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Bitter Embrace

White Society's Assault on the Woodland Cree

by (author) Maggie Siggins

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Sep 2006
General, General, Native American Studies
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2006
    List Price

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July 14, 2003: Flin Flon lawyer Michael Bomek pleads guilty to six counts of sexual assault on young Cree men, some of whom come from the community of Pelican Narrows. His crime is emblematic of white culture’s assault on this Rock Cree community. On the one hand, he was a dedicated lawyer who won 75 per cent of his cases for his native clients. On the other, he was an unthinkably corrupting influence.

For over 200 years, Pelican Narrows has endured an equally torturous relationship with the encroaching European culture, from the Hudson Bay factors and missionaries of earlier times to the bureaucrats and police of today. By scrupulously researching the history of a community she has known for much of her life, by using oral history and documenting the personal stories of contemporary Pelican Narrows Cree, Siggins gives us the human face behind the newspaper headlines of native issues. Her storytelling powers are formidable and the portrait she gives us of this single Saskatchewan community is unforgettable.

About the author

“Maggie Siggins is the author of twelve books including Canadian Tragedy: The Story of JoAnn and Colin Thatcher, which received an Arthur Ellis Award for crime writing and Revenge of the Land, which won a Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction. Riel: A Life of Revolution; In Her Own Time: A Cultural History of Women; and Bitter Embrace: White Society’s Assault on the Woodland Cree all won the City of Regina Best Book Award and were named a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year. Canadian Tragedy and Revenge of the Land were made into four-hour miniseries broadcast on CBC and American networks.Maggie has also written-produced more than twenty documentaries for her company, Four Square Entertainment, of which she is vice-president, creative. Maggie lives in Toronto with her husband Gerald Sperling and two dogs.

Maggie Siggins' profile page


  • Nominated, Dafoe Book Prize

Excerpt: Bitter Embrace: White Society's Assault on the Woodland Cree (by (author) Maggie Siggins)

For months Gordon Peter* Ballantyne had looked forward to the fish derby. He had dug deep to come up with the $150 entry fee for both him and his wife, Susan. The stakes were high, first prize a brand new half-­ton, second prize ten thousand dollars cash. But at eight-­thirty in the morning, as he was launching the shabby little boat he had borrowed, he noticed the crowd starting to gather. The power-­crafts slithered off their trailers like partying Jackfish. There’d be more chance of cashing in on Jumping Jackpot Bingo than delivering the winning pickerel, Gordon Peter concluded.

He firmly believes that, where there are small fish, there are large fish. Just a while back a friend had won a new Chevy in a similar derby. He had settled in the same spot all day, every now and then pulling out the kind of specimen others laughed at. Then, just before the finish, he snagged the fat grandfather lounging on the bottom and won the competition. This was Gordon Peter’s model. He found a spot where a couple of two- and three-­pounders were landed and he had wanted to park there. But after an hour or two his wife had grown restless. “Not getting anything here,” Susan said. “Let’s try another spot.”

“You have to be patient when you’re fishing,” he kept saying, until Susan finally lost patience. They quarrelled. She had walloped him on the cheek with her fishing rod.

Lots of pickerel were caught (and thrown back — a rule of the derby), but they ­weren’t that big. So right up until the last moment, everybody, including Susan and Gordon Peter, felt they had a chance. Then, ten minutes before the closing, a young woman from Amisk Lake pulled out a seven-­pound-­three-­ounce fish. Goodbye shiny red truck.

So far this has not been the luckiest year for Gordon Peter. For the first time in twenty years he ­hadn’t been called up by the band council to work as a foreman on construction. No money to build houses, they announced. All spring he’d had to scramble. Tired of waiting a year for a bathroom door to be replaced or a broken window fixed, reserve folks, who admired Gordon Peter’s skill and hard work as a carpenter, asked him to renovate their houses, but often they forgot to pay him. “The end of the month,” they’d say, and he knew the pelicans would have come and gone before he’d see his money.

There’d been more disappointment. In the spring Gordon Peter had run for band councillor and had lost. His seventeen-­year-­old son announced that he was quitting school and that his girlfriend had just had a baby. And then a cousin, Leland Ballantyne, had been hit on the head with a baseball bat while he was partying in Saskatoon. During the funeral at St. Gertrude’s Church, Gordon Peter’s heart had gone out to Leland’s wife and four children. He may have felt gloomy about all this, but he certainly ­wasn’t surprised. Life on this reserve is always an unpredictable soap opera. “It’s worse than All My Children,” says Darlene McKay, one of the reserve’s comedians. “Erica Kane would feel right at home.”

Editorial Reviews

Winner of the Regina Book Award
A Globe 100 Selection for 2005

“This is a people-centred history. . . . [The community’s] stories form the core of this book, and give it an emotional impact that is seldom seen in archive-based histories.”
Globe and Mail

Other titles by Maggie Siggins