Maria Campbell Métis Author & Elder

By Morgan O’Neal

Maria CampbellMaria Campbell is one of the first Aboriginal writers, playwrights, theatre producers and filmmakers in Canada. Her career began in 1973 when she published her autobiography, Halfbreed. The book has become a literary classic and continues to be one of the most widely taught texts in Canadian literature. Since then Campbell has published People of the Buffalo: How the Plains Indians Lived (1976), Riel’s People (1978), The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation (1982), co-authored with actor/playwright Linda Griffiths, and Stories of the Road Allowance People (1995), which translates oral stories into print. She has also written four children’s books including Little Badger and the Fire Spirit (1977).

Maria Campbell’s first professionally produced stage play, Flight was the first all-Aboriginal theatre production in Canada. Flight brought modern dance, storytelling and drama together with traditional Aboriginal art practices. She went on to write, direct and produce six other plays, some of which toured in Canada and abroad. From 1985 to 1997 she founded and operated her own film and video production company where she wrote and directed seven documentaries and produced the first weekly Aboriginal television series entitled My Partners, My People.
Ms Campbell is finishing an Native Studies from the University of Saskatchewan, holds three honorary doctorates and has served as writer in residence at libraries and Universities throughout the prairies for two decades. She speaks four languages and is a sought-after guest speaker in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan and lives near Batoche at Gabriel’s Crossing in Saskatchewan.

Awards she has received include a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, a Chalmers Award for Best New Play (Jessica), a national Dora Mavor Moore Award for play-wrighting and Woman at the Top, City of Saskatoon. Her community work and writing have been recognized with many honours, including the Gabriel Dumont Medal of Merit and honorary doctorates from the University of Regina, York University, and Athabasca University. She has also been inducted into the Saskatchewan Theatre Hall of Fame and has received a Distinguished Canadian Award (established by the Seniors University Group in 1985 to recognize older adults who have made outstanding contributions to Canadian life.) The award is intended to raise public awareness of the dynamic role older adults (aged 55 and over) play in society. Past recipients include Roy Bonisteel, Stephen Lewis, Adrienne Clarkson and former Saskatchewan Premiers T.C. Douglas, Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow.

In 2004, Campbell was awarded a 50,000 dollar Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. Two Molson Prizes are awarded every year to distinguished Canadians, one in the arts and the other in the social sciences or humanities. The prizes recognize the recipients’ outstanding lifetime contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada. In awarding the Molson Prize in the Arts to Maria Campbell, the jury stated: “For her contribution to Canadian and Aboriginal literature and significant impact on the cultural evolution of Canada, the jury was unanimous in its choice of Maria Campbell for the 2004 Molson Prize in the Arts. The brilliance of her breakthrough memoir, Halfbreed, which changed perceptions of the Métis experience forever, has been followed by other significant work, making a profound contribution to Canadian theatre, film, television and radio. Her status as a teacher, mentor and inspiration to Aboriginal people and all Canadians is unparalleled.” Indeed, Campbell sees herself more as a community worker than a writer.

But she is best known for her autobiography, Halfbreed, of which a Victoria Times-Colonist review stated: “You can almost feel this book vibrating in your hands, it is so compelling. You read it with a kind of agonized, heart-in-the-mouth sensation, halfway between laughter and tears…. Truth is stronger than fiction.” And the Canadian magazine Saturday Night called it the “daring account of a strong-willed woman who defeated poverty, racism, alcohol and drug addiction by the age of thirty-three.” The book is a vital account of a young Métis woman’s struggle to come to terms with the joys, sorrows, loves and tragedies of her northern Saskatchewan childhood.

The eldest daughter of seven children born to parents of Scottish, Indian and French descent, she was 1940 in Park Valley, northern Saskatchewan. She lost her mother at the age of twelve and was forced to quit school to take care of her younger siblings. In an attempt to keep her family together, when she was 15 Campbell married an abusive white man who reported her to the welfare authorities and the children were placed in foster homes. After moving to Vancouver, she was deserted by her husband and entered a life of drugs and prostitution. Alone and desperate, she attempted suicide twice and suffered a nervous breakdown. While in the hospital she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began her life over again.

Campbell says that throughout this suffering she was sustained in spirit by her Cree great-grandmother Cheechum who gave her confidence in herself and in her people, confidence she needed to survive and to thrive. As a child she dealt with discrimination from both whites and full-blooded Indian neighbors because of her Metís, or “half-breed” heritage. Halfbreed recounts the first thirty-three years of her life and depicts the discrimination and racism she and her people endured. In the introduction to that book, Campbell says, “I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman in this country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and the dreams.”

Halfbreed was Maria Campbell’s way of telling everyone the story of the realities of poverty, pain and hopelessness. Her story is a moving one, which at times reduces the reader to tears, and at other times makes you want to laugh. The underlying current in Halfbreed is, however, a serious one. Campbell says, “I am not bitter. I have passed that stage. I only want to say: this is what it was like, this is what it is still like” Her portrayal of how hard it was to grow up a Metis half a century ago and how unfairly she was treated by both whites and Indians, still strikes a chord.

In 1973, the year that Halfbreed was published, the author and her Métis community were not considered, under the Indian Act, to be aboriginal people in Canada. Yet discussion of contemporary Canadian aboriginal literature usually begins with this seminal work. Ojibway critic, Kateri Damm argues that Campbell presents “an alterNative perspective of the history of Canada…[to] affirm and preserve Native views, Native realities and Native forms of telling, while actively challenging and redefining dominant concepts of history, truth and fact”. Janice Acoose contends that “many contemporary Indigenous women …look to Maria Campbell’s text as the one which encouraged them to speak out, name their oppressors, and re-claim their selves”.

As Agnes Grant has observed, “Until she [Campbell] wrote the book, ‘halfbreed’ was nothing but a common derogatory term; now it means a person living between two cultures.” Her role as a political activist for Native American rights is still something Maria Campbell takes very seriously. And the growing strength of the Metis Nation in Canada is due in no small part to her life-long dedication to the cause. Campbell begins her first chapter with the Red River Rebellion and the continuous Halfbreed struggle to claim land they had lived on for years.
Rather than start her autobiography with her birth or even the meeting of her parents, Campbell looks back to the 1880’s, to remind her readers of the Halfbreeds’ historic but dishonoured claim for land. She retells the Battle of Duck Lake and the beginning of the Riel Rebellion, making certain to emphasize the eventual split within the Halfbreed ranks intentionally created by the federal government who issued land scrip to only “a chosen few.” She also takes care to point out that more than 8000 troops were deployed to stop Riel, Dumont and only 150 Halfbreeds.
It is with this information clearly laid out, that she states baldly at the end of the chapter, in a one sentence paragraph: “The history books say that the Halfbreeds were defeated at Batoche in 1884.” By contrast, in chapter two, Campbell describes her family almost sixty years later, when the Halfbreeds are “squatters,” literally living on the margins of society as the “Road Allowance People”, swindled out of what was rightfully theirs by the federal government. It is as though Campbell finally has the opportunity to rewrite the history books and she forces in as much information as she can from the Halfbreed “point of view.”

Just as Campbell describes the marginalized position of her people when she was a child, she records the painful dissolution of her own family and community as they are separated and struggle to survive. Campbell ends the book with the death of her great-grandmother, who was a niece of Gabriel Dumont: “My Cheechum never surrendered at Batoche; she only accepted what she considered a dishonourable truce.” It is fitting that her great-granddaughter never surrendered, either, to the numerous battles in her life but rather found promise in writing, in political activism and in renewed pride as Métis.