My History

Articles and links about and by Larry Loyie — great material for school projects about Larry Loyie

Larry Loyie, November 4, 1933 (Slave Lake, AB) – April 18, 2016 (Edmonton, AB)

A Cree Life Lived

Highlights of the life of Larry Loyie


Larry Loyie had two dreams back in 2005. The first was to leave Vancouver and return to Cree country, the source and inspiration for his award-winning children’s books. The second was to live in a log house.

By 2007, both of his dreams were reality. With his partner, editor and writer Constance Brissenden, he set up a base near High Prairie. The couple enthusiastically travelled across the region, enjoying Cree gatherings, doing research, writing books, visiting schools, and supporting local museums and archives.

Born in Slave Lake, Alberta, in 1933, Larry lived a traditional Cree life in his early years.

His grandfather Edward Twin of Kinuso was a respected elder who taught him the right way to accomplish everyday tasks. “He would show me once and say ‘If you have a better way, try it.’ I learned that his traditional way was always the best,” Larry recalled. His grandfather gave Larry his Cree name of Oskiniko, meaning “Young Man.”

Edward Twin’s straightforward teachings influenced Larry’s books. Larry encouraged indigenous people to write their stories in a true fashion, with “no Hollywoodizing or fantasizing, not just to make it sound good, or to sell.”

After three years in public school in Slave Lake, Larry spent six years in St. Bernard Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta, returning home for two months every summer. “I swore I would never lose my language in that school, where speaking Cree was forbidden,” he said.

Larry transformed his childhood memories, both good and difficult, into his popular children’s books.

While in residential school, 12-year-old Lawrence (as he was known) was struck with a mysterious illness. He ended up in the High Prairie Health Complex, cared for by Dr. J. B. Wood. While there, Larry read a Look magazine. He poured over photos of the fascinating life of American writer Ernest Hemingway.

“Hemingway was in Spain, watching exciting bullfights, with pretty ladies on either side of him. That looked good to me. I decided I wanted to be a writer one day,” Larry would later tell his students.

At 14, Larry left the mission school to work on farms and in logging camps. He joined the Canadian Forces as a paratrooper, living in Europe before returning to work in northern British Columbia and Alberta. Raising his family of three sons, Edmund, Lawrence and Brad, he worked in commercial fishing on the West Coast and as a prison counsellor in Peace River.
The longing for a traditional First Nations way of life stayed with him. He never forgot his determination to become a writer.
In the mid-1980s, Larry went back to school in Vancouver to learn grammar and typing, took free creative writing classes at Carnegie Learning Centre, and wrote short stories. In 1988, his short story, Kapalana, was part of a collection of student writings published by the Carnegie Learning Centre.

Larry Loyie was deeply involved in the Canadian literacy movement. In 1991, the year of literacy, Larry crossed British Columbia interviewing indigenous teachers for two radio documentaries. He was co-editor of The Wind Cannot Read, an anthology of learner’s writings published by the Province of British Columbia.
Larry met his partner, editor and writer Constance Brissenden, at the Carnegie Learning Centre. “I was the teacher, but it turned out that Larry was a far better writer than I was,” Constance remembers with a smile.
They soon formed Living Traditions Writers Group and launched a 24-year adventure as co-authors and educators. Constance, a University of Alberta theatre graduate, directed Larry’s first play, Ora Pro Nobis, Pray for Us, based on his residential school years.

In February 1995, they toured to five federal British Columbia prisons with the play. They drove through winter snowstorms with their actors (including actor Evan Adams, today a respected medical doctor and actor/playwright Marie Clements). In 1998, they adapted the play for a Treaty 8 conference in Kinuso, with students from the Swan River First Nation School as actors. They also staged the play at the Weesageechak Theatre Festival in Toronto.
Larry also wrote The Healing, A Memoir for Four Voices which introduced his themes of traditional life and residential school. The Healing was performed more than 30 times at gatherings and conferences.
After three plays, Larry decided to write children’s books. “I wanted to share the culture and adventures I loved so much as a child with a wider audience,” he said.

Together Constance and Larry gave more than 1,600 presentations in classrooms, libraries, at conferences and festivals across Canada.

They always said yes to school invitations, no matter how remote or challenging the journey to the school.

A week of touring set a demanding pace with 20 or more school talks lined up. In 2006, they toured in northern Ontario as award-winning authors of the First Nation Communities Read program.

In 2008, they were invited by the Durham School District to tour for three weeks in Ontario. In 2010, they visited the Fort McMurray area organized by the Young Alberta Book Society. They flew into Fort Chipewyan, visiting the community’s school as well as the old Hudson’s Bay Company site.

Larry began working on his to-be-published last book, Toma, Voyageur, about his ancestor Toma, who was a voyageur in 1828 with the Hudson’s Bay Company. He discovered that many northern residents had fur trade roots, including Northern Lakes College library technician Shirley Anderson, whose ancestor James Anderson came from the Orkney Islands to work for “the Bay.” As Larry requested, co-author Constance Brissenden is finishing the second half of the book, based on Larry’s outline.

Larry Loyie’s first children’s book, As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood), is about his last traditional summer with his family before residential school. Published in 2002, it won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction and First Nation Communities Read award. The French version, Tant que couleront les rivières, is published by Les Editions des Plaines in Manitoba.

Kokom (Grandma) Bella Twin is a highlight of the adventures in As Long as the Rivers Flow. The tiny 58-year-old Cree woman, who lived on Rabbit Hill overlooking Slave Lake, shot the biggest grizzly bear in North America.

Larry said, “I had to put Bella into the book. She was being forgotten. The only people who remembered her were readers of hunting magazines.” The huge grizzly’s skull is still in the north, housed in a private museum near Slave Lake.

The sequel, Goodbye Buffalo Bay (Theytus) answered the question, “What happened to Lawrence in residential school and after?” Larry’s last year at St. Bernard Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta, and moving on at age 14 is written truthfully, with insight, humour, and hope. The bestselling chapter book is a lively, dramatic, and often funny title for students and adults. Larry was thrilled in his last year to learn that the Province of Nova Scotia had ordered 450 copies of Goodbye Buffalo Bay for its schools.

In When the Spirits Dance, A Cree Boy’s Search for the Meaning of War (Theytus), Larry shared his family’s Second World War years.

Completing the “Lawrence Series,” he wrote The Moon Speaks Cree, A Winter Adventure (Theytus), set on Rabbit Hill in the mid-1940s. As in all his books, the pressures of changing times are felt by the family.

Larry Loyie wrote The Gathering Tree (Theytus) in 2005, encouraging HIV awareness and prevention with support from the BC Centre for Disease Control’s Chee Mamuk aboriginal health program. The book broke barriers to become a bestseller.
Welcome to the Circle (Pearson Canada, 2014) was written to share the well being power of circles in indigenous cultures.

The last four years of Larry Loyie’s life were taken up with his greatest writing challenge.
Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors is a national history, based on 20 years of research, and more than 200 interviews with school survivors. Larry collaborated with Mohawk writer and residential school expert Wayne K. Spear and editor Constance Brissenden on the book.

Published in the fall of 2014, reprinted in 2017, the couple launched the full-colour, hard cover book at the High Prairie Regional Library. Dozens of residential school survivors from St. Bernard Mission as well as nearby Joussard, Alberta’s St. Bruno Indian Residential School, joined Larry and Constance at the November 2014 event.

Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors was the 2016 Golden Oak Award winner.
The iBook version is available (order from iTunes books). Included are video clips of Larry speaking about his residential school days, thanks to Big Lakes County’s historical biography project in 2010, as well as 75 additional photographs, and much more.

Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors has been embraced by readers, students, and schools across Canada,” says publisher Jeff Burnham of GoodMinds.com in Brantford, Ontario. “Larry was one of the grassroots survivors who spoke up about residential schools more than 25 years ago, when it was still a hidden history. Like Larry, his books are honest and compassionate, reflecting the respect he had for other survivors and his readers.”
“It was a great honour to have been friends with Larry Loyie, and a treasure to have had him bring so many teachings to our museum, through his stories, his visits and his books,” says Native Cultural Arts Museum curator Rachel Cripps. A special permanent display features the life and writing of Larry Loyie and his experiences at St. Bernard Mission, also in Grouard, Alberta.
Larry loved his years at the log house north of High Prairie. He chopped wood for the stove, fed the birds, picked berries, and explored the forests. Hockey games in High Prairie and McLennan were winter highlights. Larry and Constance were always ready to put the coffee on for visits from their many friends. The log house was the perfect setting for them to work on his books.
Larry’s love for his Cree culture was with him throughout his life, as was his passion for writing and for teaching the young. He received a Sage Award for Education in Edmonton in 2015, recognizing his many school visits.


Larry passed away at home in Edmonton on April 18, 2016, with his partner Constance Brissenden and his family by his side after a week battling cancer. In the background, friend Denys Auger of Wabasca sang his four spiritual songs on cd. It was a peaceful and fitting ending to a proud Cree life. At Larry’s request, his ashes were placed in the Family Sacred Site by the Swan River near Kinuso, AB, in August, 2016.
His books can be ordered from www.goodminds.com. For more on Larry and his books, go to www.firstnationswriter.com, or email Constance Brissenden at firstnationswriter@gmail.com. The iBook of Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors is available through iTunes.

Keep Reading… a few links to articles about Larry Loyie, followed by Larry Loyie in his own words.

SGI Quarterly (October 2011), an international Buddhist magazine. In “A Hidden History Revealed,” Larry Loyie’s residential school experience and efforts to make the hidden history of residential school well known are featured in a special edition on human rights education today.

Legacy magazine, Fall 2009. “Elder in Demand for Childhood Stories” by Dianne Meili, www.legacymagazine.ab.ca. Heritage to a New Generation article — a four-page article with photos of Larry in 2009 and also in residential school. Excellent background on Larry, his goals as a writer and First Nations person, and on his children’s books for all ages.

My Writing History – Larry Loyie — UPDATED MAY 25, 2012

Larry LoyieMy vision is libraries full of books written by First Nations people. With my partner, writer Constance Brissenden, I encourage indigenous people to write their stories in a true fashion (not just to make it sound good, or to sell) through talks, readings and creative writing workshops.

I was born in Slave Lake in northwestern Alberta. I lived a traditional Cree First Nations life in my early years. After going to public school for three years, I was taken from my family at the age of 9 to St. Bernard’s Mission (residential) school Grouard, Alberta. My time here inspired my play Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us) (published in 1998 by Living Traditions).

At 14, I left the school and went to work on farms and in logging camps. At 18, I joined the Canadian Forces, living in Europe before returning to work in northern British Columbia and Alberta. For more than 25 years, I did jobs including fishing, logging and native counselling.

Through it all, the longing for the traditional First Nations way of life I experienced as a child always stayed with me.

In the mid-1980s, I began reading again and pursued my dream of becoming a writer. I went back to school to learn grammar and typing. I took a free creative writing class in the downtown eastside and wrote short stories. I got involved with the literacy movement. In 1991, the year of literacy, I crossed British Columbia interviewing native teachers for two radio documentaries. I was co-editor of The Wind Cannot Read, an anthology of learners writing (published in 1992, Province of British Columbia).

This paperback book is available from Living Traditions Writers Group. Please email us for information.

My first play, Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us), was based on my residential school years. It was staged in Vancouver and five federal B.C. prisons (1994), at Weesageechak Festival in Toronto (1995) and in Alberta (1998). I wrote two more plays, Fifty Years Credit, based on the media’s view of First Nations people, performed at Carnegie Community Centre (1998); and No Way to Say Goodbye, a commission for the Aboriginal AIDS Conference in northern Alberta (1999). I’ve worked with Constance Brissenden as my director on all these projects.

Larry Loyie with actors at Weesageechak Theatre in Toronto

The Healing, a memoir for four voices, has been performed more than 30 times at learning centres, schools, pow wows, etc.

My first children’s book, As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood Books), written with Constance Brissenden, is about a First Nations boy’s last summer spent with his family in the bush before being taken to residential school. The book includes beautiful watercolour illustrations by artist Heather D. Holmlund of Pickering, Ontario. Heather grew up in Fort Frances, Ontario, and has a true understanding of the lifestyle I write about.

As Long as the Rivers Flow won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction as well as First Nation Communities Read Honour Book (2006). It celebrates its 10th year in print in 2012, and continues to be an inspiring introduction to the story of residential school. I wrote the sequel, Goodbye Buffalo Bay (Theytus) in 2008. It answers the questions thousands of students have asked: what happened to Lawrence in residential school and after? See more below.

In January 2012, the French version of As Long as the Rivers Flow, entitled Tant Que Couleront Les Rivieres was published by Editions des Plaines in Manitoba. This is a much-needed, perfect gem of a book, with illustrations by Heather D. Holmlund. I thank the publishers deeply for this honour.

Heather D. Holmlund’s sensitive acrylic paintings appear in The Gathering Tree (Theytus Books, 2005) by Larry Loyie, to help tell the story of a family learning about HIV. Although the book has a First Nations setting, it reflects a universal issue, opening doors to discussion among people of all ages and backgrounds. A bestseller and still in print, The Gathering Tree was written with the BC Centre for Disease Control’s Chee Mamuk Aboriginal health program. It was one of only 13 literary works chosen for presentation at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto. It is “grandparent friendly” and includes 15 basic questions and answers by Melanie Rivers of Chee Mamuk. For grades 5 and up.

Another children’s book, When the Spirits Dance was published by Theytus Books (Fall 2006). It is the story of a First Nations family (my family) and how it was affected by the Second World War. As with As Long as the Rivers Flow, it is based on my childhood experience. When the Spirits Dance is an excellent introduction to the subject of war, and its impact on families left behind at home.

My first chapter book, Goodbye Buffalo Bay (Theytus), was published in 2008. I wrote about my last year at residential school, and moving on at 13 years of age as a youth worker. This book has now (2012) been reprinted many times and is a popular choice for novel study from grades 6 and up. My goal was to write truthfully, with drama, insight and humour about these tumultuous years. The overall effect is hopeful, the ending suggestive of a positive future.

For those of you who have read or seen my play Ora Pro Nobis, Pray for Us, you will recognize several scenes from the play which I added to Goodbye Buffalo Bay. My play was published in Two Plays About Residential School, along with the moving play The Strength of Indian Women by Vera Manuel. My dear friend and colleague Vera Manuel passed away in 2010. Just as mine reflects the boys’ reality, Vera’s reflects the girls’ reality and the aftermath effect on those who followed the survivors in a family.

Two Plays About Residential School has been out of print for several years but will be available as an e-book by the fall of 2012.

As of Summer 2012, Constance Brissenden and I have six projects on the go, including The Moon Speaks Cree (Theytus, Fall 2012). The Moon Speaks Cree will include illustrations by Bill Cohen, an Okanagan First Nations artist from Vernon, BC. Chronologically, the book (68 pages) is the first in the Lawrence Series, followed by When the Spirits Dance, As Long as the Rivers Flow and Goodbye Buffalo Bay. In The Moon Speaks Cree, Lawrence and his sisters enjoy the adventures of a northern winter while living a traditional mid-1940s childhood. They learn the ways of survival from their parents and elders. As with my other books in the Lawrence Series, the pressures of change are felt. I’m proud of the story and look forward to sharing it with you, the readers.


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