15 August 2022

Indigenous Women Inspire Author

by Shawna Dempsey

Katherena Vermette sits hunched over the café table, a long rope of cursive writing trailing from her pen, filling the page. Coffee and a waffle grow cold beside her. It is morning—before her day job begins—and the words are flowing, as they have since she was a child living in North End Winnipeg.

Katherena Vermette sits hunched over the café table, a long rope of cursive writing trailing from her pen, filling the page. Coffee and a waffle grow cold beside her. It is morning—before her day job begins—and the words are flowing, as they have since she was a child living in North End Winnipeg.

She doesn’t know why or how she first decided to write, but she knows
why she continues. In between single parenting, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees, and wage earning to support her family, Vermette tells the stories of women. She writes—on buses, at kitchen tables, in cafés and parks and waiting rooms—about women like her, Indigenous women, who burst from the page with a complexity previously absent from most Canadian literature.

“Poetry is the gateway drug,” she laughs. “It is very precise, like a meditation. I always know where I start, but I never know where I’ll end up.”

In 2013, Vermette was awarded the Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry for North End Love Songs. The collection of verse
is like a teeter-totter balanced on a knife-edge, holding seemingly oppositional ideas, emotions and physical realities in perfect tension.North End love songs are poems about being an Indigenous girl and all that can mean in Canada.
There is plainspoken poverty, sexual violence and racism. And there is also joyful physicality, loving relationships and the beauty of nature, even in
inner cities. These experiences are a resilient, life-affirming presence and form recurrent metaphors.

Vermette’s poems are framed by quotes from the likes of e.e. cummings and William Blake, setting Indigenous experience within the canon of Western literature. Vermette also quotes Jeanette Winterson and Ursula K. Le Guin in the volume, nodding to her literary foremothers in a manner consistent with the poems themselves. All of Vermette’s work celebrates mothers and grandmothers as the backbone of family, community and culture, suggesting an Indigenous feminism based on matriarchal lines.

After winning the most prestigious literary prize in the county with her first book, Kate, as she likes to be called, could have been excused for resting on her laurels. But in quick succession she released seven children’s books in 2015, based on the Seven Sacred Teachings (illustrated by Irene Kuziw), and the critically acclaimed novel The Break in 2016. As if that weren’t enough she has also co-directed a NFB film with video artist Erika MacPherson,
entitled this river. The 19-minute documentary is about the activism of a group of volunteers who drag the Red River in search of the remains of loved ones. this river received the Coup de coeur jury award at the 2016 Festival Présence autochtone/ Montréal First Peoples Festival.

Vermette has also created an Instagram project with National Film Board producer Alicia Smith, entitled What Brings Us Here, to document the efforts of Winnipeggers working to empower Indigenous communities. These media works may seem like a departure for the author, but they, like her texts, honour contemporary Indigenous experiences.

Vermette has always had an activist practice, one that involves working with youth. She says that is where her hope lives. “What I love is grassroots people changing things. That has always happened. The empowerment of Indigenous people is what leads to positive change. Indigenous youth, as Canada’s fastest-growing population, will transform this country, especially because they are proudly connected to who they are—their heritage.”

Particularly striking in her prose is Vermette’s connection with her identity as a Métis woman. “I don’t speak from otherness,” she says. “I speak from my characters’ points of view.”

As a tool for change and a work of literature, her novel The Break is a monumental achievement. Not since Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search
of April Raintree
has Canadian fiction had such fully rendered female Indigenous characters. Also set in the North End of Winnipeg, Vermette’s novel follows four generations of women as they cope with unspeakable violence perpetrated upon a child.

The story also includes the perspectives of a Métis police officer who is trying to solve the case and a young woman who has escaped from a youth detention centre. It is this character, the aptly named Phoenix, who haunts the reader long after the book in done. She erupts onto the page: heartbreaking, hard to like, with strength so superhuman that it is a burden.

Vermette’s writing appears straightforward, but it is deceptively sophisticated in its ability to balance horror and beauty within the same sentence. In this duality there are difficult truths, but truths nonetheless. Vermette’s prose rings with the clarity of a -40 C day. It both sears and holds you.

Vermette laughs again. “I’ve been accused of being really good at cognitive dissonance. I’m a half-breed. I’ve always been dualistic.”

Although the recurrent theme in Vermette’s poetry and prose is sexualized violence against Indigenous women, the characters are rendered so carefully, and so much from the inside, that the work is in no way gratuitous. It is neither traumatizing nor simply cathartic. Like the best writing, it functions on multiple levels, leading the reader to profound empathy and changed consciousness.
And at a point in Canada’s history where more than 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or are missing, a seismic shift in national consciousness is long overdue.

Vermette’s film and Instagram projects honour citizens who work for positive change in Winnipeg, including those who search for those who have disappeared. Many of the volunteers profiled in this river and What Brings Us Here faced indifference from officials when their sisters, aunties and daughters
went missing. Vermette’s own brother, Wayne, vanished on a bitterly cold November night in 1991, and her family was confronted by a host
of racist stereotypes that translated into police inaction on the case. The message communicated by law-enforcement agencies in Canada to grieving families has been that Indigenous lives are less valuable than non-Indigenous lives and, worse, that Indigenous people who disappear have somehow
gotten what they deserve.

Vermette’s works in all media lay bare the cruelty and absurdity of that position. The word “missing” carries two meanings: the individuals are absent, and they are longed for. They are missed; they are loved. Citing the creation of the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which began hearings recemtly, Vermette stresses that violence against Indigenous women has been ignored
for too long.

“Helen Betty Osborne [a 16-year-old Cree teenager in Manitoba] was killed in 1971. Good things are happening, but we have to ensure that this inquiry isn’t pushed aside like the last ones.” Vermette is both skeptical and hopeful— dualistic once again.

“Right now I choose to live in hope,” she explains. “I haven’t always. For me, hope lives in family, my daughters, ceremony and smudge. It lives in all the people I know who have come through so much and ended up in such amazing
places. We can do incredible things, even while experiencing such pain.”

For Vermette, these incredible things include the creation of blisteringly honest and artful texts that contribute to changed perspectives regarding Indigenous women.

“As Indigenous people, we introduce ourselves by saying where we are from,” she says. “That’s what my words do. The act of writing has always been ceremonial—physical, intellectual—it is ritual; it is powerful.” And fierce! As she says in the final poem in North End Love Stories:
I’ve never
not once
not for one second
looked away.

Indeed, Vermette’s many gifts include having
the courage and literary might to examine the
human cost of colonization and to celebrate the
enduring power of Indigenous cultures.     

 Shawna Dempsey is a performance and video artist who lives in Winnipeg,
where she collaborates with Lorri Milan. She is also the co-executive director of Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA).