My list of inspiring writers who happen to be Indigenous is a long one – Thomas King with his entertaining wit, Tanya Talaga and her insightful wisdom, Richard Wagamese for inspiration and calm, Harold R Johnson and his important stories. I would struggle to pick a favourite. On that list is David A Robertson, a Winnipeg-based writer from Swampy Cree roots who is doing his best to change the world, one book at a time.
I’ve tuned in to hear Robertson interviews on CBC Radio numerous times, drawn to his gentle character fired by a passion to inform readers of all ages. He has published more than twenty-five books across various genres, and it is fair to say he is keen to reach young and adolescent readers.
The Writers’ Union of Canada recently provided a webinar with Robertson, to speak of his experience of winning the 2021 Freedom to Read award, in conversation with Danny Ramadan, a Syrian-born award-winning writer who came to Canada as a refugee in 2014. “The award recognizes work in support of freedom of expression,” says Writers’ Union of Canada, encouraging Canadians to “reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.” Robertson’s work has received many awards, too numerous to include here, one of which was the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for young people’s literature.
The webinar conversation discussed the challenge of weaving stories around difficult subjects such as Robertson’s Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story, a graphic novel telling the story of Betty, a high school student who in 1971 was abducted and murdered by four young men in The Pas. Sixteen years passed before a conviction and a formal apology in 2000 from Manitoba’s Minister of Justice for the failure of the justice system, for racism, for sexism, and for indifference. Betty dreamed of being a teacher one day and through the work of Robertson, a half-century later Betty’s story is still teaching us about Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Robertson reminded listeners that Indigenous stories are not only about trauma. “They are about the beauty of [Indigenous] culture and language,” Robertson said.
Robertson was honoured to receive the Freedom to Read award but wishes instead the award wasn’t required, that children had easy access to stories that draw out the truth, that help them better understand where we have come from and where we want to go. In 2018, Robertson’s writing fell victim to the Edmonton Public School Board’s list of books to be “weeded out”, a list comprised mostly of Indigenous writers. In contradiction, the then Minister of Education for Alberta, David Eggen (2015-2019) called for resources for Truth and Reconciliation for the education system but then these books were “not recommended for use in Edmonton Public Schools”, claiming that allowing these books in the classroom “require pre- and post- conversations with students” about the legacy of residential schools. “What is a school there for if they’re not going to have pre- and post-conversations about literature in the classroom? That’s the whole point,” said Robertson, as reported by Global News (Colette Derworiz of The Canadian Press). Robertson was labelled “problematic” despite not getting angry and not insulting anyone, yet the media continually referred to him as “angry”. Robertson stands firmly against this kind of ignorance while raising awareness. “Reconciliation is about talking and listening,” Robertson said. When the “weeding out” list hit social media, Canadians bought up Robertson’s books and the works of others on the list in great numbers, demonstrating public support. The list was taken down.
Half of Robertson’s work is advocacy. He spends time in the classrooms of Canadian schools and allows children to see characters in books that look like they do, who have similar struggles, who rise above their challenges. Allowing children to see different people told in stories “builds a stronger society”, Robertson said, which should always be our goal.
Why advocacy? Why not just write books, host Ramadan asked Robertson? Robertson’s response was that his father, Donald (Dulas) Robertson, often referred to a quote by Edward Everett Hale, an American author of the late 19th century (writer of The Man Without a Country) – “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Robertson’s father told his son – “while you are doing what you love to do, help people.” We all have a responsibility to be advocates for those who are pushed aside, who are invisible, who can’t speak for themselves, who have been silenced. “It’s work we ought to do,” Robertson says. Robertson coined the term Indigenexcellence in regard to literature, inviting listeners to find stories about Indigenous culture. I’m currently reading his Black Water (2020). Grab one of David A Robertson’s books; you’ll be glad you did. His work is indigenexcellent.