The sharing of one’s life experiences can be difficult for those who have suffered hardships and difficulties. For Métis author Bonita Nowell, when her mother Angie Mercredi - Crerar eventually revealed her history about attending residential school and the loss of her own mother, it was therefore received as a precious gift.
It also became a gift that Nowell wanted to honour by sharing it with others, and with the recent publishing of that story in her book My Mother’s Legacy, Nowell says she hopes anyone who reads about her mother becomes inspired about the resiliency of the human spirit.
“She had the most wonderful childhood. She was loved and she lived off the land with her family and it was a peaceful, gentle way of life,” Nowell said of her mother’s early childhood.
That changed, however, when her mother fell ill and her and her siblings were forced to attend St. Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution, a part of her life she did not feel comfortable sharing until 2015, Nowell said.
“It was like – “I was at a convent” and then (she) quickly changed the subject,” she said of her mother’s hesitancy to discuss her experiences.
Discovering her heritage
Having developed an interest in genealogy after reading the Alex Haley book Roots in the 1970s, Nowell began the journey of tracing her family tree and her lineage, which eventually led back to Francois Beaulieu – “Le Patriarche” – her direct descendent and a founding father of the Métis of the Northwest Territories. After moving from Alberta back to her birthplace of Yellowknife in the 1980s, Nowell then went on to research her close family to fill in the gaps of information she was seeking.
For most of her life, Nowell said she did not know about her mother’s experience at St. Joseph’s – a school where 75 young students did not return to their homes.
“It was not acceptable discussion material and so that part was heartbreaking. As I did further research and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did further research, I learned more and understood more and I think I became a better person,” she said of the process of research and discovery.
In writing her mother’s story, Nowell said she decided to intertwine the facts of her mother’s life at times with a fictional narrative to help readers gain a deep understanding of her experiences. She also used her Indigenous voice to help achieve that and also interspersed the story with words from the Michif language – her mother’s Métis language that she was forbidden to speak in residential school.
“One thing I recognized was that the context was missing, so I am providing greater context about my mother’s early childhood in the North and things my mother was involved with, and all the wonderful humans that I’ve met along the way who have contributed to me being able to share this story more creatively, and more humanely, and more comforting,” Nowell said.
“There are chapters in my book that I literally cried my way through.”
“I hope the words that I have selected very, very carefully, touch my readers. It allows me to talk from my heart – more colourfully, more holistically.”
Leading by example
In the introduction of her book, Nowell describes her mother, a renowned Métis elder, as one who has spent her lifetime helping Métis women reclaim their traditional matriarchal and matrilineal roles in Grande Prairie, Alberta, the place she calls home.
“She has used her gifts of quiet strength and speaking from her heart to guide others on a path of reconciliation in order to achieve this vision with many, many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.”
For Nowell, authoring the book provided her not only with knowledge about her Métis heritage, but the discovery of a “strong emotional legacy” that served as a protective shield for her mother as a child.
She hopes there is something for everyone who reads her story and “Anyone who wants greater understanding and who wants to be embraced by it – perhaps a different approach to presenting a residential school story.”
Nowell said she had both her mother’s blessing and support while writing the book.
“I wanted to give her something back I felt she lost.”
Her mother told her she had succeeded in doing so.
“I use the word gift throughout my book. I use the word for a reason. We all have gifts. And the more we use them and share them, what a much better world we would be in.”