Almost twenty years ago in my then-rôle as a high school English teacher, and while teaching some stories and poems by South African writers, I reflected upon the fact that for decades in apartheid South Africa, students had studied literature written only by English and Boer writers, never by actual South Africans. It struck me as perverse that a colonial minority could overwrite an existing and vibrant culture with its own narrow world-view.

And then I came to a shattering realisation: as a non-Native Canadian, I was no different than an English or Boer school teacher in South Africa. I had gone through twelve years of public school and two university degrees without having once been required to read the words of a Canadian writer—and by Canadian, I mean one whose ancestry in Canada pre-dates European conquest and Indigenous destruction.

At that moment I decided that I needed to delve into Canada’s Aboriginal literary canon. That wasn’t easy, since the people whose advice I sought—from librarians to bookstore managers—had no answers. One told me point-blank that First Nations people had no actual body of literature, since “they have an oral culture.” Eventually someone suggested I speak with a professor in the Native Studies Department at the University of Alberta. That instructor recommended an anthology edited by acclaimed author Thomas King, and a 1996 collection of short stories called Traplines by someone named Eden Robison.

Traplines stunned me. The four short stories told the harrowing experiences of urban and rural teenagers in contemporary British Columbia.

In the title story, young Will Tate is torn apart emotionally by an offer from his English teacher. Having lost her own son, she offers to adopt him, giving him an escape his abusive brother and alcoholic parents. But how can Will face betraying his own blood, despite their monstrous betrayal of him?

In the mystical, darkly-comedic “Dogs in Winter,” a teen girl protagonist struggles to escape the legacy of her mother, a serial killer who preys on men. In “Contact Sports,” a boy is knocked around like a pinball by his older cousin, who could be either his saviour, or a slick sociopath, or both.

But of all the stories, none affected me more than “Queen of the North,” an inspiring and tragic story of a sensitive, intelligent young woman who is transformed by her uncle’s decade-long sexual abuse into a violent, drug-abusing catastrophe. I loved the eloquence, intelligence and emotional intensity of the collection, and so did my students. Some, inspired by reading the stories, crafted their own excellent creative writing or made positive improvements in their lives.

Eden Robinson is a thirty-something West Coast writer of the Heisla and Heilstuk nations from Kitimat, BC. Traplines was as a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year; it also won the Winifred Holtby Prize for the best first work of fiction in the Commonwealth. Robinson’s first novel, Monkey Beach, was nominated for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award of 2000.

This episode’s conversation is from deeps in the archives of the Grand Lodge of Imhotep. I spoke with Robinson way back on December 16, 2005 for a celebration of indigenous writing at the Edmonton Public Library and co-presented by the University of Alberta bookstore.