A tale of trauma rises to the top
Darrel McLeod’s Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age wins the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
November 15th, 2018
According to reviewer David Milward, Darrel J. McLeod “offers a brutally honest front-seat view of the havoc” wrought by intergenerational trauma.
Darrel J. McLeod
Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2018.
$29.95 / 9781771622004
Reviewed by David Milward
[Darrel McLeod studied French literature and education at UBC before working as a teacher, social worker, chief federal negotiator of land claims, and executive director with the Assembly of First Nations. – Ed.]
The extent to which Canadians understand intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous peoples, and to what degree they are willing to support reconciliation, remain unclear even years after the release of the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC). One survey report suggested that many Canadians are quite supportive of reconciliation, while another suggested that support was stronger in the central and eastern provinces while weaker in the western provinces, where problems such as Indigenous over-incarceration are especially acute.
And yet there may remain cause for concern. For example, Senator Lynn Beyak of Dryden, Ontario, has publicly defended the residential schools as “well-intentioned” and having had positive impacts that have been overshadowed by the negative depictions of the TRC. She even went so far as publishing over 100 letters supportive of her viewpoints on her official website, with many of those letters espousing frankly racist descriptions of Indigenous peoples as freeloaders trying to milk their traditional cultures and political correctness for even more handouts. Her son, a Dryden city councillor named Nick, went as far as to say that his mother’s viewpoints were supported by the majority of Canadians.
I myself am personally convinced that scepticism remains amongst a substantial portion of the Canadian population. It is perhaps telling that the former head of the TRC, and now Senator Murray Sinclair, felt the need to explain why Indigenous peoples simply cannot “get over it” with respect to residential schools. He indicated that just as Americans cannot forget 9/11 so easily, or how Western democracies celebrate the sacrifices of war veterans during Remembrance Day, Indigenous peoples cannot simply be expected to forget about the residential schools.
Certainly the sheer horror of the residential school experience should never be forgotten. Moreover, there is no denying that residential schools continue to have an enduring legacy through the phenomenon known as intergenerational trauma whereby physical and sexual abuse, along with numerous other problems such as substance abuse and low self-esteem, have been passed from the original school survivors and on through each subsequent generation. Some Canadians may convince themselves that the residential schools are in the past, and have no relevance to the ongoing issues faced by Indigenous peoples today. The final reports of the TRC were explicit in stating that Canada as a nation-state is responsible for trying to fix the enduring harms tied to intergenerational trauma.
Part of why Darrel McLeod’s memoir, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, has gained a lot of attention is that it offers a brutally honest front-seat view of the havoc that intergenerational trauma can wreak across multiple lives. It is intensely biographical, and yet written with a seemingly fictional prose reminiscent of Beatrice Culleton Mosioner’s 1983 classic, In Search of April Raintree.
McLeod’s narrative itself focuses on his early life and those closest to him, such as his mother, Bertha, his brother Greggie (later known as Trina following gender reassignment), and his sister Debbie. And yet the events and traumas that beset a handful of characters offer a powerful microcosm of just how devastating the social legacy of the residential schools remains. And intergenerational trauma is itself a complex and multi-layered phenomena, which McLeod’s vivid memoir captures to the fullest extent possible.
The earliest seed was planted with his mother, Bertha. Mother becomes a profound paradox over the course of the story. She started off as the kind of mother many Indigenous youths would love to have. She was in tune with the ebbs and flows of the natural world and the spiritual teachings they provide, which in turn she eagerly shared with her children. But a dark seed was planted inside of her when she was physically abused as a residential school student and witnessed both physical and sexual abuse against the other students.
She managed to physically escape from the school itself, but she could not escape the emotional, mental, and spiritual damage that it wrought. She struggled to maintain the traditional personality that she had been, but more and more it got overtaken by a darker and damaged side that grew stronger with time. It did not help that getting into abusive intimate relationships only hastened the process.
Bertha still tried to be a good mother to her children. And indeed she could be ferociously protective towards them like a mother Grizzly Bear when faced with physical danger — or with the threat of child welfare apprehension. Ironically, those situations frequently came about because of her neglect while she passed time at the nearby bar. She was also frequently physically abusive towards her children. McLeod himself recalls two specific events. One involved throwing beer bottles at Debbie and himself, and another involved attempting to set fire to the house while the children were still in it. Such is the paradox and nature of intergenerational trauma that its victims can at once try to love their children, and yet act out their pain and hurt them to perpetuate the cycle.
Darrel’s siblings do not fare much better in the Mamascatch. Debbie is sexually abused by her uncle Andy. She not only suffers the aforementioned abuse from Mother, but herself winds up in one abusive relationship after another. Greggie is gang-raped at an early age by several other youths, eventually becomes part of the drag scene, and then undergoes gender reassignment surgery. McLeod passes no moral judgment on the latter decision, but also relates that the surgery led to physical ailments and complications. Suffice to say that both Debbie and Greggie struggled immensely with substance abuse, which only worsened their problems.
McLeod himself went through a great deal. A great deal of his turmoil comes through his struggles with his own sexuality. It starts with an ambiguous encounter during his school years with an older boy named Stormy, but McLeod remains unsure if it was welcome or coerced, enjoyable or painful. More trouble arrives in the form of his brother-in-law, Rory, whose marital relationship began on a highly exploitative note with the then 13 year-old Debbie. Rory was emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive towards both Debbie and Darrel.
And again Darrel, still being a youth, cannot sort out whether it was consensual and abusive, enjoyable or painful. Darrel also identifies, through his own experience, a stumbling block to healing for many Indigenous peoples. His abuse by Rory was the one thing he most needed to reach out to others with, yet it was also the most painful and shameful thing in his life, such that he could never quite spit it out. Then there was his first truly consensual partner, Gresh. And while Gresh was not physically abusive, he was capable of mind games that could be more cruel than any physical blow.
A result of the exploitation is sexual experimentation and promiscuity, frequently with other men. McLeod renders no moral judgment on homosexuality. He remembers that, like any other young boy, he had crushes on girls during his early school years. He openly raises the question of whether he would have remained heterosexual and eventually entered into a relationship with a woman leading to a family, had he not suffered the traumas he had, or whether he would have become homosexual anyway but in a relatively healthy manner.
What he does recognize is that his hedonism, when he fundamentally needed a truly intimate relationship based on mutual love and respect whatever the gender of the partner, only served to worsen the pain that the hedonism was a reaction to. It wasn’t until he met Milan that he found that relationship, and it provided a turning point to becoming the man he is today.
Racism, both overt and buried, adds additional layers as well. There is, for example, the clearly discriminatory treatment he suffers from one of his school teachers, Ms. Long. The teachings provided by members of the Catholic faith in his education were a constant assault on his self-esteem, and in more ways than one. The denigration of Indigenous peoples as primitive pagans, and by extension the denigration of his mother’s teachings, was certainly harmful. The condemnation of his sexual explorations as a sin worthy of eternal damnation gave a second damaging prong, very often within the same utterances or discriminatory acts that were laced with racism. It did not always have to be overt, though.
Microaggression, a well-known phenomenon extensively studied by Black and Latino scholars, describes the use of words or actions that try to avoid censure beneath a surface tone of neutrality or praise, which yet in substance remain fundamentally racist. And certainly McLeod experienced no shortage of these, especially in times of his life where he was making positive strides. Instead of earning his attainments in their own right, he received insinuations that somehow he had miraculously exceeded the limited inborn capabilities of a lowborn race, an erosion of personal agency that almost reduced McLeod himself to a kind of museum piece to be gawked at.
And it is not to be wondered at that multiple traumas piled on one another over a lifetime can literally break people down to a point where they can’t take any more. Debbie ends up committing suicide after years of substance abuse and abusive relationships. Mother (Bertha) does not directly commit suicide, but years of the same have clearly ravaged her mind, body, and spirit. This leads to perhaps the most touching moment in the book, where McLeod and Mother see each other one last moment before she passes, and let each other know that they love each other, and all is now forgiven. It is a very brief moment where no words can, or need, be spoken, but their souls touch each other through their eyes.
Mamaskatch is a powerful piece of autobiography on its own. I hope more people, especially non-Indigenous people, read it to gain the insights that it offers on the social problems plaguing Indigenous peoples, and how the residential schools are not just a thing of the past to be forgotten, but have left behind an enduring legacy that cannot be ignored.
David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. David has also written numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals.
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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).
 Reconciliation Canada, The Canadian Reconciliation Landscape: Current Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians (Vancouver: Reconciliation Canada, 2017).
 Tides Canada, Canadian Public Opinion on Indigenous Peoples (Vancouver: Tides Canada, 2016).
 Andrew Russell, “Sen. Lynn Beyak publishes ‘outright racist’ comments about Indigenous people on her website” Global News (January 5, 2018).
 Jorge Barrera, “Sen. Lynn’s son, a city councillor, says Conservative leadership cowed by political correctness” CBC News (January 5, 2018).
 “How Senator Murray Sinclair responds to why don’t residential school survivors just ‘get over it’” The Current (CBC Radio, April 4, 2017).
 Beatrice Culleton Mosioner, In Search of April Raintree (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1983) (first edition).
 Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M. & Holder, A.M.B., “Racial microaggressions in the life experience of Black Americans” (2008) 39:3 Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, p. 329: Tara Yosso et al., “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions and Campus Racial Climate for Latina/o Undergraduates” (2009) 79:4 Harvard Educational Review, p. 659.