Happy National Indigenous Peoples Day!

Honouring the First Nations on Canada's National Indigenous Peoples Day.
Image from https://pixabay.com/photos/feathers-pow-wow-feather-5939777/

In Canada, June is Indigenous Peoples History Month, and today is National Indigenous Peoples Day. The day to celebrate Indigenous peoples was instituted in 2017, but this is the first time in my recollection that I’ve heard it publicized (like so many other things Indigenous, this seems to have been swept under the rug for so long).

According to Trudeau, “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Our Government is working together with Indigenous Peoples to build a nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, government-to-government relationship – one based on respect, partnership, and recognition of rights.

“We are determined to make a real difference in the lives of Indigenous Peoples – by closing socio-economic gaps, supporting greater self-determination, and establishing opportunities to work together on shared priorities. We are also reviewing all federal laws and policies that concern Indigenous Peoples and making progress on the Calls to Action outlined in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

On this day, we honour and celebrate Indigenous people with a number of ceremonies and events taking place across the country. Don’t get me wrong: this is a positive thing as a day of remembrance, but for the other 364 days (or at least the other 11 months of the year), many of us will return to shaking our heads in disbelief as the government appoints more (white) people to oversee things such as “ensur[ing] the proper treatment and protection of residential school grave sites,” even as they pledge to continue to search for more school burials.

Rather than set aside a single day (or month) to bring Indigenous peoples to the fore, the government should be setting aside time to do more and be better where the First Nations are concerned. Though I realize that we can’t turn back the clock and what’s done cannot be undone, it seems to me that some real action could be taken to offset all of the lip service we hear in the media. Case in point: when I was doing research to write this post, most of the websites that turned up in my Google search were composed of Government of Canada propaganda sites, extolling the initiatives in store to make truth and reconciliation a reality and very little with respect to what still needs to be done or actual things that have been done.

I will celebrate National Indigenous Peoples day this year with a wish and a prayer that on this day next year I can mark some serious, meaningful strides that actually make a difference when it comes to treating First Nations people as the full-blown, original Canadians they are instead of as second-class citizens.

One more way to teach context in literature

When performing a close read, it is difficult to get students to read between the lines to go beyond plot and character recap to do some real analysis. This represents a huge paradigm shift for grades nine and ten students who are used to doing book reports, summarizing what they read and what they think about it. A contextual analysis of a piece of literature forces students to engage critical thinking skills, formulate and answer critical inquiry questions, and make in-depth connections to which they may not be used.

What is context in literature?

Context refers to any external factors that have influenced authors as they write, focusing on the questions “Are events or places from the [author’s] life reflected in the [text]? Are people or relationships from the [author’s] life reflected in the [text]? Are the [author’s] ideas or beliefs reflected in the [text]?

Context has become a huge teaching point in my practice, simply because, to me, it seems like such a simple context, but the students struggle. Every semester I teach or review context as a concept, I change my approach, and every semester it is met with varying success. This prompted me to embark on a critical inquiry quest of my own, to discover a way to teach context that is student-centred, inquiry-based, and engaging. The results of my quest are codified in 15 Practical Ideas for Teaching Context in Literature, available on Amazon. Using one of the ideas in that collection, I taught a successful and engaging lesson on context, that was probably the best one of my career!

 If you’re in a pinch…

Some of the activities in my book can be time-consuming, taking up three or more days of class, and while getting the concept across is well worth the time, you might find that  you don’t have the time to give over to some of these activities, particularly toward the end of the semester. Fear not. Here is a way you can do it in one or two periods.

The lesson plan I am sharing with you here is for teaching context in Macbeth in grade ten. It is focused more on connections with the play rather than Shakespeare himself, as it is assumed that students would have already had an introduction to Shakespeare in grade nine.  To be sure students are following along with the lesson, I create a note-taking template for students to complete during the presentation with the caveat that the slide deck will not be shared at a later date, removing the excuse that they do not have to pay attention because they can make the notes later. I had great success with this method in my grade nine class and hope it will work as well with my grade tens.

The lesson begins with a series of videos and slides with which students are prompted to make notes and includes a critical inquiry activity in which students compare five different portrayals of the witches to discuss their effectiveness. We watch the Patrick Stewart version of the play, and the unit culminates with students creating a portfolio of five writing activities selected from a choice board—a combination of fiction and non-fiction pieces—from which they choose three to polish and submit for evaluation. All of the context was selected with this in mind so that once they begin the portfolio, most of the concepts covered should have already been introduced.

Materials needed for the lesson in context are:

Why I’ve Retired my Best-selling Book

“Throwaway Child” Cover

Today, I retired my best-selling book, a novella entitled Throwaway Child, and here’s why.

I wrote Throwaway Child in 2012 as an attempt to bring awareness of the Canadian Native residential “schools” to the fore. At the time, I was still reeling from the fact that this travesty was left out of most history courses. I had not learned of this dark chapter in Canadian history until I took a course on Native education in university in the late 80s, and I was shocked, to say the least.

If you have not read it, Throwaway Child follows the case of a child’s skeleton found in the basement of a building that was once used as a Native residential “school.” It follows forensic anthropologist Palmer Richardson, archaeologist Molly McBride, and police detective Michael Crestwood (also featured in The Mummy Wore Combat Boots and Phase Shift) as they investigate what led to the child’s death and burial. It has been in publication for nearly ten years and has sold the most copies out of any of my other books, but given the fact that the murderer proves to be another Indigenous child at the school, and in light of recent events, I have decided to retire the story.

You see, the children interred at the residential schools were the victims of such abuse that to make the murderer (accidental though it may be) Indigenous and a child no longer seems fitting. This is particularly true in the wake of the discovery of so many unmarked graves of Indigenous children who lost their lives while inmates at these “schools.” I cannot justify turning an innocent victim of systemic genocide, cultural or otherwise, into the perpetrator of the very crime being visited on so many others like her. I also cannot help but wonder if the story wouldn’t have been more satisfying if I’d put Palmer in charge of excavating one of the mass grave sites to determine the abuse that had been visited on the untold numbers of children who never left the “schools.” Imagine how much more satisfying the story would have been had it climaxed in handcuffing an administration-level official who had either participated in the travesty or turned a blind eye to the abuse.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to unpublish Throwaway Child with my apologies for falling short of accomplishing the very goal I set out to meet with it’s publication.

Call for Canada Day as a national day of mourning

Yesterday marked the third mass, unmarked grave found in association with Native residential “schools.”

For the uneducated, Native residential “schools” were a ploy by Canada’s early government to facilitate the “civilization” and Europeanization of Canada’s Native population. In existence in Canada from about 1880 through 1996 (yes! 1996!), these so-called schools were nothing short of concentration camps into which all Native children were shunted as a matter of law. This was a joint endeavour between “Christian churches and the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert Indigenous youth and to assimilate them into Canadian society.” The net result of this horrific practice was the cultural genocide of generations of Native people, and as recently discovered, the actual genocide of (among others) innocent Native children.

I hesitate to call these places schools. School is supposed to be a place of learning and enlightenment where people leave better off than when they arrived. I doubt there are many (if any) Indigenous people who would claim this describes their experience there. Those of us who knew of the existence of these institutions have long suspected there were many children who entered their doors never to exit. That statement is mind-boggling enough, but now that the sheer number that is the body count shaping Canada’s shame is coming to light, we, as Canadians, should be shocked, sickened, and mortified.

In the last month alone, the remains of 215 individuals in Kamloops, 751 in Saskachewan, and 182 in Cranbook, B.C. There were 130 of these places in operation in Canada over the approximately 100 years of their existence. Do the math: if we take an average of the three known mass graves thus far uncovered, we are looking at approximately 50,000 children slaughtered and buried in unmarked, mass graves. Disposed of in the same way as trash before organized garbage collection. This is not okay (to say the least).

Today is Canada Day, a celebration of Canada’s confederation on this day in 1867. Residential “schools” came into existence barely 10 years after that. Lighting fireworks at bar-b-ques in celebration of Canada as a country has been the way we’ve always celebrated, but not this year. Anyone lighting fireworks and cooking meat over an open flame in honour of Canada’s confederation this year should be ashamed. I will be marking this dark day in history by lighting a memorial candle in memory of all those who perished at the hands of our government. We should never forget the human toll paid so Canada could be established as a country. Do not celebrate the bloodshed and bodies felled; mourn them instead. Mark the existence of Canada Day, not with celebration but with sorrow, honouring those whose way of life and actual lives were unceremoniously taken so that we might live here.

A Day in the Life

This is the first in a series of poems (and possibly rants) I plan to write about teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accessible doors locked so I have to use my hands—

Once, twice, three times, four—

on the same handles used by several hundred students

and several dozen teachers.

“Attention Staff: Please sign the log sheet located on the filing cabinet upon entering the room.”

I must sign into the “private” office I share with up to eight colleagues

“Maximum number of occupants: 5”

but only five of us can access our possessions at any given time.

“High Touch Surface: Remember to disinfect after every use.”

“High Touch Surface: Remember to disinfect after every use.”

“High Touch Surface: Remember to disinfect after every use.”

Fridge…microwave…printer.

“Maintain physical distance”

In a room where students sit no more than four feet apart

“Face mask required for entry”

with ill-fitting masks.

The students arrive all too soon,

forgetting that I have asked them to remain in their seats

and get my attention

before asking a question.

The double the normal length lesson begins.

Some students are with me while

others catch up on sleep,

and I am envious.

“Supergirl” Season 4 is Super Duper!

Warning: spoilers are likely to follow.

Thanks to Netflix, I was just able to catch up on Supergirl season 4, and I was blown away. Now, I know I’m coming late to the party, but I’m going to whoop it up anyway, so if you’ve already watched the season and screamed accolades from the rooftop, imagine that I’m right there with you.

Supergirl, for those of you who don’t know, is Superman’s cousin who is also on Earth, wears a similar costume, and fights bad guys, just like Superman. At the core of the Supergirl story is a trio of strong female characters (Supergirl/Kara, Alex, and Lena) who are joined this season by Nia Nal, but more on her later. Nevermind that the season 4 has plenty of elements from Superman lore, like Brainiac, Lex Luthor, and even Superman himself, and aside from the fact that actors from other Superman productions–such as Erica Durance who played Lois on Smallville, Helen Slater who played Supergirl herself in the 1984 movie, and Dean Cain who played Superman on Lois and Clark–are featured in roles. Supergirl season 4 is impressive for the values it imparts. Here are my observations.

A timely message

Given the state of the nation and that racism and hatred and mistrust for immigrants has risen to the forefront over the past few years, Supergirl is to be praised for demonstrating how xenophobia can only lead to a nation’s destruction. Rather than human immigrants, aliens (as in from other planets) are the targets. They are referred to as “roaches” and told to go home. Near the climax, they are even banned from Earth and a satellite goes into orbit to shoot down approaching spacecraft. Though it’s interesting that we see the leader of the racist Children of Liberty–Ben Lockhart’s–origins (played with sexy scowls and determination by Sam Witwer), at its heart, the season is a parable for where we are heading if we give into our fear of the unknown and buy into stereotypes. In other words, allowing hate to grow and lashing out at our fellow man will assure nothing short of our own destruction.

Typically, literature–and science fiction in particular–is used to hold a mirror up to our society, but according to LiteraryTerms.net, one of the traits of science fiction is “to explore what could happen if certain events or circumstances came to be.”And while I’m not suggesting that Supergirl demonstrates what might happen on Earth if we become a safe haven for aliens in danger on their own planet, I am suggesting that it takes our persecution of those we perceive as different to the extreme. Angry mobs, protests gone wrong, and burying democracy in favour of a police state are only a few of the things that could seriously happen if we stand by and let racism flourish.

Nia Nal is a Superwoman

Nia Nal is the new character introduced this season. She is trans character played by a trans actress. Her character is a half-alien who belongs to a race of dreamers (they have prophetic dreams) that are passed on from mother to daughter. Nia’s parents expect her sister to have the ability, but instead, Nia is the one to inherit the power. This is a puzzling reveal for Nia’s sister, a genetic female, who observes that Nia shouldn’t have the power because she’s not a “real woman”. I think this turn of events is fabulous. To me, it says that in her heart and in her mind, Nia is a true woman. And the fact that the Supergirl‘s writers set the story up this way, it says that this is true of all trans people. If a person–in this case, Nia (Nicole Maines)–believes herself to be female, who are we to judge? Nia has no qualms about letting the world know that she is trans and in the Supergirl universe, no one so much as bats an eye at her admission. The situation is a brilliant example of art depicting life the way it should be.

Watching season 4 of Supergirl has only cemented my enthusiasm for this television show. I can’t wait to see season 5!

Do you watch Supergirl? What do you think of the series and plotlines? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Exposing yet another Canadian tragedy

THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS by Joanna Goodman

At this point in history, most of us know about the Native residential schools. Some of us might be aware that there were, in fact, slaves in Canada. Let’s not forget the boatloads of Jews who were sent back to Europe during the Holocaust to meet their fate in the concentration camps. There was also the appropriation of the Dionne Quintuplets who were taken from their parents and made into tourist attractions. I would, however, be willing to bet that few Canadians are aware of the travesty orphans in Quebec orphanages suffered in the 1940s and 50s, something The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman strives to bring to the fore.

In The Home for Unwanted Girls, fifteen-year-old half-English/half-French Maggie gets pregnant by her French boyfriend. When the girl, named Elodie, is born, her parents whisk the baby off to be adopted by a Jewish couple who cannot adopt through the system, but Elodie is sickly at birth, and the couple backs out. The only thing left to do is to give the baby to an orphanage. When Elodie is 11, she meets with a doctor who declares her mentally insane so she can be admitted to the insane asylum to which the facility is about to be converted. Told the other is dead, Elodie and Maggie stumble through life, unable to rise above the circumstance of Elodie’s birth which, in Catholic rural Quebec, is a horrific sin.

Search for the “Duplessis Orphans” to learn the whole story. In a nutshell, the Catholic-run institution found it could make more money housing the mentally ill than orphans, so they had the residents in their orphanages declared mentally insane so they could keep living in their institutions and collecting money for their incarceration. The Duplessis orphans were treated no differently than the other inmates, receiving the same, harsh punishments and no education. The orphans were not removed from the institutions until after 1962. They were eventually issued an apology in 1999 and paid damages in 2006, but the damage for “an estimated two to four thousand children [who] were physically, mentally, and sexually abused” had already been done.” As would be imagined, the orphans found it difficult to integrate back into society after their experiences. The character of Maggie is inspired by Goodman’s mother, who was the daughter of a French Catholic married to an English “seed” man (one who makes a living selling seeds like Maggie’s father in the novel), but the rest of the book is based on Goodman’s research into the Duplessis orphans while giving a “deeper historical context into some of the long-running tensions that still exist between the province’s French and English communities.”

The Home for Unwanted Girls was an incredible read which I was unable to put down and finished in less than a week. Some of the attraction is akin to slowing down to catch a glimpse of the aftermath of an accident—we are so enticed by the devastation that we can’t look away. Elodie’s story while incarcerated, based on an actual, first-person exposition by a Duplessis orphan, propels the story forward, as do Maggie and Gabriel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship. Will Maggie and Gabriel get back together? Will Gabriel ever find out about Elodie’s existence? Will Maggie and Elodie ever be reunited? Read Joanna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls to find out.

“The OA” Season Two — WTF?

Warning: this is about “The OA”; spoilers abound.

Brit Marling as Prarie/Nina from “The OA” season two

 In season one of Netflix’s “The OA”, Prairie, a blind girl, is kidnapped by Hap and kept in an underground glass prison cell for seven years. Hap is obsessed with people who have had near death experiences (NDE), and he wants to find out what happens after death. This is no “Flatliners”. Hap regularly kills Prairie and his four other charges—NDE survivors all—by drowning them in a helmet he’s devised before bringing them back to hear about their experiences. When Prairie tries to escape, she regains her sight after Hap hits her over the head in an attempt to kill her.

What the prisoners see after death is a series of “movements” they must do together in order to escape their subterranean prison. I should clarify that the way they escape is by sending their consciousnesses to another dimension.

Weird? You bet. And it only gets weirder.

“The OA” is a story within a story in which Prairie recounts what has happened to five select people in the present, including one of the teachers at Prairie’s school. When an active shooter goes on a rampage at the school, the five repeat the prisoners’ movements to distract the shooter. Season one ends with Prairie being shot in the chest.

Season two opens with Hap killing the prisoners and all of them, including Prairie, waking up in their bodies in an alternate reality. Hap is still keeping them prisoners in a psychiatric institution, Prairie finds out what her life would have been like without her NDE as a child, and Prairie’s love interest, Homer, is a doctor working under Hap. Prairie’s audience of five go on a quest to find out what happened to her and to send the teacher to Prairie’s new dimension.

Season two introduces a house that’s actually a puzzle that people solve using a phone app, a psychic octopus, ghosts from another dimension, the revelation that Nina, Prairie’s alter-ego, is a medium for nature, and that teacher BAA is a medium who can sense what’s happening in the other dimension. Remember how I said that it only gets weirder? Cue brain seeds that grow gardens forming an interdimensional map, and that Hap is Jason Isaacs (the actor that plays him) in another reality who is married to Brit Marling, the actor that plays Prairie (shades of “Being John Malkovich”). The object of the game is to find the rose window that looks into this alternate reality in order to win the game. Oh, and there are dreams. Lots of them, in which many people dream of a tunnel the size of a coffin, two round staircases, a rose window, and Karim, a private investigator hired to find Michelle who is Buck, a transgender teenager that is one of Prairie’s five select people.

I watched all eight episodes over two days and needless to say, I’m still processing. I have a lot of thinking to do and a lot of reading to figure out what I’ve just watched. Just like season one, this season takes a long time building up to the final two episodes which feel rushed. In fact, the whole season feels rushed, like there’s SO much jammed into those eight hours that it will take a lot of unpacking to understand the symbolism behind the giant octopus or how BAA suddenly has psychic powers. There’s no guessing needed to figure out the symbolism of the eyes (Prairie was blind; Nina was not), near drownings (reminiscent of Hap’s torture device) or that the puzzle floor is a huge cross-section of a tree (symbolic of the tree of life).

Regardless, both seasons of “The OA” are worth the watch for literary nerds like me who can’t help but ponder the overall meaning of the story. This is going to take a while. Discuss amongst yourselves until I figure it out.

Any thoughts? Please leave them in the comments below.  

An Iconic Dystopia for iconically dystopic times

The Handmaid’s cover I remember.

The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopic novel from 1985. Though it was published more than three decades ago, it nevertheless functions as a contemporary cautionary tale, warning society of the path it will take if it does not check its values. It remains extremely relevant in the first quarter of the new millennia, with themes surrounding basic civil and human rights regarding freedom of speech, religion, and marginalized populations, including women.

The novel follows the story of Offred, a handmaid assigned to the Commander and his wife. In the Republic of Gilead, fertile women are forced to become handmaids to bear children for sterile upper-class women via monthly, ceremonial copulation. Offred (a name derived from the words “of Fred”, forever branding her the Commander, Fred’s, property) fails to become pregnant and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, suggests she allow herself to be impregnated by Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, ostensibly to protect her station as their handmaid. When, on a shopping trip, her companion, Ofglen, introduces Offred to Mayday—an underground organization devoted to overthrowing Giliad—the otherwise unnamed Offred suddenly sees the hope of a better life, and she dreams of being reunited with her husband, Luke, their daughter, and her friend, Moira.

Given the current state of world politics, Atwood’s vision of the future couldn’t be more prescient. Women have lost reproductive rights and self-determination when it comes to their own bodies. Gilead is surrounded by a wall from which the bodies of dissidents are hanged and left on display to serve as warnings. The lines between Church and state are blurred. Secret police (aptly named “eyes”) are everywhere. Gilead is ruled by martial law. Rather than “speculative fiction”, Atwood’s novel reads like a tome sent to warn us against the not to distant future. In spite of Offred’s suffering, the underlying theme of the novel is that no matter how dystopic a person’s situation may seem, people will always move forward by clinging to whatever ray of hope they can find, be it family, personal freedom, or striving for change. Is that not ultimately the definition of human nature?      

Atwood’s writing style—though disjointed at times—sets the tone for Offred’s lamentation of the loss of the world in which she was raised. It is also reflective of Offred’s thoughts as she tries to adapt to her “new normal” way of living. The novel is information-heavy, at least in the beginning, which can be overwhelming, but this soon changes and becomes more compelling as Atwood slowly enlightens the reader to its significance.

While The Handmaid’s Tale may not be considered groundbreaking literature—consider dystopic staples like 1984, Children of Men, and Fahrenheit 451—it is visionary in its scope. Having spawned versions in a gamut of media including film, ballet, theatre, radio, the Hulu television production, and The Testaments, the upcoming sequel novel, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has permeated our popular culture as more than simple speculation. Rather, it should be viewed as a warning for the trajectory of society should those in control in the new millennium continue to trample on the civic and social rights of its citizens.      

The Wattpad Experiment: Week 2

Last week’s stats: 15 reading, 2 stars, 9 comments, 0 sales

I have to admit: I feel kind of guilty. Due to the constraints of my day job and the editing I do in the evening, I’ve had very little time to do Wattpad justice.

As of today, I have 3 people who are either following me and/or reading my novel, The Revenant: A YA Paranormal Thriller with Zombies. I have been reading and commenting whenever I have the chance. I have seen some really good manuscripts that I am eager to continue reading, and some not so good. I am amazed at some of the professional-quality covers I’m seeing, too. I’m also blown away by the plucky initiative of Wattpad’s clientele. Kudos to each and every one of them for putting themselves out there and writing whatever strikes their fancy.

I finally managed to port the book over to Draft2Digital (still not done and Pronoun’s gone, so most of my books are no longer available as eBooks–did I mention I was suffering serious time crunches?) and upload the new cover to Amazon, but still can’t see the most recent paperback online. I’m Looking forward to the break between semesters to get this on Ingram-Spark, too.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

One is never enough

Given the rate at which others are posting, one chapter a week seems skimpy. I’ve been reading around about Wattpad. According to TechCrunch, Wattpad has over 60,000 monthly users, most of them teens (though the average age is 20) and female, which is the perfect demographic for my writing. Moving forward, I will upload two chapters week. I plan to do one on Saturday and one on Wednesday.

Wattpad is a form of social media

It took some work to build my followers on social media. Even now, some 3 years after I opened my Twitter and Facebook accounts, I only have a few hundred following me on Twitter and maybe about 100 Facebook likes on my author page, and only 80 people who receive my newsletter. To reiterate: it took 3 years to achieve that. Three years of advertising, liking, following, posting, experimenting, giving books away, and the like. Moving forward I need to engage on social media more frequently (maybe instead of religiously reading Flipboard every evening?).

Too much of a good thing

In addition to voting, reading, and following, authors can access discussion forums. The different forums are myriad, as are the threads. There are so many places to visit, it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve already begun to dabble, sticking my toe in to test the waters. I suppose, moving forward, I have to slowly move deeper in until I have established a foothold on the site. So far it seems as if there is a whole lot of random posts and not a lot of interaction

Moving forward

I am interested to see if uploading twice a week will make a difference. I will also continue with my experiment until the whole book has been uploaded and report back to you. If you use Wattpad, I want to hear your first impressions. What was the first thing you did on the site? How did you work your way into this massively incredible society?

Read The Revenant: A YA Thriller with Zombies on Wattpad at https://www.wattpad.com/story/134197850-the-revenant