About the author

The Life of Larry Loyie

Early Years

Born November 4, 1933 (Slave Lake, AB) – Passed April 18, 2016 (Edmonton, AB)

Born in Slave Lake, Alberta, in 1933, Larry Loyie 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 every day 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 Loyie’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.”

Larry Loyie's parents, with older siblings, circa 1928
Portrait of Larry Loyie by Lawrence Brissenden

Life at Residential School

After three years in public school in Slave Lake, Larry Loyie 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 meaningful and unique 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 Loyie would later tell his students.

At the age of 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.

A display features the life and writing of Larry Loyie and his experience at St. Bernard Mission in Grouard, Alberta.
Portrait of Larry Loyie by Lawrence Brissenden

Becoming a Writer

The longing for a traditional First Nations way of life stayed with Larry Loyie. He never forgot his determination to become a writer and share his much-loved traditional Cree childhood, as well as his years in residential school. He was one of the first Indigenous writers to write about the residential school system.

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 International 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 learners’ 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 life partners, 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.

Life & Work with Constance Brissenden

In February 1995, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden 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, as well as actor/playwright Marie Clements). In 1998, they adapted the play for a Treaty 8 conference in Kinuso, Alberta, with students from the Swan River First Nation School as actors. They also staged the play at the Weesageechak Theatre Festival in Toronto.

Larry Loyie wrote The Healing, A Memoir for Four Voices, which introduced his themes of traditional life and residential school. The Healing was performed 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 Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden 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 Loyie began working on his to-be-published last book, Wild Waters, Inside a Voyageur’s World, about his ancestor Tomma,  a voyageur in 1828 with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Larry discovered that many northern residents had fur trade roots. As Larry requested, co-author Constance Brissenden finished his book after his passing. 

Larry Loyie: Remembering His Ancestors

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, and now an international best-seller and literary classic, it won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction award as well as 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 Loyie 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.

Mosoom (Grandfather) Edward Twin deeply influenced Larry’s life and appears in several of his books, including Goodbye Buffalo Bay, about the author’s six years spent in residential school and moving on.

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.  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 2023, Young Man, True Stories of a Cree Childhood, was published by Indigenous Education Press. It includes three of the author’s books about his childhood: The Moon Speaks Cree: A Winter Adventure; When the Spirits Dance: A Cree Boy’s Search for the Meaning of War; and Goodbye Buffalo Bay: A True Story of Life in a Residential School, and of moving on.

Other Larry Loyie books include The Gathering Tree, 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 2016 and 2018, 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.

An iBook version was created with additional images. 

Larry’s love for his Cree culture was with him throughout his life, as was his passion for writing and for teaching about his culture and Indigenous history.

He received a Sage Award for Education in Edmonton in 2015, recognizing his many school visits.

“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.”

Jeff Burnham, Publisher GoodMinds.com

“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.”

Rachel Cripps, Native Cultural Arts Museum curator

Reconnecting with His Heritage

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 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.


"My Writing History"

Larry reflects on his life and writing career in 2012

My 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).


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.

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 Les 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. (Note: In 2018, Larry’s play was re-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.

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.

To read more about Larry Loyie’s impact today, read the blog, written by his partner, writer and editor Constance Brissenden.