Leah Baptiste’s poem The Crucible has earned her a Governor General’s History Award.
She travelled to Ottawa to receive the honour from Governor General Julie Payette on Jan. 28. She also received a cash prize of $2,000.
The Crucible was entered into the Indigenous Arts and Stories contest and was selected from 670 other entries.
The 17-year-old’s poem tackles the many trials facing Indigenous peoples in this country, from loss of language and culture, to systemic racism and residential schools.
She weaves in the many elements of Canada’s impositions on Indigenous life and culture: Canada implements the reservation system, clerks follow her mother suspiciously around stores, police are indifferent to the disappearance of Indigenous women and her culture is satirized in Halloween costumes.
“A lot of these things are right in front of me all the time based off social media, life experiences, the stories I’ve heard, the news especially … a lot of it poured out,” she said.
Baptiste grew up in Deline and spent most of her life in Fort Providence.
She wrote her own recollections of her experiences as an Indigenous person and the pressures on those around her.
“I wanted to get out some of my frustration and I followed it on a whim,” she said. “They were the things that I feel challenge Indigenous identity today and have challenged us in the past.”
“In a world dominated by whiteness you are forced to follow it, especially in Canada,” she continued. “To survive in a world that’s predominantly white you have to blend in.”
The title’s namesake is from playwright Arthur Miller’s work of the same name. The word resonated with Baptiste.
In Canada racist attitudes are still overt and “people aren’t afraid to show it,” she said.
As a person with lighter skin, Baptiste said she experiences racial discrimination differently than her peers – kids in school were more likely to make blatantly racist comments in her presence.
“It’s always a punch in the gut,” she said. “When you’re white-passing, a lot of your white friends think they can be overtly racist when you are First Nations. When I did write this poem it was not too long after I had an experience like that.”