January 31, 2014 - 4:31am

Award-winning writer Richard Wagamese arrived at Vancouver Island University (VIU) Jan. 27 to begin a month-long visit as the University’s first Indigenous Writer in Residence.

The public is invited to attend a reading and reception welcoming Wagamese to VIU and the community on Monday, Feb. 3 from 7 to 9 pm at Shq’apthut, VIU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place.

An Ojibway from the Wabseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, Wagamese is the author of 13 books of fiction, memoir and poetry, and was the recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in Media and Communications in 2012, as well as the Canada Council Molson Prize in the Arts in 2013. Wagamese is also the first Indigenous Canadian to win a National Newspaper Award for column writing.

Wagamese spent his first morning as Indigenous Writer in Residence at VIU’s Nanaimo Campus speaking to a first year First Nations Studies class, and meeting with students, faculty and staff.

Students in the class had been assigned their own personal storytelling projects, and Wagamese encouraged them by sharing his own story. As children of residential school survivors, he and his siblings were removed from their home, family and community to foster care at a young age.

“In 1955 I was born into a family structure where people had the ability to nurture and love scraped right off them within the confines of those schools,” he said. “So as a young infant I didn’t receive the same kind of loving, nurturing and caring attention that I would have had in a traditional setting had those schools not existed.”

Students had read his autobiographical book, One Native Life, as a class assignment, and listened intently as Wagamese shared details of a young life that began in horrendous abuse at the hands of his foster parents. They heard him tell that once he had reconnected with his family and community, he was able to find personal happiness and peace, and great success as a writer, teacher and speaker.

Wagamese told students his life experience over 58 years is a reflection of all the major issues and social conditions that have been faced by Canada’s Indigenous people.

Taken into care in the “’60s Scoop” along with thousands of other Aboriginal children in Canada, Wagamese said he became one of the “Disappeared Ones,” where federal and provincial authorities refused to reveal a child’s location or foster care circumstances to family members. Escaping his foster home at 16, he completed school only to Grade 9, was homeless, unskilled and unemployed, incarcerated, and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Wagamese credits the turn-around in his life, and his eventual success as a writer, to a chance encounter in Kenora, Ontario, where he was passing through in his early 20s. Meeting some people who recognized his last name, he returned with them to his community to begin the reconnection and healing that would change his life.

“They gave me a cultural underpinning that I’d lacked all my life,” he said. “They gave me words to speak in my own language, they gave me a home and a community, they gave me a history, they gave me spirituality, a cosmology and a world view.”

Wagamese will spend the next month meeting with students in First Nations Studies, English, Creative Writing, Tillicum Lelum Adult Basic Education, and a Nanaimo high school, as well as VIU faculty and all who join him in casual drop-in coffee times at Shq’apthut.

Sharon Hobenshield, Director of Aboriginal Education at VIU, said she looks forward to seeing Wagamese connect with students and encourage their own storytelling.

“He’s this amazing writer and has all these gifts, but he’s not detached from them, he shares his stories opening and freely,” she said. “I’m excited about how the students will have the opportunity to get to know him – it’s about developing relationships in the month when he’ll be around campus.”



Shari Bishop Bowes, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P:250.740.6443 C: 250.618.1535 E: T: @viunews

Tags: In the Community

Sign up for our VIU news and experts email