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‘There’s Healing in Sharing’

Moving and complex, Brandi Morin’s ‘Our Voice of Fire’ is a vital account of Indigenous life.

Michelle Cyca 2 Aug 2022TheTyee.ca

Michelle Cyca’s writing has appeared in Maclean’s, The Walrus, Chatelaine, SAD Mag and more. Find her on Twitter @michellecyca.

[Editor’s note: This story contains accounts of murder, rape and violence involving teenage girls and older men, as well as descriptions of experiences in Canada’s foster care and mental health care systems. We invite all readers, especially survivors, to move through this piece with care. Vancouver’s Women Against Violence Against Women operates a 24-hour crisis line for immediate support. They can be reached locally at 604-255-6344 or on their toll-free national line: 1-877-392-7583.]

In the prologue to her debut memoir, Our Voice of Fire: A Memoir of a Warrior Rising, Morin recalls visiting the home of Thelma Favel, the great-aunt of Tina Fontaine, while on her first assignment with the New York Times in 2019. Fontaine went missing while under the care of Manitoba’s Child and Family Services and was found murdered in 2014. Her death led to demands that spurred the formation of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls two years later. Morin, an accomplished journalist who had worked for CBC and APTN before striking out as a freelance reporter, had covered many heartbreaking stories before. But sitting in Favel’s living room, she began to weep. 

Like Fontaine, Morin spent her childhood in and out of foster care, preyed on by older men and failed repeatedly by the systems that promised to take care of her. Morin survived, while Fontaine’s tiny body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014. She was just 15-years-old when she died. Later, visiting Fontaine’s grave, Morin was overcome by emotion. “I wasn’t just a reporter. This wasn’t just a job,” she wrote. “This was my life too. This was my story.” 

Morin spent her early years in Stony Plain, just outside of Edmonton. Her parents, though fiercely loving, were intergenerational survivors of trauma and abuse, battling their own demons. Life at home was fraught with violence, neglect and addiction. From age six, Morin was in and out of the foster care system, and at 12 she ran away from a group home with two other girls, ending up at an apartment in downtown Edmonton.

What happened next haunted Morin for decades: she was confined and raped repeatedly over many days, until she escaped to her kohkum’s (grandmother’s) house. When she eventually returned to the group home, Morin told her case worker about the rape. “Well, Brandi,” the case worker replied, “That’s what happens when you take off.” 

Speaking to me by phone on a sunny July afternoon, Morin told me that her journey isn’t unique — which is precisely why it needed to be told. “I was one of… I don’t want to call it lucky,” she says, softly. “I was just one of the ones who happened to make it through. And because of where I’ve been, I just feel a big responsibility to use this platform to help bring awareness to that.”

“Because our [Indigenous] women, they’re not humanized,” she adds. “We’re looked at as valueless, as unworthy, as runaways or drunks… I could have been Tina Fontaine. I related so much to her. I was nearly the same age when I went through a lot of that. And I could have ended up dead in a river like that. It’s a responsibility for me to talk about this, and to elevate these stories. Not only my own, but those of others.”

Another national shame

In recent years, Canadians have begun grappling with the shameful legacy of residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996. But Morin, who was born in 1981, shines her light on another national shame that is still unfolding.

As of 2016, almost 15,000 Indigenous children under 14 were in foster care — 52.2 per cent of all children in care, despite making up only 7.7 per cent of the child population. Morin was one of them; so was Tina Fontaine. Many of these children have experienced abuse and neglect, separated from their families and communities. Those who survive the foster care system are often retraumatized when their babies are apprehended at birth — even though the discriminatory system of “birth alerts” was outlawed in 2020. 

In one heartbreaking chapter, Morin recounts the friends she made in foster care who were lost to murder or suicide. Each one — Buffy, an older girl who called Morin “little sis” and discouraged her from trying hard drugs; Samantha, a baby-faced inmate at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre; Clayton, her teenage sweetheart — is a reminder that behind every grim statistic is a person who was deeply loved. 

Our Voice of Fire is not a tidy or linear story about one woman’s triumph over adversity. For decades, Morin told almost no one else about the rape, and tried to suppress traumatic memories that continually threatened to erupt. At 18, she gave birth to her first child in a psych ward after experiencing a psychotic break.

As a young mother, she struggled to care for her daughter Faith while grappling with her own trauma. At times, she writes, she neglected her baby while attempting to numb her despair with partying. By phone, she told me that the hardest part of the process of writing her book was revisiting this period in her life. “I broke down several times because I could not believe that I had put my own child in danger,” she said, her voice wavering. “Even now, when I talk about it, it's really difficult.”

Morin is remarkably candid and vulnerable on the page, even when describing her darkest moments. But her approach as a memoirist mirrors her work as a journalist: she brings profound empathy and unflinching honesty to every line.

“Sometimes the truth is really ugly,” she tells me. “Just like reconciliation is ugly and uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. It makes space for healing, and dialogue for change. And so I’m putting it out there, because it’s a privilege to be able to speak right now. It’s a privilege to even breathe, because there were so many situations where I shouldn’t be here right now.”

Faith and purpose

There’s no easy answer to why Morin survived in circumstances that claimed the lives of so many other women and children. But she credits her survival, in part, to two things: faith and purpose. “Throughout my life, there have been countless times I wanted to die, but I never gave up because I felt God with me,” she writes. And pursuing journalism ignited her drive and passion, and made the most of her unfaltering empathy and insight. 

Morin’s career began at the Red River Valley Echo, a local paper in Altona, Manitoba. Then a 21-year-old mother of two small children, Morin picked up a part-time reporting job; she had no experience or education, just her love for writing and telling stories. Her first assignment was reviewing an elementary school theatre production, for which she was paid $50. Her experience at the Echo was short-lived, ending when her relationship disintegrated, but formative. In 2012, she started writing for her hometown paper, the Spruce Grove Examiner/Stony Plain Reporter. There, she proposed a weekly column on Indigenous issues to counter the negative stereotypes that proliferated in the media.

“Growing up, I never said, ‘I’m going to be a reporter’ or anything like that,” she said. “I just loved writing and reading, and I liked people, and it all just kind of unfolded that way. But the fire really erupted for me when I started telling Indigenous stories. And I’m really grateful for that, because I think a lot of people never get to find the thing they’re most passionate about and live that out. I tell you, every day I get up and I'm so excited to do what I do.”

A turning point in Morin’s career arrived in 2014, when she pitched a story to APTN about a man named Ryan Arcand. Arcand, who was living on the streets of Edmonton, had become an internet sensation when a video of his piano playing went viral on YouTube. After a three-day search of Edmonton’s streets, Morin and her young daughter Dani found Arcand and spent the day with him. “When he sat to play the piano he transformed,” Morin writes in Our Voice of Fire. “He was no longer a homeless alcoholic, no longer a person everyone looked through or crossed the street to avoid. He was music. He was hope. This was his voice.”

Ryan Arcand plays the piano in downtown Edmonton.

Morin recognized a kind of kindred spirit in Arcand, who had also grown up in foster care, and who also had a creative gift that compelled people to look past their prejudice and recognize his humanity, if only in the brief moments while he played. And like Morin, Arcand’s gift helped him survive. As she wrote for APTN, “It’s his love of music that has kept him going whenever he’s felt down and several times in the past, from taking his own life.”

Too often, Indigenous people are only granted humanity after we prove ourselves to be exceptional: insightful and hardworking, like Morin, or astonishingly gifted, like Arcand. Countless others are still dismissed as worthless, because they lack the opportunity or support to overcome their circumstances the way Morin has. And Morin understands that. Her reporting is insightful and perceptive because she sees the people she writes about as inherently worthwhile and complex.

It’s an approach that’s still too rare, in part because Indigenous people are still underrepresented in media: a 2021 survey by the Canadian Association of Journalists found that 84 per cent of newsrooms have no Indigenous journalists. 

In conversation, Morin is bubbly and warm, grateful for the opportunity to talk about her book and delighted by the attention it’s already receiving. Our interview is just one of many she’s having about the release of Our Voice of Fire, and she’s looking forward to an upcoming book tour and a forthcoming event with IllumiNative in Santa Fe.

“The fire is being unleashed, you know?” she says. “And I want this message to spread like wildfire.”

‘I wanted people to see who we really are’

I read Morin’s memoir in a single day. Her voice, familiar from her reporting with APTN and CBC News, is clear and direct, even when describing traumatic or painful memories. Her story is devastating at times (the book deals with sexual assault, violence and addiction), made bearable by the fact of her survival, and her triumph. 

Morin started thinking about writing a memoir in 2020, and when she sat down to write the first two chapters flowed out of her almost immediately. From there, she says, it was a whirlwind: she signed with Transatlantic Agency in November 2020, and wrote five more chapters before House of Anansi Press acquired the book in March 2021. 

But the first seed of the memoir was planted years earlier. When the federal government announced an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016, Morin realized the story she wanted to tell was her own. By then a 36-year-old reporter at APTN, she was finally ready to talk about the rape that had haunted her for more than two decades. 

“I wanted people to see who we really are. To see that we matter,” she wrote in Our Voice of Fire. “Indigenous women do not conform to the stereotype to which colonialist society tries to reduce us.”

“I believe there’s healing in sharing,” she wrote in the story, which was published in February 2016 by APTN. It’s a sentiment she echoed when we spoke on the phone. 

“It’s a bit nerve-wracking, because I’m sharing this really intimate, personal side of my story,” she said. “But I tell these intimate stories of other people all the time, and they share their hearts with me. So it’s no different than that. And I think it’s a really powerful way to connect with people.”

Morin is Cree, Iroquois and French; her family comes from the Michel First Nation in Treaty 6 territory, which was involuntarily enfranchised in 1958, dissolving their land and treaty rights. Growing up, Morin always knew she was Indigenous, but didn’t know where her family came from, and it took her many years to realize that the “convent school” her kohkum attended was a residential school. 

In Our Voice of Fire, she writes about discovering and reconnecting with her nation, an epiphany that imbues her work and family history with even greater significance. “I remind myself that the majority of people do respond with compassion and outrage when they understand the truth,” she writes.

 “So I buckle down and do the work I can do. I report. I write. And I push and push and push for Indigenous voices to be heard outside of our own circles. Because reconciliation will only ever be achieved when ignorance gives way to truth on a global scale.”

And Morin hopes that sharing her own story inspires more Indigenous people to do the same. “We need more,” she tells me. “We need more of our stories, and they're waiting to be told, and waiting to be shared. We are a generation of fire.” 

Come back tomorrow to read an excerpt from Morin’s ‘Our Voice of Fire’ in The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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