By Constance Brissenden
(adapted from an article in Rat Creek Press, Edmonton, Alberta, January 2015 issue)
The New Year is traditionally when we set new goals for ourselves. This week, I’ll learn to make a pie; this month, I’ll walk more; this year, I’ll be a kinder, gentler person.
But what if your goal takes longer? In my case, achieving an important goal took 21 years of research, 12 years of planning, and three years of hard slogging to bring it to fruition. Was it worth it? Yes, every minute of the agony and ecstasy. I learned to push on against fear of failure. I dove into creative depths. I challenged myself to find solutions. I felt immense satisfaction at overcoming all obstacles. Isn’t that what setting a goal is all about?
I sit here with the completion of a beautifully published book, Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, written by my partner, Cree writer Larry Loyie. Wayne K. Spear (Mohawk) and myself (non-Aboriginal) are co-authors. Wayne and Larry brought inside knowledge to the subject; I brought 40 years of editing skills.
I met Larry Loyie in 1993 in a creative writing class in Vancouver’s downtown east side. He was pursuing his longtime goal of becoming a writer, set when he was 12 years old in residential school. At years end, we were a couple and began writing together. Larry wanted to see library shelves filled with books written by Aboriginal people. He wanted to encourage writers.
I was looking for inspiration, and here it was. As a veteran freelance writer, I wrote to support myself, enjoying the variety of subjects I tackled. Working with Larry gave me a new sense of accomplishment. He wrote a play about his years in St. Bernard Mission residential school (Grouard, Alberta) which I directed. His first children’s book about residential school, As Long as the Rivers Flow, won the Norma Fleck Award for Children’s Non-Fiction and First Nation Communities Read award. At his insistence, my name appeared with his on the cover.
We began to collect research on the residential school system. We met and interviewed hundreds of people about their residential schools years. After 10 years, we had six bins of research. We made the goal to write a history for young readers. Remember that goal?
Back in 2003, we even had a contract. We walked away from that one, because the publisher wanted us to write it their way, and not Larry’s way.
Secretly, I was relieved. The task of writing a national residential schools history seemed too immense, too demanding. The goal was set aside as we wrote four more children’s books.
In 2011, a call from our Buddhist friend Lynne in Toronto got us rolling again. “If you don’t write that book now, when are you going to do it?” she demanded.
We began again. I was still afraid. How would we handle the historical material? The memories of the survivors we had interviewed? What images would best convey the message?
On the way, we were turned down by five publishers. So we wrote and paid for the design of the first 27-pages as a sample. We found the perfect designer for the project, Dean Pickup of Canada Book Design in Beaumont, AB.
The gamble paid off: we attracted two superb co-publishers (the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University and Indigenous Education Press, launched by www.goodminds.com in Brantford, Ontario.
Wayne K. Spear came on board. Wayne is the knowledgeable former communications director for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. He also shared the history of his Mohawk grandfather, Gowandehsonh (aka William Andrew Johns), who attended the Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ontario. Weekly Skype meetings with Wayne in Toronto kept the book moving.
Three years later, here it is, a hard cover history that is the product of our decade-old goal. Co-publisher Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre purchased a copy for each of the more than 45 survivors quoted in the book. Survivor Roger Ellis of Yellowknife responded, “You showed what we did with our lives, our accomplishments. It is so encouraging.”
The goal has been accomplished. The book is published. I’m ten years older. And I’ve never felt this good about any goal. If you have a goal that seems out of reach, maybe it’s not? Strategize, be creative in your approach, work hard, and don’t give up.
Create a team if possible. We had Wayne K. Spear, Krista McCracken (archivist and photo expert at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre), designer Dean Pickup, plus supportive co-publishers Jonathan Dewar at SRSC and Jeff Burnham at Indigenous Education Press — www.goodminds.com.
Above all, we had the support of the survivors and family members, as well as museums, libraries, archives and colleges and universities across Canada.
We also have www.goodminds.com as the book’s distributor. Most books don’t leap into sales but Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors has done just that. To order: www.goodminds.com OR CALL 1 877 862 8483.