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Friday, November 6, 2015

Matt Cohen Award winner Richard Wagamese and "Indian Horse"

Earlier this week Richard Wagamese was awarded the Matt Cohen Award which “recognizes a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer, working in either poetry or prose in either French or English”.  In awarding the $20,000 prize to Wagamese, the Selection Committee stated, “Over a career spanning more than 30 years and numerous honours, Richard Wagamese has become a vital voice in Canadian letters” (

Here’s my review of Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse which I read back in July of 2013.

4 Stars

The narrator of this novel is Saul Indian Horse, a First Nations former hockey star undergoing treatment for alcoholism. In rehab he is encouraged to tell his story as a form of healing and so he writes what amounts to his autobiography.

Saul is an Ojibway from northern Ontario; at the age of eight, in the early 1960s, he is placed in a government-sanctioned, church-run residential school where “There were no grades or examinations. The only test was our ability to endure.” There, like so many Native children, he experiences and/or witnesses beatings, rapes, and countless humiliations. He describes life at the school, the place which “took all the light from my world,” as hell on earth: “When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals, are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.”

What saves Saul is the game of hockey introduced to him by a young priest, a game for which Saul proves to have an almost preternatural understanding. His natural talent and determination to perfect his skills make a career in the sport a possibility, but as his opportunities increase so does the racism he faces.

I know a bit about the abuse faced by children who were forcibly removed from their families and suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in residential schools, but this is the first novel I have read written from the perspective of a survivor. It is the details of the abuse that are shocking, but it is their very specificity that adds credibility to this work of fiction. The author’s emotionally restrained style in which he avoids gratuitous details and an accusatory tone - and even remains polite - ensures that the reader cannot dismiss the novel as a bitter diatribe which exaggerates for the sake of effect.
It is clear who bears responsibility for the abuse and its consequences for future generations, but Saul is also given some advice about healing: “’They scooped out our insides, Saul. We’re not responsible for that. We’re not responsible for what happened to us. None of us are. . . . But our healing – that’s up to us. That’s what saved me. Knowing it was my game.’”

The one part of the book I did not enjoy is the descriptions of the many hockey games. I am not a fan of hockey (a blasphemous admission for a Canadian) and know little about it and so found my eyes glazing over in the sections detailing technicalities of the sport. It is not necessary to become tediously repetitive to make it obvious that hockey provides an escape Saul and that he is an exceptionally talented player. I will admit, however, that the use of Canada’s national game as a metaphor for Saul’s plight (and that of other aboriginal youth) is genius: a young man has the talent and work ethic to strive for the dream of Canadian youth – a shot at the National Hockey League – but the dream may be unattainable because of systemic racism.

Stories are an integral part of Saul’s culture. One man tells Saul, “’Ojibways are the best storytellers I know’” although Saul thinks that his people have “stepped beyond the influence of our legends. That was a border my generation crossed, and we pine for a return.” But in rehab Saul is told that it is necessary for him to know and understand his story in order to heal his broken spirit. Likewise, it is necessary for all of us to know and understand our hiSTORY.

I’m starting a list of should-read novels for all Canadians; in the First Nations category, I have thus far included Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden and Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards. Indian Horse now joins the list. It forces us to face the shameful part of our history in which it was not the victims of residential schools that were the savages.