ethnic identity. Campbell brings attention to the way in which race in the Canadian multicultural society has been seen as real and definable. She describes the consequences of such racial thinking on Metís individuals…the humiliating situations visibly Métis or Native people have experienced in their everyday lives, and the consequent, debilitating sense of shame shared by many of them…
Jesse Thistle writes about shame as the basis for his self-hatred, addiction, and suicidality throughout From the Ashes. Here is a powerful quote on internalized shame from the author himself:
It made my life easier to just start telling people I was Italian. I denied my heritage that way. I internalized shame from being Indigenous. I was already starting to absorb all the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people that I would see in the media.
Both of the authors fought long, hard battles with drug and alcohol addictions and in the end, found long-term sobriety. In fact, the entire manuscript of From the Ashes originated from Jesse Thistle’s Fourth Step in his Alcoholoics Anonymous Program, which requires one to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” The author states, “The book really happened by accident,” he said. “I really didn’t expect anybody to read my four steps. They were for me.”
Even so, Jesse’s writing struck a chord with many readers as so many of us can relate to being addicted and feeling helpless, hopeless and out of control. I would add that I’m sure we can also relate to hurting those we love the most and feeling deep regret and the desire to make amends. Both of these books outline how to do just that while also helping us to see that suffering is universal and that most of the bad habits we acquire start as a ‘solution to a problem’. In the authors’ cases, addictions helped them escape the most horrific realities of being abused, oppressed, living life on the streets, and in constant danger. Getting high was the only time they felt anything positive.
I have had the privilege of working with many Metis and First Nations clients over the years and in reading these books, was reminded of similar heartbreaking stories shared in therapy sessions. The main theme that stands out for me is how incredibly resilient and resourceful human beings are- even under the very worst conditions life can throw at us like severe racism, misogyny, poverty, being forced to leave our rightful homes and becoming homeless, and the list goes on.
Both of these beautifully written books end with the authors finding out what they’re made of- wisdom, love and strength- and forging paths of deep healing, reconnection with their peoples and heritage, and a lasting commitment to help others who are feeling shamed, disconnected, hopeless and lost. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy of each of these books and be transformed by reading them.