History department’s annual book club turns into a love letter to Maria Campbell

Halfbreed is as important now as it was back in 1973.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada
Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

by Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-Chief

Content note: This article includes discussion of sexual violence against Indigenous women and girls. 

Some attendees came to SFU History Reads 2020 clutching brand-new or well-worn copies of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, described as “An unflinchingly honest memoir of her experience as a Métis woman in Canada [. . . depicting] the realities that she endured and, above all, overcame.” While the Department of History invited all prospective members of its annual book club to read Campbell’s book in advance, curiosity was more than enough.

The event was reimagined from its original moderated panel discussion given two panelists’ illness. Moderator Roxanne Panchasi (who started SFU History Reads three years ago and teaches modern French history) was honest about the event’s recalibration and was determined to make it work. Chairs were rearranged in a circle to allow for a more intimate discussion setting. Ultimately, I think this allowed for an engaging and emotional exchange. Attendees who self-identified as First Nations, Métis, and settlers spoke to the importance of Halfbreed not only in the grand scheme of Canadian and Indigenous literary history, but also to them as individuals. A particular emotional topic was Campbell’s use of the often pejorative term ‘halfbreed’ as a title, and the importance of reconciling the slur with Métis history, heritage, and pride. 

Dr Mary-Ellen Kelm, a panelist and SFU history professor whose work focuses on Indigenous history, women’s history, and medical history, remembers Halfbreed being recommended to her when she moved to Vancouver and was caught off-guard by her lack of knowledge on Indigenous history. 

“It was one of those books that made a lot of things make sense,” Kelm said. She spoke to the tremendous impact of Campbell’s activism and voice as a Métis woman. Especially in 1973 when the book was first published, Campbell was “opening a door to Indigenous women’s reality.”

Panchasi chose to moderate our discussion of Halfbreed by close reading a passage in Campbell’s introduction: “I write this for all of you to tell you what it’s like to be a half-breed woman in this country . . .” 

This constant refocusing on Campbell’s words felt especially powerful and relevant given Halfbreed’s complicated and painful publication history. Alixe Shield, a Department of English PhD candidate and panelist, explained how Halfbreed’s original publisher omitted Campbell’s account of being raped by RCMP members. Campbell was, for all intents and purposes, the last to know about this editorial change. 

This erasure stood for the first 47 years of printing and has only been recently reintegrated into the text’s latest edition. Shield discussed her experience as a settler scholar, finding the missing pages in a McMaster University archive where they had been kept — unbeknownst to Campbell. 

The discussion ebbed and flowed throughout the night, but attendees frequently evoked current issues regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the work of Wet’suwet’en land defenders.  

I left the book club meeting thinking about epistemological violence — a long word that refers to violence through knowledge or information. While we often think of knowledge as power, the violence done by publishers onto Campbell’s experience and work is a reminder that the dissemination and sharing of knowledge is another locus of power. Shield noted that Campbell’s choice to return to her original publisher to reprint the entirety of Halfbreed in 2019 made “an important statement about the ways that publishers can repair relationships with Indigenous authors.” 

We also discussed how little influence Campbell had on the covers of her book, including ones she openly detested, and how unusual but crucial the crash course on Métis history with which Campbell starts her autobiography is. Shield suggested that those who hadn’t read the book yet listen to its audiobook version, as it is narrated by Campbell herself. 

Additionally, ignorance was a consistent theme throughout the evening. The Coast Salish Anthem and land acknowledgement which began the event contrasted with Panchasi’s introduction and frank admission that until she was well into adulthood, she had been taught little to nothing about Indigenous history — something many audience members echoed. Attendees who chose to speak often began by explaining whose land they had been born, raised, or educated on. Many of us had to admit that we didn’t know. Many of us admitted that we had never been taught or thought to ask. 

This is a kind of violence that I think events like SFU History Reads, which blend literature and lived experience to show how the past bleeds into the present, are well-placed to address. Getting past the violence of ignorance and dismantling it is one of the things Halfbreed allows us to do.