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Richard Wagamese and the Pink Hat

The tributes, accolades and homages have poured in since Richard Wagamese's untimely passing on March 10 and for good reason. The Anishinaabe scribe was a literary giant who had a way with words that even the bard would envy. When aspiring writers strive for success in the fickle writing industry, the heights Richard achieved might seem an unattainable pie in the sky. His aptitude for the spoken word matched his writing capacity in a way few have matched, his delivery and lilt reminiscent of the master orators of old. A man of superlatives he had the 'it' factor, a euphemism that typically resides in hyperbole but not in Richard's case. He was that good and the literary community at large, nay the world, is a lesser place without him.

His work will, of course, prove immortal. His novels will find or retain their rightful place in many a curriculum as long as the pedagogy remains true. His voice was unique, his voice was authentic and his voice will be missed.

There is an element of tragedy in any great artist's passing but with Richard a little more so. He was only 61. And like many a literary giant before him there was a level of torment in his personal life that allowed him to go to the dark and honest places in his writing that passed any experienced human being's built in b.s. detector.

As he said and wrote himself, and as others have referenced since his passing, Richard had his demons. We all do but Richard a little moreso. A product of the 60s Scoop and the child welfare system, Richard experienced the kind of trauma that becomes addiction's childhood. It was a reality that resided in his life as long as I knew him, or more precisely, as long as I knew of him.

I was first introduced to Richard by the Calgary Herald, the daily that ran his column back in the day. His pieces oozed a talent you knew would parlay into greatness. But they came with a caveat.

When I landed in Calgary in 1992 as a young writer hired by a new CBC series, a friend whom had previously moved there from Winnipeg offered some unsolicited words of advice about Richard. Yes, he was gifted and yes he was charming but as the friend described, "You have to watch out for this guy." In reference to Richard's demons the friend warned that when he fell off the wagon he did so in a ball of flames and took people around him down with him.

North of 60 employed a number of interns in the story department back when CBC still had dollars and a mandate for training. I was the first and several came later, Indigenous and non. Some of us stayed on as writers with the show, another stayed on as a cultural advisor. Others moved on.

Richard joined the story department as an intern in season three, the writing sample he attached to his application head and shoulders above the rest. So much so that I remember our head writer literally running to the producers' offices to make sure we hired the guy. And we did, although I passed on the warning that my friend had given me more than a year earlier.

Truth be told Richard was a joy to work with. He was well read (he and the head writer remain the only two people I know that actually read Faulkner), he was intelligent, funny, engaging and he threw a mean football. He was also living in a halfway house in Calgary at the time. So when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples came calling for Indigenous writers, offering almost as much per day as Richard made from us per week, I was a little worried. I didn't begrudge him leaving the internship early, business being business, but I lamented that he didn't get the full opportunity to write for the show. The later seasons of North of 60, and Richard's career, may have turned out differently if he had. I was worried because, with our daily schedule and the structure of the halfway house, he had a safety net in Calgary. In Ottawa he'd be on his own.

Leave us he did but there would be a chance to see him again soon. He had a scheduled reading in Calgary a month or so later and made plans to have dinner with the story department. My two children were young at the time so I didn't attend.

Neither, as it turned out, did Richard. I don't know the details of his trip to Calgary and I don't need or want to. Suffice to say he made it to his reading but then something went off the rails and he wound up calling two of the writers and one of the producers. He was humble, he was emotional and he was in jail. The two writers and the producer lent him enough money ($1,100.00 between them) so he could make bail and then he was gone again. No one was paid back.

I?m not one to say I told you say but I did point out that Richard knew not to phone the only other Indigenous writer in the story department, though to be honest I probably would have coughed up some amount of money had he asked. But he left behind a neon pink baseball hat. I took to wearing it in the ensuing few days, calling it the eleven hundred dollar hat. I didn't mean it in a malicious way. I merely meant to draw some humour from a tragic situation. And despite my warning I couldn't help feeling some weird sense of responsibility. As the other Indigenous writer in the room I bore the dreaded weight that an Indigenous stereotype had come our way in the form of the Richard Wave. To their credit, none of the other writers pointed this out.

Richard and I would cross paths a number of times over the course of our careers, the most recent at that good breakfast spot in Kamloops three and a half years ago, but I never told him about the pink hat. Knowing his sense of humour I wish I had.

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