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Residential school poetry that was 55 years in the making: On the road to reconciliation

Some of the memories were over 50 years old and it took Rosanna Deerchild five more years to turn her mother's residential school stories into a book of poetry titled "Calling Down the Sky."

It's Deerchild's second book of poetry and represents her first collaboration with her mother, Edna Moose. 

It was a visit to the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission event held in Winnipeg that was the genesis of this project.

"I took my mom, who was very reticent about telling her story, but when we got there she heard the other survivors. And after hearing the other survivors, she felt that she could share," said Deerchild. "So, I asked one of the organizers if she could go into one of the Sharing Circles they were holding but unfortunately there wasn't enough room."

Deerchild said they were both disappointed.

"I told the organizer that my mom had been waiting 50 years to tell her story and she wasn't going to wait one more day," said Deerchild. 

They went out for tea after that with Deerchild telling her mom that she would write her story so that no one would tell her to be quiet ever again.

"That was the first day, she told me some of her story by the Red River at The Forks," said Deerchild. "And that was the start of the journey that would take us five years."

The most difficult part of working with her mother's residential school memories was putting herself in that role since Deerchild has daughters herself.

She just couldn't imagine having a child taken away and then knowing how alone and lonely that child would be was traumatizing not only for her to hear but to write about as well.

It also brought the two closer together.

For many years, Deerchild had been estranged from her mother barely talking to her throughout her 20's. 

"I didn't speak to her for almost a decade. We had a very fractious relationship. Growing up I never understood why she was so distant. I never understood why she never said "I love you." I didn't understand why she drank all the time. She didn't really to seem to like us at all. I wondered if it was my fault. Was there something wrong with me," said Deerchild.

"When I grew up, I cut her off. And it was only when she became really ill that I came to be part of her life again. " Now, Edna Moose lives with her daughter. "I can't imagine not having our morning coffees together. She tells me stories about her life. And I just can't imagine not having her in my life," said Deerchild.

Why a book of poetry though about her mother's residential school experience?

Deerchild takes some time before answering,

"I'm a poet. So that's how I tell my stories. And I think poetry is less about story and more about emotion," said Deerchild.

The book title comes from a line about priests and nuns who were scared by the Northern Lights that they thought were brought on by the children in their care.

Deerchild laughs when she admits to having a day job as the host the CBC's Unreserved, a national radio show featuring Indigenous community, conversation and culture.

Calling Down the Sky is her second book of poetry and is published by BookLand Press.

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