“Our schools were our grandparents,” she said of the Métis community she grew up in.
“Some of our old people, they were the storytellers in our community and they were also the educators … We think of old people as being our archives, our museum. They were our university. They were the people who were the keepers of everything in our community.”
Campbell spoke on Thursday at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST), where Basic Education students and high schoolers studying creative writing and communications had gathered to listen.
An acclaimed writer, playwright, filmmaker and Métis elder, Campbell is an ideal candidate to explain Métis culture. She grew up about 80 miles from Prince Albert in one of the road allowance communities — Métis settlements on Crown land, the result of continual dispossession following the North-West Rebellion of 1885.
Campbell told students how indigenous names for local geography, which described significant events for her people, were gradually replaced by English names.
“What does that do?” she asked. “It totally wipes out your history … If something is (re-)named overnight, it no longer exists. It becomes another place. So that’s what happened to that particular people. The people who live there just become invisible, and all of the things that were a part of who they were is gone.”
The path towards recognition of Métis rights was a long one. Children from road allowance communities were not allowed to attend school until the mid-1940s.
“My generation were the first ones to go to school,” Campbell said. “When the war was over and the soldiers came back, as most road allowance men went away to war … they said, ‘If we were good enough to fight your war, then our kids are good enough to go to your schools.’ That was the beginning of our children going into schools.”
The young Campbell was always interested in writing, even submitting a story to a publisher at age 11. But it left her mind as she grew up and became trapped in an abusive relationship that took her to the slums of Vancouver.
Our schools were our grandparents. - Maria Campbell
“I went through a really bad period in my life … I talk a lot now but I never used to then,” Campbell said. “I had a friend who was an old lady and she told me, ‘Write yourself a letter, or write a letter to somebody, because you have to talk. You’ve got to get it out.’ So I wrote a letter to my grandmother and that’s how my first book came about. Once I started writing, I really got into it.”
That first book, her classic memoir Halfbreed (1973), continues to be taught today in schools across Canada.
“I certainly never thought that that was going to happen,” she said. “A friend of mine saw the paper … and he took it to a publisher. I don’t know why.
“I have lots of respect for that young woman that did that writing. She didn’t know what she was doing, and I’m glad it’s influenced and helped people to understand more about First Nations and Métis people. Sometime when I look at it … I cringe, because I was not politically correct. But those were the times and I can’t change that. That’s the way I thought back then. But … I guess it did what it was supposed to do, (and) keeps doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Campbell’s first play, Flight, was notable as the first all-Aboriginal theatre production. Since then she has continued to produce art in a variety of mediums. On Thursday, she read from a book of traditional Michif-language stories she helped translate called Stories of the Road Allowance People.
Next week, Campbell is expected to announce a one-year residency in Ottawa that will give her a secure writing platform.
“I’ll be able to finish projects that normally would take me 10, 15 years to get done, because I’ve got to earn a living,” she said. “I can’t just have the luxury to write, so what this fellowship does is it gives me that luxury.”