One of Canada’s Finest Writers, Richard Wagamese Dies at 61

by Frank Larue

Richard Wagamese, one of Canada’s greatest writers, died in March.

“He taught us about our history. He taught us the emotional truth of our history, as great fiction writers do. And he was one of our greats,” says Shelagh Rogers, a close friend of Wagamese. “He lived story. Story was who he was. And he felt that we all connect through sharing our stories, and that reconciliation would be about sharing our stories.”

He was the author of several books, including Indian Horse – which will soon be a movie – Medicine Walk, Keeper’n Me, Ragged Company, One Native Life, One Story One Song, Dream Wheels, For Joshua, The Next Sure Thing, Him Standing, Runaway Dream, and his most recent release, Embers. 

Richard Wagamese 

His books are greatly influenced by past experience. Largely, it was the pain of being one of the Scoop of The Sixties victims, ripped away from his birth parents, forced to be brought up by adopted white parents. But along with the pain, there also came a deep understanding of native life, and of the difficulties of cultural survival within our present. Within the residential schools legacy and the racism that has existed for the last century.

“We’re becoming an undeniable voice. The strength and the vitality in the way we’re learning and choosing to tell our stories is becoming undeniable, so that when we present manuscripts to publishers, the first thing they look at is the quality of the writing and not the colour of the person.” Wagamese told the Kamloops Star. “What we’re indeed engaged in is creating a literature of our people.”

Before writing books, Wagamese was a journalist. Beginning in 1979, he wrote columns for newspapers, including the Calgary Herald. His columns attracted attention for their style and originality. He was the first Indigenous writer to receive a National Newspaper award.

Eventually, he started writing for the Globe and Mail, and he became the voice of Canadian Indigenous people. In one article, he wrote:

“To be Indian in Canada today means that one signatory to be the nation-to-nation agreement that frames your life forgets that it’s a treaty nation. It entrenched itself historically when it signed those documents. Unfortunately, the years since have been an ongoing process of denial of obligations and responsibilities under treaty.

“To be Indian today is to see youth languish in chronic unemployment and malaise, endure high rates of alcohol, drug, and solvent abuse or die by suicide at a rate five-to-seven times higher than non-aboriginal youth.

“To be Indian today is to see your children suffer. On reserve, in Metis communities, and in the cities. Aboriginal children go hungry, lack warm clothing and solid educational resources, die as infants at a rate two-to-four times the national average, and endure immunization rates 20 times lower than the general population.

“To be Indian in Canada today is to know your women are likely to be victimized, murdered, or go missing. It’s to know that you may have to share a two bedroom with as many as 16 other people. It’s the understanding that running water is a luxury, or clean drinking water a rarity. It’s the awareness that Canada has known about these grave issues for decades, but they still persist.”

Wagamese brings out several other pitfalls for being an Indian, and then concludes in a more optimistic direction:

“To be Indian today is to stand in solidarity and equality with brothers and sisters across the country. To say that we won’t live in this way no longer. To watch our youth and our women take to the forefront of this direct action, and lead. This is what awaits the new ‘Indians’, and to them, I say welcome.”

Wagamese was also critical of certain native organizations such as the AFN.

“At the risk of being politically incorrect, there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the Assembly of First Nations. When the AFN votes today to elect a new chief, only 633 voices will count. Those are the voices of the elected chief, they, or their proxies, are the only ones who are allowed to vote. To be a First Nation’s person in Canada is to be rendered voiceless by the very organization that purports to represent you.”

To say Wagamese will be missed is an understatement. He was an original, and has left big shoes to fill.

“I think he was very generous and kind with others,” Wab Kinew, a member of the Manitoba Legislature, told the media. “As much as it is sad to see that he left us too soon, it’s also very powerful to see the impact he had on so many people in life.”