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2017 Hilary Weston Prize Finalists

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The Writers’ Trust of Canada is pleased to announce the five finalists for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the richest annual literary award for a book of nonfiction published in Canada. The prizewinner will be announced at the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony on November 14.
Tomboy Survival Guide

Tomboy Survival Guide

edition:Paperback

Shortlisted for the Writers' Trust of Canada Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction; Longlisted for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction; Stonewall Book Award Honor Book winner

 

Ivan Coyote is a celebrated storyteller and the author of ten previous books, including Gender Failure (with Rae Spoon) and One in Every Crowd, a collection for LGBT youth. Tomboy Survival Guide is a funny and moving memoir told in stories, about how they learned to embrace their tomboy past while carving out a spac …

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Birds Art Life

Birds Art Life

A Field Guide to the Small and Significant
edition:Hardcover

A writer's search for inspiration, beauty and solace leads her to birds in this intimate and exuberant meditation on creativity and life—a field guide to things small and significant.

For Vladimir Nabokov, it was butterflies. For John Cage, it was mushrooms. For Sylvia Plath, it was bees. Each of these artists took time away from their work to become observers of natural phenomena. In 2012, Kyo Maclear met a local Toronto musician with an equally captivating side passion—he had recently lost …

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Excerpt

One winter, not so long ago, I met a musician who loved birds. This musician, who was then in his mid-thirties, had found he could not always cope with the pressures and disappoint­ments of being an artist in a big city. He liked banging away on his piano like Fats Waller but performing and promoting himself made him feel anxious and de­pressed. Very occasionally his depression served him well and allowed him to write lonesome songs of love but most of the time it just ate at him. When he fell in love with birds and began to photograph them, his anxieties dissipated. The sound of birdsong reminded him to look outwards at the world.
 
That was the winter that started early. It snowed end­lessly. I remember a radio host saying: “Global warming? Ha!” It was also the winter I found myself with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should. I watched those around me who were still successfully carrying on, organizing meals and careers and children. I wanted to be reminded. I had lost the beat.
 
My father had recently suffered two strokes. Twice—when the leaves were still on the trees—he had fallen and been unable to get up. The second fall had been particularly frightening, accompanied by a dangerously high fever brought on by sepsis, and I wasn’t sure he would live. The MRI showed microbleeds, stemming from tiny ruptured blood vessels in my father’s brain.
The same MRI also revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. An “incidental finding,” according to the neurologist, who explained, to our concerned faces, his decision to withhold surgery because of my father’s age.
 
During those autumn months, when my father’s situation was most uncertain, I felt at a loss for words. I did not speak about the beeping of monitors in generic hospital rooms and the rhythmic rattle of orderlies pushing soiled linen basins through the corridors. I did not deliver my thoughts on the cruelty of bed shortages (two days on a gurney in a corridor, a thin blanket to cover his hairless calves and pale feet), the smell of hospital food courts and the strange appeal of waiting room couches—slick vinyl, celery green, and deceptively soft. I did not speak of the relief of coming home late at night to a silent house and filling a tub with water, slipping under the bubbles and closing my eyes, the quiet soapy comfort of being cleaned instead of cleaning, of being a woman condi­tioned to soothe others, now soothed. I did not speak about the sense of incipient loss. I did not know how to think about illness that moved slowly and erratically but that could fell a person in an instant.

I experienced this wordlessness in my life but also on the page. In the moments I found to write, I often fell asleep. The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary. It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort. My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly.
 
Even though the worst of the crisis passed quickly, I was afraid to go off duty. I feared that if I looked away, I would not be prepared for the loss to come and it would flatten me. I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety.
 
It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as anticipatory grief, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepi­datory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.
 
I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually. Like the women who, according to legend, once paced the railed rooftop platforms of nineteenth-century North American coastal houses, watching the sea for incom­ing ships, hence earning those lookouts the name widow’s walk. I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.

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Life on the Ground Floor

Life on the Ground Floor

edition:Hardcover

A celebrated humanitarian doctor's unique perspective on sickness, health and what it is to be alive.

In this deeply personal book, humanitarian doctor and activist James Maskalyk, author of the highly acclaimed Six Months in Sudan, draws upon his experience treating patients in the world's emergency rooms. From Toronto to Addis Ababa, Cambodia to Bolivia, he discovers that although the cultures, resources and medical challenges of each hospital may differ, they are linked indelibly by the groun …

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Excerpt

G is for ground.
 
I’ve been cutting down my shifts in the last few years so I can spend more time on Ethiopia. I work about ten a month now. It’s just enough to keep my skills up. Fewer, and my fingers fumble.
     When I graduated, I did twice as many. During those months, being in the ER was simpler than it has been since. My flow was natural, my hands steady, and my patients’ faces grew as indistinct as the date or time. It was the hours outside of work that started to hurt. It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you. My rela­tionship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.
     I wasn’t. Fatigue caught up with me and I slowed down for a minute, looked around, wondered where everyone was.
     If we in ER gather in community, it is to talk about how to resuscitate a baby, to poke needles into fake plas­tic necks, or to practise for poison-gas subway attacks. We don’t practise joy, how to stay well in the face of all the sickness.
     Doctor, Nurse, heal thyself.
     Or not. Those who work in the ER burn out faster than any other type of physician. I’m not sure if it’s the shifts or the long, steady glimpse of humans on their worst day.
     I think most of us would say that it’s not the sickest that affect us, that it is the minutes in contact with them when we feel most well used. In a macabre way, we hope for the next person to have something really wrong with them, but it is more rare than you’d imagine to see a criti­cal patient in Toronto, even in the trauma room, someone whose system needs the order the alphabet can bring.
     Most of the work here is in minor. ERs are open all hours, and since the service is free, people often come in early, instead of an hour too late. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with their bodies at all. There are so many measures in place to keep people well, or to catch them before they get too sick, I can go weeks without intubat­ing someone. Worried minds, though, latch onto subtle sensations that magnify with attention, and lacking con­text, they line up to be reassured. The two populations, the sick and the worried, mix together, and separating them keeps us up all night.
     Suffering souls, though, there is no shortage of them. They circle this place.
     Some sleep right outside, on sidewalk grates, wrapped in blankets, waiting. One is splayed in the clothes he lives in, face pressed against the metal grille in a deep, drunk sleep. Every few minutes, a subway passes below the grates, and a rush of warm air flutters his shirt like a flag.
     Businesswomen spin in and out of an office tower’s revolving doors. They cross the street, eyes dancing between their phones and streetcar ruts, pretending not to notice the figure on the ground. Shoppers with bags from the Eaton Centre dangling from their arms lean into the road looking for taxis, jump out of the way of rushing cars.
     A guy across the street notices the body. He glances at it, then at the hospital, makes a calculation that there must be no better street grate in the city, and moves on. Others step over him, as if he was downtown city furniture.
     Within a few blocks of my ER, there are a dozen shel­ters for abused women and the homeless. There are health clinics for indigenous people, gay men and women, refu­gees, detox centres, beds for kids who’ve run away from home. On my way to work I pass them, pierced, dyed, smoking. Sometimes I’ll see them in the ER, shyly pulling away a bandage from the cuts they made on their arms.
     Seaton House, a men’s shelter just up the street, holds more than five hundred. It has an infirmary for the old and the sick, a special floor where the most craven alco­holics are given brandy every hour, so they don’t die on those grates. A patient told me that the floors are patrolled by gangs, and if you’ve a bag, they will pin your arms from behind and rifle through it, taking what pills or dol­lars there are.
     “They call it Satan House.”
     He was new to Toronto, to big cities even. He sat on our bed, his bag empty and eyes wide.
     “I can’t go back there. Drugs. Bugs. Fights. Can I stay here? Just one night?”
     Sorry, man. Here’s a list of other shelters, a central access number, a sandwich, a prescription for the medicines you lost, a number for our social worker who can help you fill it, a bus token, a bandage for your foot. But I’m sorry, this ain’t no hotel.
     He held his backpack tight, under the sheets, shook his head, no fucking way. Security hoisted him from the bed, a guard on each arm, walked him down the hallway, out the door, into the night.
     We give out clean needles, single-use vitamin C sachets so people can dissolve crack or black tar heroin in its acid instead of sharing lemon juice and scarring their veins. Some people come in just for sandwiches, or to use the phone. Others, to sit in a chair.
     One of my colleagues rolled a man in a wheelchair out into a storm. The man had been pretending he couldn’t walk, but when Jeff’s back was turned, he would stand, grab hand sanitizer from the wall, and drink it down. He’d been doing it for hours before someone noticed. After Jeff pushed the man out, he sat back down at the desk in minor, began angrily filling out the man’s chart, paused, then slammed his pen down and, furious, snowflakes melting on his scrubs, wheeled the man back in. Our trust gets broken and broken and broken and broken, but underneath it is an even deeper caring.
     A few years ago, I heard an overhead page—“Dr. Maskalyk to triage”—and I walked out, to help decide which way to direct a stretcher I’d guessed, and instead saw a bailiff who touched me with an affidavit, dropped it, furled, on the ground.
     “Sorry,” the registration clerk said to me, bashfully. “I thought he was a friend.”
     I picked up the rolled paper. A lawsuit. It named many doctors. I couldn’t remember the complainant.
     I got his chart from medical records. It didn’t cue me. I’d met him once, two years before. I could remember the night. So busy, running from minor to major every few min­utes. I have a vague memory of his back, but not his face.
     The chart was mostly empty. “Flank pain” was his complaint, and I scratched in only a few physical findings. In the margin was a note from the nurse: “Verbal order, Maskalyk, morphine 5 mg IV.” You get calls like that all the time, from a worried nurse, asking for pain relief for someone writhing in a stretcher. Sure, sure, I would have said, after I asked a few questions, 5 milligrams.
     In the years that had passed, I had touched a hundred backs, seen many people in pain. This man was fine. There was no bad outcome. He had CT scans, MRIs, all negative. His charge to me was that I contributed to his opiate addiction. He named every doctor who had crossed his path.
     The case dragged on for years. My lawyers kept tell­ing me that it would go no further, but it kept limping. Every few months, another letter, until whoever was helping that man exhausted what money he had and the case was dropped.
     Some of my colleagues haven’t been so lucky. Some­times that person with back pain that sounded the same as the hundred before in fact has a hemorrhage, or an infection, and becomes paralyzed. I received an angry letter from a family doctor who said I was incompetent for not x-raying the leg of a young woman he had sent to the ER. She hadn’t fallen, hadn’t endured an injury. I examined her leg. No swelling, no chance of a break. Not blue, good pulse. No emergency as far as I could tell. Does it hurt when you do this? Stop doing that, I said, every doctor’s favourite piece of advice. Rest it, see if it gets better. It didn’t. The bone had a tumour in it.
     Shoulder pain in a drunk man, sleeping it off in the hallway. This time, I got an x-ray. Negative. The pain persisted. I CAT-scanned his neck. Broken. The pain was from a pinched nerve. He hadn’t complained of neck pain, couldn’t remember falling. But I didn’t feel along his neck until much later. I should have. I didn’t even put a collar on before I sent him to scan. A screaming radi­ologist called me in minor. “What the hell are you doing sending him up alone?”
     First shift, after I graduated. A pharmacy student with severe asthma. Often, patients with chronic disease know what they need. Adrenalin, intramuscular, he said, requesting our most powerful drug. I found a nurse, told her what I wanted, stepped away to write on his chart, turned back to see the colour drain from her face, watched him fall back onto the bed. How did you give that adrenalin? I shouted, my finger already on his neck. Intravenous, she said, knowing her mistake, that in a living person, it must never go straight into the blood, that it is too much for a beating heart to take.
     Shit, I said, lacing my fingers together before ham­mering down on his chest.
     He lived. I told him what had happened, then my chief and the nursing supervisor. The patient understood, probably better than anyone in the world. At least my asthma’s gone, he said, wincing as he tried to sit up.
     I could go on. No matter how careful I try to be, I make mistakes. The next one is just waiting.
     We are taught all kinds of things as we work our way down the alphabet. To spot a hurt person, to remain sus­picious, to learn from our errors. It can be difficult to rest from the worry.
     “You will fucking too see this patient,” I said to a resident who refused to assess a woman with AIDS who couldn’t stop vomiting long enough to take her pills and had nowhere to go. “Because it’s your fucking job, that’s why.” Anger shook me.
     “You stupid jew cunt!” a patient yells at my colleague.
     “Handshandshands!” a security guard shouts as the man they are watching undress pulls a knife.
     “I have hep C, and if any of you come close, I’ll spit in your eye!” another man, scratched and bruised, screams, five cops holding him down. He was released from prison a day before, having served twenty for murder. In his hours of freedom, he beat another man nearly to death. “Come here,” he says, looking at a nurse behind me. “I dare you.”
     I’ll sue you. I’ll stab you. I’ll come back with a gun and kill all of you. You’re a shitty doctor. You’re an ugly nurse. You’re an idiot. Goof. I want a second opinion. I want to kill myself.
     Dying person, dead person. Sick person. Lying person. Faking. Manipulative. Poisoned. Raped. Dead. Screaming. Crying. Writhing in pain. Hopeless. Afraid. Confused. Alone.
     Wow, must be stressful, people say.
     You get used to it, we answer.
     Ground floor, downtown, ground down. Suffering can be contagious, and no matter the job you do, it just keeps coming back.
     Your world view skews. If you don’t make an effort to balance it, the ER becomes your new normal. Like a home, you turn to it for what you need. Your colleagues seem like the normal ones, because they can joke while a man, shot dead, lies behind them.
     Daddy, a colleague’s daughter said, all you do is work, sleep, and drink. A nurse told me after a string of five days in a row, she took a bottle of wine to bed, and cried.
     It’s hard to make it ten years here. Some don’t make it two. It’s worse for the nurses. They spend more time at the bedside, unobserved, unprotected. They watch people die over hours, asking, “Am I going to make it?” again and again. I get asked once. “We’ll do what we can,” I say, and move on.
     The ones that last are changed. The shifts, the swearing, the shouts of pain, the anxiety and sadness and anger pour­ing from strangers. Miss a decimal place and someone’s dead. Drug seekers lie to your face so they can flip pills on the street, and you grow suspicious of those in real pain. The addicts and alcoholics who circle this place, lost and dying, whom you can’t help and no one else wants. A security guard had his nose broken one week. A nurse, a chunk of hair ripped from her head. She waited until it stopped bleeding, then finished her shift. I haven’t seen her since.
     We work when we are sick, masks over our faces so we’re not contagious. I broke my arm, and didn’t miss a day. We have a silent agreement to not ask for help. Sick­ness becomes weakness, weakness a sickness.
     It’s rare to connect with the people I treat. The ones I do best for wake up in the ICU, in a sedative haze, not sure what happened or whom to thank. We deliver more dead babies than live ones. No one shouts, “Mazel tov! It’s appendicitis!”
     We don’t develop relationships with patients, claim that we prefer it that way. We dive deep, straight, unapologetically, unsentimentally, into a person’s worst fears, ask them about sex, drugs, who’s hurting them, why they’re hurting themselves. We look in their eyes, watch them cry, put needles into their veins until they’re plump with water, dab blood from their cervixes, know their bodies more intimately than they ever will. When the new shift comes in, we go home and try to live in ours.
     I sat in my first suit, tugging at the cuffs, and told the doctors across the table, ones who were deciding whether they would let me into their emergency training program, that I thrived on the type of challenges the ER presented. I didn’t mind odd hours and had healthy habits to make up for tough nights. They nodded, satisfied, and I walked out, past a half-dozen nervous young men and women, their answers the same as mine.
     We get ground down anyhow. The pace, we’ll say, images of mangled limbs we take with us wherever we go. It’s hard to leave, even if you know you should. It feels good to be surrounded by those who know what you do, to whom you don’t have to explain.
     Some of us make it through. Some drink. Some smoke. The ones who last best, laugh. Even about the black things. Especially about the black things. Without the absurd, there is only tragedy.
     A woman, twenty, fell down twenty stairs. One eye was swollen shut. She wouldn’t answer to her name or open her other eye. She pushed at the nurse’s hands that tried to help her, again and again, sought to climb out of bed. I sedated her until she was still, and did a CAT scan of her brain. The scan showed bruising, blood in the grey matter where there should be none, a slick of it pooling inside her skull, squeezing her brain tighter and tighter. I called the neurosurgeon, a German, and explained what I saw.
     “So she needs the OR,” I said over the phone.
     “Is she . . . pretty?” he said in a heavy accent, chew­ing, swallowing.
     “I don’t know . . . I guess so.”
     “Zen we must to do everysing,” he said, and hung up the phone.
     A few hours later, nurses and I recalled the conversa­tion as we switched back and forth for CPR. We laughed, above an old woman’s still heart, caught ourselves, turned our eyes back to our work, and fell into smiles.
     You can see those who are edging out. When we’re unable to meet the sadness, or to laugh about it, cynicism takes hold. Even worse, anger. We curse nurses on other floors for being too slow. We criticize our colleagues’ decisions, their flow, their bad day, forgetting that they, like us, are just trying to make it through a shift, a week, a month, a life, surrounded by all the pain.
     Last, we curse our patients. This is a final sign. Touch­ing many people, but being touched by none of them, they close like a flower that no longer sees the sun. It’s as if every person takes away from you something you need.
     Not her again, a nurse says under his breath, as a volunteer places a chart of a regular on the desk, as if this wasn’t the point of the place, as if this didn’t happen twenty times a day.
     People think that to make it through, we become inured, develop some kind of barrier, beyond emotion. It doesn’t work like that. You can offer an illusion of indif­ference, even tell yourself that you’ve got it handled, but all that tough stuff makes it in just the same. What shuts down is the part that turns it around.
     There’s too much to do, a next patient to see, and if you’re never told how important it is to work on anger and fear as it comes up, you put it off, and the frustration diffuses into all aspects of your being, its origins almost invisible. You can get so behind, you abandon the proj­ect. Then, on that fateful day, when you have a chance to do something right for someone you don’t know, or cut a corner, you say to yourself, “Fuck it.”
     The end has come. Time to quit.
     People do. Plenty. I’ll see them in the hall after many months, when I used to see them every day. Miss us? I’ll ask. Yeah, they say, I do, some of them wistful. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t good for me.
     What they mean is, instead of just the worries follow­ing them home, some numbness did too. Joy started to seem for fools, because while there are many things we will never know, what we do know for certain is that one day, a bullet meant for someone else will whip through our body, our foot will turn on a dog’s toy on the second stair and we will fall, or a cough will tickle our chest then sputter a tablespoon of blood, and in an instant we know what it means.
     It’s here.

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All We Leave Behind

All We Leave Behind

A Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others
edition:Hardcover

One of Canada's most respected journalists, As It Happens's Carol Off, relates the gripping story of a family's desperate attempts to escape Afghan warlords, Taliban oppression, and the persecutions of refugee life. 

In 2002, Carol Off and a CBC TV crew encountered an Afghan man with a story to tell. Asad Aryubwal became a key figure in their documentary on the terrible power of thuggish warlords who were working arm in arm with Americans and NATO troops. When Asad publicly exposed the deeds of …

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Seven Fallen Feathers

Seven Fallen Feathers

Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Finalist, 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

In 1966, twelve-year-old Chanie Wenjack froze to death on the railway tracks after running away from residential school. An inquest was called and four recommendations were made to prevent another tragedy. None of those recommendations were applied.

More than a quarter of a century later, from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, …

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It’s early April and the 2011 federal election is in full swing. All over Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are duking it out with Jack Layton’s New Democrats and the struggling Liberals in a bid to win a majority government.

I’m in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to see Stan Beardy, the Nishawbe-Aski Nation’s grand chief, to interview him for a story on why it is indigenous people never seem to vote.

The receptionist at the NAN’s office greets me and ushers me into a large, common meeting room to wait for Stan. Everything in the room is grey — the walls, the tubular plastic tables, the carpets. The only splash of colour is a large white flag with a bear on it that has been tacked to the wall.

The Great White Bear stands in the centre of a red circle, in the middle of the flag. The white bear is the traditional symbol of the life of the North American Indian. The red circle background is symbolic of the Red Man. His feet are standing, planted firmly on the bottom line, representing the Earth while his head touches the top line, symbolic to his relationship to the Great Spirit in the sky. The bear is stretched out, arms and feet open wide, to show he has nothing to hide.

There are circles joining the bear’s rib cage. They are the souls of the people, indigenous songs, and legends. The circles are the ties that bind all the clans together.

These circles also offer protection. Without them, the ribcage would expose the great bear’s beating heart and leave it open to harm.

Stan walks in and greets me warmly, his brown eyes twinkling as he takes a seat.

Stan is pensive, quiet, and patient. He says nothing as he wearily leans back in his chair and waits for me to explain why exactly I flew 2,400 km north from Toronto to see him and talk about the federal election.

I launch into my spiel, trying not to sound like a salesperson or an interloper into his world, someone who kind of belongs here and kind of does not. This is the curse of my mixed blood. I am the daughter of a half-Anish mom and a Polish father.

I ramble off abysmal voting pattern statistics across Canada, while pointing out that in many ridings indigenous people could act as a swing vote, influencing that riding and hence the trajectory of the election.

Stan stares at me impassively. Non-plussed.

So I start firing off some questions.

It doesn’t go well. Every time I try to engage him, asking him about why indigenous people won’t get in the game and vote, he begins talking about the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Jordan Wabasse.

It was a frustrating exchange, like we were speaking two different languages.

“Indigenous voters could influence fifty seats across the country if they got out and voted but they don’t. Why?” I ask.

“Why aren’t you writing a story on Jordan Wabasse? He has been gone seventy-one days now,” replies Stan.

“Stephen Harper has been no friend to indigenous people yet if everyone voted, they could swing the course of this election,” I continue, hoping he’ll bite at the sound of Harper’s name. The man is no friend of the Indians.

“They found a shoe down by the water. Police think it might have been his,” replies Stan.

This went on for a good fifteen minutes. I was annoyed. I knew a missing Grade 9 indigenous student in Thunder Bay would not make news in urban Toronto at Canada’s largest daily newspaper. I could practically see that election bus rolling away without me.

Then I remembered my manners and where I was.

I was sitting with the elected grand chief of 23,000 people and he was clearly trying to tell me something.

I tried a new tactic. I’d ask about Jordan and then I’d swing around and get him to talk about elections.

Then Stan said: “Jordan is the seventh student to go missing or die while at school.”

Seven.

Stan says their names: “Reggie Bushie. Jethro Anderson. Paul Panacheese. Curran Strang. Robyn Harper. Kyle Morrisseau. And now, Jordan Wabasse.”

He then tells me the seven were hundreds of miles away from their home communities and families.

Each was forced to leave their reserve simply because there was no high school for them to attend.

“Going to high school is the right of every Canadian child,” says Stan, adding that these children are no different.

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