This year the theme of Canada Reads is “starting over.” Some of our writers decided to join in and defend some of the short-listed titles, including Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie.
Tracey Lindberg introduces Birdie and her story to readers not in a prologue, nor on page one of chapter one, but instead in her dedication. We read Lindberg’s words first in Cree, then English:
Kakinow anniki okawipanak, nimisinanak, niseeminanak, kaki mantotacik, apo anniki westawow mekwac eka ka piswenemicik, kiwicikapowistatinan, kakinow annis omma kiwakotonanow.
To all of the mothers and little mothers, sisters and cousins who are murdered, missing, disappeared or who feel invisible. We are one. We are with you. We are family.
It’s an affirmation of Lindberg’s own history and heritage as a As’in’i’w’chi Ni’Yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree, and a recognition of the First Nations and Métis women that have been lost in one way or another. We find Bernice “Birdie” Meetoos in Lindberg’s declaration of solidarity with these women, in her acknowledgment of the pain and strength that indigenous women live with every day. We find her in the winding path that we take through her memories, good and bad, and in the women that fortify her as she works through her life.
When we meet Bernice, she’s not quite awake, but not completely asleep either, as she recovers from an unrevealed trauma. She is separate from her body, and the things that have happened to her body. She is likewise separate from the experiences she’s had, and the moments that have sent her on a different path. Lindberg grounds the reader in little things about Bernice’s personality: she wants to meet The Beachcombers actor Pat John, she loves to read, and she’s incredibly introspective.
What she had to do was find the space where her memory could live peaceably with her body.
Birdie can seem like quite the solitary story, but it is precisely that initial solitude that guides the reader into seeing how important emotional connection end up becoming for Bernice and her next steps. We don’t often see the community and solidarity of First Nations women portrayed in literature or in real life, and Birdie brings one of their many perspectives to light.
Bernice has been alone, but Lindberg makes it clear that she is not on her own. Lindberg surrounds Bernice with female influences and friends, from her mother Maggie, to Kohkom Rose, to Auntie Val, to Skinny Freda, to Lola. We see how each woman has touched Bernice’s life, and we see how they each provide support for Bernice as she recovers.
She dreams she has one song, one mournful song. Soars at night and stays quiet in the day. She wakes one nights. To bars. And knows in her sleepless sleep that she is caged.
Indigenous people have had a history fraught with colonization, abuse, and discrimination in Canada, and we know that it continues today. It might be easy to see them as lone troublemakers, solitary nomads without a true home. I myself am sorry to say that I haven’t learned enough about their lives and stories in the few years that I’ve lived in Canada. I do not know why the discrimination persists in 2016, and why it has been so easy for many to dismiss the pain and abuse that First Nations and Métis tribes have suffered.
But holding on to that belief does both our First Nations peoples and ourselves a great disservice. In playing to that belief, we forget that we don’t exist in a bubble of modernization while they try to survive on the outskirts of society. We forget that they are part of our story. We forget that we can’t move Canada forward without them.
In an author interview found at the end of the book, Tracey Lindberg reminds us of that: “The stories represent freedom and the notion that we have stuff enough in us to get better.” We have stuff enough in us to be better, Canada. We have enough compassion and understanding in us to help each other through. We have enough self-awareness in us to realize when our neighbours–not friends, because we don’t need to be each other friends, but we can be neighbours–need our support. We have enough in us to recognize when we are in need of help, and when it is offered to us, we have enough in us to accept it and let it heal us.
She flies home. To the place where she learned to love and the place where she learned fear. Home. Where her youth mixed with her experience in a strange alchemy, leaving her self split like oil and vinegar.
Starting over doesn’t always mean closing the door on the life one has led so far. In Birdie, Tracey Lindberg asks readers to question their own prejudices and traumas, as Bernice does, and to see the strength that has carried the First Nations and Métis tribes through unimaginable suffering and destruction. Like Bernice, Canada is starting over, but we can’t do it without a unified front. Isn’t it about time we try?