Photos, left to right: Andrew Stobo Sniderman/ Natasha Launi; Douglas Sanderson / Tony Hauser)
“Valley of the Birdtail” Tackles Racism and Reconciliation
In a Q&A, the authors discuss how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can live side by side, as equals / BY Dene Moore / January 27th, 2023
When Andrew Stobo Sniderman was a journalism intern in 2011, he attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings on residential schools in the Northwest Territories. That’s when the Montreal native realized the depth of Canada’s troubled history with Indigenous people and the inequalities in social services that contribute to segregation and poverty.
Sniderman first wrote about the disparity in educational funding between students at the Waywayseecappo reserve school and Rossburn Collegiate, just five kilometres away, for Maclean’s magazine in 2012. The town of Rossburn and Waywayseecappo First Nation have been neighbours for 150 years, but residents have been separated by the Birdtail River – and race. In 2017, following many telephone conversations, Sniderman, a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court and advocated for Indigenous clients, travelled to the valley for the first time.
That journey culminated in Valley of the Birdtail: An Indian Reserve, a White Town, and the Road to Reconciliation, which contains very personal stories of people like Maureen Twovoice, a student, and Troy Luhowy, a born-and-raised Rossburn resident who taught at the Waywayseecappo school.
Stoberman contacted his University of Toronto law professor, Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii), who is a member of the Beaver Clan of Manitoba’s Opaskwayak Cree Nation, to help tell the story. At its heart, Valley of the Birdtail asks: “how can Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians live side by side, as equals?”
Dene Moore: How did this collaboration between the two of you and the residents of Waywayseecappo and Rossburn result in this book?
Andrew Stobo Sniderman: I think the most striking thing to me was coming home [from the TRC hearings], having learned all this stuff about residential schools and how awful they were, then finding out that actually today – and this is back in 2012 – and for decades, children going to school on reserves had been grossly underfunded. I couldn’t believe we were making a similar mistake, so I started looking for a way to tell this story.
This whole universe kind of opened up about not only this national problem of unequal treatment of children on reserves, but this much bigger question of how did these two communities become separate and unequal? And what can the rest of us learn from this?
I realized that there was no way I, as a non-Indigenous person from Montreal, however well-intentioned, could do justice to this story.
Douglas Sanderson: This was an opportunity to think about the very broad picture, about how we might live together and how we might do that in a way that’s fair and just. It’s not a set of questions that has typically entered the public discourse. To the extent that there is a public discourse, it’s around very discrete issues; it’s this pipeline or that lobster fishery. While people are very interested in the concept of reconciliation, we seem to want to try to get to an end goal by attacking all of these individual, unrelated, one-off policy issues. I think that this book gave me a chance to step back and think about a much broader and complete public policy conception of the relationship.
DM: What were some of the challenges in writing about the experiences of the people who shared their stories with you?
AS: To fairly reflect the point of view of a very conservative farming town and a neighbouring Indian reserve is very hard to do. It took many years to get people to trust this book and the process of opening up and being frank and sharing what some people might call racism and what, for people in the town, is part of a worldview that makes perfect sense. And on the reserve, for people to open up and speak freely in a context where trauma porn is all too frequently out there.
There are no pseudonyms in the book, and I think that’s a reflection of the fact that people trust us. All the main characters had an opportunity to review the text and to call out things they thought were wrong … and no one asked that anything of significance be pulled out.
The characters in the story are real people, using their real names, and they are very brave to be putting themselves out there. And I think they also believe that some good will come of this.
I hope people walk away from reading this book thinking, “Wow, that was a great story,” and also, “the past was much darker than I thought, but the future could be much brighter than I had imagined.’
DS: I think there’s a personal story at the core of the book that’s about success and about communities coming together. It’s about perseverance. It’s about surviving intergenerational trauma. And that’s a good story.
When I survey the popular books dealing with Indigenous issues, they tend to be really tragic. Some people need that emotion to feel that an issue is important, but I think we also need to be able to motivate people to think about change. Although we’ve talked a lot in the past about residential schools and we’ve talked a lot about individual programs … we haven’t, as a country, really had an adult conversation about change and the future. If things are going to become better between Indigenous and settler people, if we’re going to have a fair society, then we’re going to have to start talking about actual change at the core level. … Managing one-off issues is not going to get us to a brighter future.
DM: What did you gain from this experience?
AS: Over the years of showing up and talking to people, and showing them you’re willing to really listen and learn, that’s when people start opening up. And that’s what enabled this story to be great, that people courageously opened up to us because they thought the conversation that will come out of it is worth it. They have shown a way to change and to grow and to learn … and that’s inspiring.
This interview had been edited and condensed for length and clarity.