What is Writer Allyship? A Review of Laurie D. Graham’s Settler Education
Laurie D. Graham. Settler Education. 2016. McClelland & Stewart. $18.95, 119 pp., ISBN: 978-0-7710-3687-3
Reviewer: Evan J
Allyship is about doing the work. It is respect, listening to communities, and taking action when needed. Regarding Indigenous peoples, settlers have been either ignoring the concerns, or negligently inquiring on how to help. Either way, the burden remains on Indigenous folk, and that’s a burden that has rested on them for too long.
Laurie D. Graham’s book Settler Education has done the work and is doing the work. On her writing process, she states: “[It’s] tough, damn tough. I frequently find myself demagnetized from my desk, pushed to the other side of my office, and I struggled each time to pull myself back. The work is tough, but it’s too important not to continue.” It’s this moral consciousness and immediacy that makes Graham such an amazing writer; her writing is more than just creativity. Settler Education is a settler’s effort to remove the burden of reconciliation efforts. It’s a book that does the work of teaching Canada’s dark history to other settlers—hence the blunt title—and that is writer allyship.
And then a dead crow between subdivision fences,
on the white line of the through-road home, its mate trying to go to
the body and getting
turned back to the grass by each car passing.
And I’m supposed to claim I know this land, that I know where my
limits are placed. (from “Frog Lake” p. 24)
Through a settler upbringing in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Graham has learned to listen to the prairie people and see past Canada’s façades. She has unearthed Canadian prairie history from the remains of old forts, from Canada’s forgotten battle sites, from the archives, from the museums, from big-city racial struggles, from small-town chit-chat. Graham has created a book that’s an unflinching revealer of truths, meant to educate settlers on their colonial past and show the colonialism currently surrounding them.
Any settler thinking, I’ve got to drive through them. Any leader
saying, We’ve no history of colonialism. Any leader saying, There’s no such thing
as society. Any thousand people trying to live through the winter after
all the food’s been slaughtered. After every grocer folds. Any thousand
people disappeared. Any sixty-dollar can of formula. Any mode of
genocide. … Any fool thieving Native because she was born here. (from “In Praise of Idle No More” p. 91)
I reference and recommend this book now, two years since its release by M&S, for two additional reasons. Settler Education was one of three books nominated for the 2017 Ontario Trillium Book Award for Poetry. And at the 2017 Indigenous Writers’ Gathering, a non-Indigenous poet, Laurie D. Graham, was also invited. Cherie Dimaline—current organizer of the gathering, and author of the celebrated book The Marrow Thieves—stated how of all the poetry books she read as a literary judge in 2017, Settler Education was one that really surprised her. Though Dimaline was worried that the book might overstep the bounds of what a white writer should say, Dimaline believes Settler Education was a reconciliation project done right. The level of respect and fortitude in Settler Education gave Graham a seat at the Indigenous poets table, figuratively and quite literally, and that is worth noticing.
Show some respect and keep your distance. Though with no paved route,
no federal plaque, you don’t know what respect is. (from “Battleford Gravesite” p. 49)
The only issue I might find with the book is its publication by McClelland and Stewart. Publishing with M&S means the book will find the largest poetic audience available in Canada, therefore educating the largest number of Canadians possible—a good thing. But M&S is yet to openly embrace any of the TRC’s Calls to Action, particularly Action 92. M&S, now part of a German owned publishing conglomerate, remains on a long list of publishers disrespectfully dragging their feet to make Canada’s Indigenous peoples’ rights a priority—a bad thing.
I have utterly defeated Riel at Batoche, with great loss,
and have made prisoners of Riel, Poundmaker, and his principal chiefs,
also the two murderers of Payne and Tremont
and I expect that you will come in
If you do not
I shall pursue, and destroy you, and your band, or drive you into the woods
to starve. (words of FRED MIDDLETON, Cmdr N.W. Field Force, from “Frenchman Butte” p. 45)
As lovers of literature, most of us still recognise that Canadian poetry rarely makes any major impact. The lines of Canadian history in the quote above are shocking, but how many people we read them? Settler Education is the book I continually hold up as a leading example of writer allyship efforts, but Graham’s book will not bring seismic change. Writer allyship is important, but for real change to happen there must also be activism. We must write and educate, but we must also stand beside—physically and digitally—Indigenous folk who are struggling.
Looking for other great examples of settler writers doing the work? Try Dionne Brand, Margaret Sweatman, and Victoria Freeman.
Evan J comes from Cree, Anishinaabe, Dakota, and Métis traditional territory, the land of Treaty 1, and he currently lives in Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee traditional territory, the land of the Dish-With-One-Spoon Wampum and Treaty 13, beside Kabechenong / Teiaiagon / the Humber River. Evan is a white male settler. If you have read Evan’s work, he implores you to read at least two other non-white writers. Evan is an Editorial Assistant at Brick, A Literary Journal and is the Literary Director and Founder of Slackline Creative Arts Series in Toronto. Visit him online at EvanJ.ca