A powerful, raw yet eloquent memoir from a residential school survivor and former First Nations Chief, Up Ghost River is a necessary step toward our collective healing.
In the 1950s, 7-year-old Edmund Metatawabin was separated from his family and placed in one of Canada’s worst residential schools. St. Anne’s, in northern Ontario, is an institution now notorious for the range of punishments that staff and teachers inflicted on students. Even as Metatawabin built the trappings of a successful life—wife, kids, career—he was tormented by horrific memories. Fuelled by alcohol, the trauma from his past caught up with him, and his family and work lives imploded.
In seeking healing, Metatawabin travelled to southern Alberta. There he learned from elders, participated in native cultural training workshops that emphasize the holistic approach to personhood at the heart of Cree culture, and finally faced his alcoholism and PTSD. Metatawabin has since worked tirelessly to expose the wrongdoings of St. Anne’s, culminating in a recent court case demanding that the school records be released to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now Metatawabin’s mission is to help the next generation of residential school survivors. His story is part of the indigenous resurgence that is happening across Canada and worldwide: after years of oppression, he and others are healing themselves by rediscovering their culture and sharing their knowledge.
Coming full circle, Metatawabin’s haunting and brave narrative offers profound lessons on the importance of bearing witness, and the ability to become whole once again.
Edmund Metatawabin, former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, is a Cree writer, educator and activist. A residential school survivor, he has devoted himself to righting the wrongs of the past, and educating Native youth in traditional knowledge. Metatawabin now lives in his self-made log house in Fort Albany, Ontario, off the reserve boundary, on land he refers to as my “Grandfathers’ Land.” He owns a local sawmill and also works as a consultant, speaker and researcher.
Alexandra Shimo is a former radio producer for the CBC and former editor at Maclean’s. An award-winning journalist, she is the author of The Environment Equation, which was published in 12 countries. She lives in Toronto.
WINNER 2015 – CBC Bookie Award for Non-Fiction
WINNER 2015 – Ontario Historical Society’s Donald Grant Creighton Award
FINALIST 2015–2016 – First Nation Communities Read
FINALIST 2014 – Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction
“A harrowing but enthralling account of an aspect of Canadian history that the country would prefer to forget but which continues to haunt.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Up Ghost River is at times painful. It’s at other times a wonderful lesson in the importance of laughter. It’s certainly deeply connected to the land. It is, in part, a tale of a world changing too quickly. But most of all, it is a heart song, a love song to a very special people and place, to a geography and a culture that are a foundation of who we are as a nation.”
—Joseph Boyden, from his foreword to Up Ghost River
“Edmund Metatawabin’s voice is clear, brave and full of the grace of his Cree homeland. Up Ghost River is a powerful and unsettling read, full of heartbreaking truth-telling, resistance and Metatawabin’s uncompromising love of land, his people, his language and his culture. These stories are full of the real lived violence of colonialism and of the beautiful tiny moments that our Elders and storytellers wrap around our children to teach them, protect them and nurture them. Metatawabin is a gift to all who are lucky enough to read him, and the key to reading Metatawabin is a willingness to simply allow these stories to transform you.”
—Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back and Islands of Decolonial Love, and recipient of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award
“A shocking, sadly revealing Canadian story. Cree elder Edmund Metatawabin has the courage to tell how ‘white learning’ stripped him of his name and systematically brutalized him—including strapping him into a school-built electric chair and electrocuting him—traumatizing him throughout his childhood, youth and adulthood, until he could finally let it all ‘pass through’ him and find himself as a human being. ‘We are still here,’ he asserts, and ‘our forefathers . . . are still here, all around us, guiding those who listen.’ Every Canadian needs to hear this story.” —Rudy Wiebe, author of The Temptations of Big Bear and Come Back
“Moving documentation, recollected tragedy and personal triumph, this book is a necessary first-hand account of being First Nations in contemporary Canada. From the atrocities of residential schools, to the present-day policy challenges, Up Ghost River will open your eyes to the all-too-recent history of Canada’s First Peoples, through the experiences of a resilient individual and his family.”
—The Right Honourable Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada
“A harrowing and redemptive story of a man’s personal battles with one of Canada’s worst practices. Edmund Metatawabin’s tale of residential schools and government bureaucracy will leave you angry at the evils of colonization. Yet it will also show you a man’s—and a people’s—incredible ability to survive and seek justice. There are plenty of ghosts in this book, apportions of shame and responsibility, but Metatawabin’s journey and destination on that river will definitely leave you full of hope and richer for it.”
—Drew Hayden Taylor, author of Motorcycles & Sweetgrass
“Up Ghost River is a very difficult story to read, but a necessary one in the reckoning of Canada’s abusive and exploitative relationship with its First Nations people. Edmund Metatawabin’s measured and honest account shows evidence of remarkable healing, and his story has much in common with the history of colonized indigenous people around the world. Metatawabin’s journey is a metaphor for the journey we must all take if we are to heal our relationship to the land at this crucial hour in the environmental fate of the planet. With Alexandra Shimo, Metatawabin writes about his life in a way that is both agonizing and redemptive, personal and political, gut-wrenching and level-headed; it will break your heart.”
—Christine Pountney, author of Sweet Jesus
“With unsparing honesty, humility and disarming humour, Edmund Metatawabin reveals the darkness at the heart of Canadian history. A painful yet engaging narrative of personal trauma and recovery, this inspiring book also heralds the cultural and spiritual redemption of a people.”
—Gabor Maté, M.D., author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction