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Michelle Good Unpacks the ‘Colonial Toolkit’

The bestselling Cree author explores Canada’s true history in a series of provocative essays.

Jen St. Denis 17 Oct 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

After working for decades in Indigenous activism and as a lawyer, Michelle Good published her first novel in her 60s. The bestselling and award-winning Five Little Indians, published in 2020, tells the story of five residential school survivors in British Columbia who come of age in the 1970s.

Good, a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is now working on a historical novel that is loosely based on the life of her great-grandmother and will reach further back into the past, spanning from the 1850s to the 1950s.

In between these two books, Good has written a collection of essays she says was inspired by the many reader questions that came her way after the publication of Five Little Indians.

“I was really quite amazed at how willing people were to dive into that conversation about the long-term impact of residential schools,” Good said. “And so I thought, well, I think this is a good time to take a closer look at the other tools in the colonial toolkit.”

Truth Telling explores the colonial policies that came before, after and coincided with the residential school system, interweaved with Good’s telling of how residential school, the '60s Scoop and the racism deeply embedded in Canadian homes affected her own life.

The Tyee caught up with Good by phone from Calgary as she was hopping from one writers’ festival to another, ahead of her time in Vancouver later this week, when she will be in conversation with Carleigh Baker at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Saturday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: This book of essays really emphasizes that Canada is a product of this colonial system. I still don’t think we have a good enough understanding of the actual structures that created the country.

Michelle Good: Well, this is true. And I think that, because the history that we’ve been taught is a myth. It’s like a fairy tale. And it’s not really representative at all of what actually happened, and certainly not through the lens of an Indigenous experience.

How did you go about picking the series of topics that you tackle in the book?

It goes back to what I referred to as the colonial toolkit, looking at the kinds of laws and policies that were put in place to achieve colonial objectives.

I wanted to look at how child welfare programs were really sort of the descendant of the residential school policy. And I wanted to assist people to understand that residential schools were not the first thing. All of these terrible things were implemented before: for example, starvation policies to encourage submission or to force submission. All of those things happened, and then they came for the children.

I was particularly moved by your essay where you talk about Indigenous authors and the flourishing of Indigenous literature from the 1960s onwards. How did reading shape your understanding of your own life experience?

It was really quite critically important, because what you get in literature is you get invited into a state where you’re in the world of storytelling as an educational vehicle. Reflecting on our traditional storytelling methods of education — I was particularly inclined to learn through storytelling and being open to the perspectives of many different people in many different circumstances.

The world of publishing was not a welcoming place for Indigenous people and it was really us breaking down the doors by doing it ourselves, setting up our own Indigenous presses. It was once we started being in a position where we could put our perspective out in the world through stories that the larger publishing houses began to think of them as marketable.

You’re a survivor of the '60s Scoop, and one of the essays is about your own childhood and your experience of being placed in a series of foster care homes and abusive situations — experiences you didn’t talk about to anyone for a long time. How did it feel to get that down on the page?

I did it kind of from a distance. The purpose of sharing my own experiences was not to weep on the page — it wasn’t to seek catharsis, or something like that. I felt that if I could describe my own experiences in a way that the reader could understand these issues personally, they could look at that in the context of a specific person’s life. That it might be easier for them to extrapolate and look at those harms that were done on a huge scale in the Indigenous community.

There is this sort of teaching element that I think a lot of Indigenous writers take on, even today after several decades of Indigenous writers and filmmakers exploring these topics. Do you see yourself as an educator, and is that an extra burden that Indigenous artists are having to carry?

It always has been. Non-Indigenous people have not been motivated to understand the real Canadian history and how it has created the nature of the relationship that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Storytelling for us has always been an instructive tool. That’s the role of storytelling in Indigenous cultures.

I do not so much see myself as an educator, but as a provocateur. What I hope I put out there is material that will make people question what they think they know, and inspire them to undertake their own process of self-education.

Michelle Good will be in conversation with Carleigh Baker as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest this Saturday, Oct. 21. The event is presented in partnership with TalkingStick Festival, HarperCollins Canada Ltd. and the Peter A. Allard Law School at UBC.  [Tyee]

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