Richard Wagamese (1955-2017)
March 28th, 2017
An Ojibway from the Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Richard Wagamese was born in Minaki, Ontario, on October 14, 1955 and grew up in fifteen foster homes. According to Wikipedia, “He and his three siblings, abandoned by adults on a binge drinking trip in Kenora, left the bush camp when they had run out of food and sheltered at a railroad depot.” He was re-united with birth family members in his early twenties. As a self-described “second-generation survivor of the residential school system” that had adversely affected the lives of his parents and other family members, Wagamese partially overcame alcoholism and PTSD to attain national acclaim.
Also known as Richard Gilkinson, Wagamese had “a criminal history with more than 50 convictions dating back to the 1970s,” including numerous alcohol-related driving convictions, according to the Kamloops News. But he persevered and gained widespread acceptance, forming a 25-year friendship with Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC’s The Next Chapter, and earning several prestigious awards. With thirteen books under his belt, he was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize one week prior to his death in Kamloops on March 10, 2017.
A memorial gathering was held at Thompson Rivers University on March 25, 2017. The cause of death was not divulged.
While primarily residing at Paul Lake near Kamloops, Wagamese had already received the George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness in 2011 for One Story, One Dream. In 2012 he was chosen as a recipient of a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (NAAA) for Media & Communications. In 2013 he became the first recipient of the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature First Prize for Indian Horse as well as the 2013 recipient of the Canada Council on the Arts Molson Prize. Having moved to live in Kamloops, he received the Writers’ Trust Matt Cohen Award: In celebration of a Writing Life for a body of work in 2016.
Wagamese began his writing career as a journalist was with the First Nations publication New Breed, then becoming a “native-affairs” columnist at the Calgary Herald where he became the first indigenous journalist to win a National Newspaper Award in 1991. Wagamese’s first novel, Keeper ’n’ Me, tied for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta fiction award in 1995. Then he won the 2007 Canadian Authors Association MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction for his novel Dream Wheels.
In his non-fiction collection One Story, One Song, characters gain wisdom from wolf tracks, light a fire without matches, and learn about Martin Luther King from a grade five teacher.
One Native Life is his memoir of playing baseball, running away with the circus, attending a sacred bundle ceremony, meeting Pierre Trudeau, alcoholism, drifting from town to town, and being abused and abandoned as a child. It is an anger-free exercise in coming to terms with himself within the larger construct of Canada.
His third novel Dream Wheels is about the healing relationships between a former world champion Ojibway-Sioux rodeo cowboy who is crippled by a bull and a black single mother with a 14-year-old son named Aiden. His other books are two novels — Keeper ‘n Me and A Quality of Light–and an autobiography, For Joshua.
In 2008, Wagamese wrote Ragged Company, the story of four chronically homeless people who, seeking refuge in a movie theatre from severely cold Arctic weather, discover a winning lottery ticket worth millions of dollars.
Indian Horse (D&M 2012) by Richard Wagamese was selected as a finalist for the 2013 CBC Canada Reads competition and won the First Nations Communities Reads Awards, as well as being short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Casting for a movie production was commenced by Screen Siren Pictures of Vancouver, makers of Hector and the Search for Happiness, with shooting slated for Sudbury, Ontario, Oka and Kamloops in the fall of 2016.
According to publicity materials, “a character named Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows… For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement.”
In Medicine Walk (2014), we meet 16-year-old Franklin Starlight as he saddles up to ride into town, feeling compelled to rescue his dissolute father, Eldon, someone he doesn’t even know very well. Eldon is a drunk, dying of liver cancer in a flophouse. Frank dutifully accedes to his father’s request to be taken into the mountains, into the woods, so he can be buried in a traditional Ojibway way. As they ride into the backcountry, Eldon’s past comes to light: his poverty-stricken childhood, serving in the Korean War. Frank finally gets to know the father he seldom had.
Shortlisted for the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award, Richard Wagamese’s Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations (D&M) reached the top of the BC Bestsellers List in March of 2017 soon after his death. It’s a collection of everyday reflections on activities such sawing and cutting and stacking wood for winter and the indigenous smudge ceremony to bring him closer to the Creator. Without attempts to attain the role of teacher, his meditations as a self-described “spiritual bad-ass” explore grief, joy, recovery, beauty, gratitude, physicality and spirituality.
But literary success did not vanquish his demons. “Alcohol could numb me to all the things that arose in me,” he told Provincial Court Judge Stella Frame in 2011.”When they arose, I just drank more and more.” Wagamese was facing jail time for three offences of drunking driving, having been found driving drunk three different times in as many weeks. His blood-alcohol levels following the arrests were between 0.223 and 0.315, above the legal limit of 0.08. Judge Frame gave him an 18-month provisional sentence and a ten-year driving ban.
Keeper ‘n Me. (Doubleday, 1994). 0385254520 $13.95
A Quality of Light. (Doubleday, 1997). 038525606X $18.95
For Joshua. (Doubleday, 2002). 0385257120 $32.95
Dream Wheels. (Doubleday, 2006). 0-385-66199-1 $34.95
One Native Life. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008). 978-1-55365-364-6 $29.95
Ragged Company. (Doubleday, 2008). 9780385661560 $29.95
Runaway Dreams (Ronsdale 2011). 978-1-55380-129-0 $15.95
One Story, One Song. (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) 978-1-55365-506-0 $29.95 / (paperback) (Douglas & McIntyre, 2015) 978-1-77162-080-2 $19.95
The Next Sure Thing (Raven Books 2011) 978-1-55469-900-1 $9.95
Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012 978-1-55365-402-5 $21.95
Him Standing (Orca / Raven Books 2013) 978-1-4598-0176-9
Medicine Walk (M&S 2014) 9780771089183 $29.95
Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations (Douglas & McIntyre 2016) 978-1-77162-133-5 $18.95
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017]
Thank you for this thoughtful tribute to one of B.C.’s finest and brave writers.
His contributions to our understanding of our F/N people’s struggles are both informed and intimate.
Bless you, Richard.