Darrel J. McLeod is a Cree writer from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing, he worked as an educator, chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government, and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. His debut memoir, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, received the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language nonfiction and was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize. His second memoir, Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, was nominated for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He lives in Sooke, BC, where he writes and sings in a jazz band.
A Season in Chezgh’un, McLeod’s first novel, is a subversive work infused with the contradictory triumph and pain of finding conventional success in a world that feels alien. James, a talented and conflicted Cree man from a tiny settlement in Northern Alberta, has built a promising life for himself as an educator in Vancouver. But he chafes at being assimilated into mainstream society, removed from his people and culture. After the untimely death of his mother—James’ only link to his family and community—he secures a job as a principal in a remote northern Dakelh community in northern BC. There, his encounters with poverty, cultural disruption, and abuse conjure ghosts from his past. While taking solace in the richness and dignity of the Dakelh culture and the splendour of nature, James fights to keep his dark side from driving him toward self-destruction.
Interviewed by Christine Schrum
Christine Schrum (CS): You’ve written two celebrated memoirs. What inspired you to switch gears from nonfiction to fiction? How was the experience different for you?
Darrel J. McLeod (DJM): There were a few reasons. I had two mentors—Betsy Warland and Shaena Lambert—and they both advised that I should switch to fiction, because two memoirs are probably enough for most people when they’re writing about themselves. And I always wanted to write fiction.
When I was working on Mamaskatch Betsy Warland referred me to Shaena Lambert, who worked with me on 26 short stories—many of which ended up in one form or another in Mamaskatch and/or Peyakow, the second memoir. Betsy thought that working with a fiction writer would really help deepen my text, my manuscript. I worked with Shaena on things like scene—building scene, making sure a scene is complete. Or, if you intend to have a mini scene or a partial scene, then doing it deliberately and thoughtfully. How to incorporate dialogue, how to—even in a memoir—consider things like plot and plot structure, even though you don’t have a lot of flexibility there. You can’t invent things to make a more interesting plot line, but you can still structure things so that there’s a build-up, tension, and those kinds of things.
After working with Shaena on using the skills from fiction, I really had a desire to write fiction, to take a stab at it. And I loved it. It’s so much fun, in that you really get to know your muse. Your muse kind of sits on your shoulder a bit more. It did with my memoirs as well, but I think more so with my novel. And you have a lot more flexibility in terms of the plot line.
In terms of character, you can base your characters on people you’ve known. You can conflate people, combine characters, and invent characters, which is really fun. And you have a lot of flexibility over the structure.
But I did have to study a lot. I studied fiction writing when I was writing my memoirs—books like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Douglas Glover is one of my gurus. He’s a real low-key, modest, and humble fellow, but he’s a real master of the craft. He teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and he won the Governor General’s Award for his book, Elle, in 2003. I kept his book Attack of the Copula Spiders right beside me the whole time I was writing Mamaskatch. I just had all these things I wanted to try out.
I’m going to write more fiction. I’m really excited about it. I want to be even more adventuresome in my fiction writing.
CS: A Season in Chezgh’un is a work of fiction, but it shines a spotlight on the very real hardships facing young, Indigenous students—and families—in rural communities today under the ongoing injustices of colonialism and systemic racism. As someone who has worked extensively in education and justice for First Nations communities, are you hopeful that things are improving?
DJM: I know things are improving. Our communities are getting healthier, we’re seeing more strong, vibrant, and successful youth completing their education. But I have to say that, while things are getting better, I want to start with the inverse: that we have a long way to go.
I have a real sadness, and am distressed, actually, about youth suicide in Indigenous communities in Canada. And not just in Canada. I’ve travelled extensively throughout South America and the United States, and in all of the Indigenous communities, when you get talking to people about their main social issues youth suicide comes up every time. And second to that, of course, is missing and murdered Indigenous women.
A friend of mine who I respect a lot—another author—said, “You know, if you have a message, you should just write an essay.” But I don’t agree with that. You write essays, and people do read essays, but fiction is a different thing. Just like you can convey messages through music, or through visual arts, I think you can convey messages through fiction, too, through literature. So I wanted to raise awareness of the issue of youth suicide, which is, I think, largely related to issues of gender identity issues and sexual orientation. Also, I just wanted to portray a day in the life—or a year in the life—of a typical rural Indigenous community and the issues they have.
But, as you said, in my career I worked extensively in education, activism, and Indigenous rights at the national and international level. And I’d like to tell this story, as I’ve been touring the last couple of years. I love talking about how things have improved for Indigenous youth. Because I saw it.
I started working in post-secondary education in 1990, and I started attending college and university graduations in different parts of BC, but mainly at UBC, around 1993. And in 1993—the Faculty of Education was doing a lot back then—they had a program called the Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP). And you’d always see a cluster of, like, 30 grads at every graduation ceremony. I’d go to the graduation ceremony and there’d be an Indigenous celebration following the main convocation, and I’d see 30 teachers, maybe a couple of MEds, a couple of MAs in different areas. You might see two lawyers, maybe five, but almost nothing in the science areas, and nothing in medicine, nursing, accounting, or financial administration.
Fast forward to the last graduation that I attended at UBC—I think in 2010 or 2011—and there were maybe 60 teachers, probably 20 MEds, and maybe 40 grads in other master’s programs. There were maybe 20 doctoral graduates, and a cluster of maybe 30 lawyers graduating. And, five or 10 foresters, a couple of fisheries management experts, and BComs, too—business admin. So, I saw a huge shift. And, you know, I just love going to this graduation, as I wrote in Peyakow—seeing those bright, shiny, Indigenous faces. Full of optimism and energized. You know they’re going to change the world. And sure enough, it’s happening. The president of the Canadian Medical Association is an Indigenous doctor—the first Indigenous doctor to hold that position.
If you look at the BC Bar Association—there’s an Indigenous bar as well—but if you look at the regular bar, there are a few Indigenous benchers now. That was a historic first. I think there were five the last time they renewed the benchers. Maybe there aren’t right now, but there were. That’s huge. That’s great. So yeah, things are improving. And you see Indigenous Nations advancing their rights and making big gains in some cases. It has been slow. It’s taken a hell of a long time. But we’re seeing these huge gains and game changers and it’s wonderful. But at the same time, we have a lot to do. There’s still a lot of poverty.
CS: I’ve become aware that an estimated 25% of Indigenous Canadians live in poverty, and that grants such as the Well Being Fund aim to improve conditions in Northern BC. How much of an impact do these kinds of initiatives have?
DJM: I think initiatives like that are good. They’ll certainly help to some extent, but there’s been a systematic underfunding of social programs in First Nations communities since probably, I think it was 1998—whatever year Paul Martin was Finance Minister and had to balance the books. He was a very successful finance minister because he was able to balance the books and get Canada out of the deficit. But he largely did it off the backs of First Nations, because he imposed a funding cap of two percent on all social programs and services.
It didn’t matter that the population of Indigenous people in Canada was growing at four times the rate of the rest of the population. It didn’t matter that the cost of providing services and maintaining buildings and stuff like that was increasing rapidly. The inflation rate wasn’t taken into account. So with over twenty years of that kind of cut…
It was a very tricky kind of cut because the funding levels of provincial programs and services were increasing with inflation, increasing with the costs, increasing with the population and formulas. But the Feds did away with the formulas. It was a flat rate. Whatever First Nations were getting, they could only get a two percent a year increase on top of that—if they got the two percent.
So while there are nice initiatives that try to make up the gap, it’s such a big gap. It would take a hell of a lot of goodwill and work on the part of non-profits, societies, and organizations to make up that gap. Ironically, when Paul Martin stopped being Prime Minister, he set up a fund—I think to appease his guilt a little bit.
CS: James, the compelling protagonist of this novel, is an inspiring champion of Indigenous culture, rights, and education. What is needed to support more leaders like James in BC?
DJM: Well, I’ll be sort of technical and analytical about it for a few minutes. We need to do away with the systemic barriers. They’re still there. I mean, when I was there, there were huge systemic barriers. I was able to break through some glass ceilings. I did become an executive in the federal government. But it was by happenstance more than design. It was a constant battle to be successful in government, to make a difference. And there are still systemic barriers—in both the provincial and federal governments and in agencies like school districts, colleges, and universities—to Indigenous people succeeding and advancing in their careers. And so something more needs to be done about that.
Every ten years or so, there’ll be an incident or a lawsuit or something, and there’ll be this new awareness. So in the governments, there will be a wringing of hands for a while, and then they’ll do some initiative… and then it’ll sort of fade away and they’ll forget. It would be interesting to see what the stats are now—I haven’t looked lately—with the provincial, federal governments, and different agencies.
So that’s one thing: the human resources policy and systemic barriers. The other, though, that I think was more helpful than anything was the allies, the difference that allies can make. I had strong allies in all of my jobs—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies and supports. And that helped tremendously.
For example, when I was a new teacher, I was teaching French immersion for the Vancouver School Board and I was working with a group of Québécois people and they just glommed on to me, embraced me, protected me, helped me, and mentored me. It was just lovely.
And when I was a school principal, I had similar mentors. One of my assistant superintendents, a non-Indigenous woman, was just amazing. And then in government I had a few allies that really helped. And, once I devoted my career to Indigenous education and Indigenous rights, I developed a circle of Indigenous friends who were amazing champions and friends.
CS: I wanted to touch on the Dakelh People. There’s so much I could say that I loved about the culture. The book is a real testimony to their courage and their dignity, their humour… it kind of made me nostalgic for a life I’ve never lived. I wondered, were you in conversation with members of that First Nation—or is the terminology First Nations vs First Nations community—while writing this story?
DJM: Yes, the Dakelh is what we used to call a tribe. It’s a larger cultural group. There are a number of First Nations in the central interior who are Dakelh, and I was fortunate enough to work with them. I maintained linkages and strong friendships for years, but that’s sort of faded away in the last few years.
I wanted to do a road trip because in Peyakow, one of the chapters is about when I was a school principal near Kuz Che. And I wanted so badly to make a road trip up there and present them some books and talk to them about the chapter, that sort of thing. But COVID happened and I couldn’t go.
I wasn’t able to go this summer, but I’m overdue for a road trip to visit and reconnect. I have connections with First Nations all up and down the interior of BC, in Vancouver, on Vancouver Island. And like you said: the book made you long to be a part of that culture—that’s how I felt when I was there. I miss the connection and I will re-establish it for sure. Amazing people.
CS: You structured this novel around the seasons: sigwan (spring), kekac nipin (early summer), nipin (summer), takwakin (fall), kaskatino pisim (freeze up), kekac pipon (early winter), pipon (winter), miyoskamin (spring breakup). Can you say something about that creative choice, and about the role of the seasons in Dakelh culture?
DJM: There are six seasons in Cree culture. So I used those—and I actually invented a couple more: early spring and early winter. Because I had eight main chapters, so I needed eight.
The way that came about was that I was just using Roman numerals in my early drafts. Every step of the way I was influenced by whatever book I was reading at the time, and a few of the authors I read used really simple chapter headings, like Roman numerals or one word. So I thought, well, I think they’re doing that because they don’t want anything to interfere with the narrative. And I liked that, so I used it.
But then one of my editors, under contract with my publisher, made a comment that he found it a bit stark. He didn’t suggest that I use the seasons; he didn’t come up with a solution. It was just an observation. But he was right. I re-examined it and I thought, well, what a great opportunity to incorporate something cultural. And the seasons are so important for people who live on the land, and off of the land. So I thought, what a nice way to structure the book. I experimented with it and I really liked it. And, after all, it’s A Season in Chezgh’un.
CS: In his personal life, James grapples with his sexuality as a queer Indigenous man in an all-too-prejudiced world. Why are stories like James’ more important than ever?
DJM: Well, I think James would probably identify as two-spirited rather than queer. Some Indigenous people do identify as queer, but I think a lot prefer to be two-spirited because it was a position in the Indigenous society in North America. I think all Indigenous societies, other than two, really honored and valued gender-alternative people and recognized a number of genders. In Cree culture, I understand there were up to six genders recognized.
There were the ultra-macho dudes who liked to hunt and fish and ride horses. There were the ultra-feminine women who loved the feminine role, and there was everything in between. It was accepted, it was normal. Two-spirited people were often held in positions of honor and had specific roles and responsibilities within the society.
But it’s important to have that conversation and do everything we can to contribute to that conversation. Because, with the influence of Christian morality and Victorianism, those two things, we’ve gotten away from our traditional values. What I noticed—and you read about it and hear a lot of people talking about it—is that there are amazingly, amazingly homophobic attitudes in a lot of First Nations communities. People would just get beaten up. There would be violence against people who were obviously queer, gay, two-spirited, or lesbian. Anybody who was different like that would be targeted or ostracized. It’s still happening to this day, and I think that’s at the root of a lot of the suicides of Indigenous youth. This being unable to talk about the ambivalence or confusion that they’re feeling and being unable to explore any of it and get guidance, reassurance, and affirmation for who they are and how they are.
I worked in Indigenous agencies as well as in government. I saw amazingly homophobic attitudes in all of those places. And I just knew something had to be—has to be—done about it. We are now slowly seeing the emergence of initiatives in Indigenous communities and regions where groups of people are coming together—and even some tribes. Some First Nations are coming up with policies about gender diversity and that kind of thing. So, it is coming along. But unfortunately, there was such a strong influence by Judeo-Christian morality. And it’s so entrenched in society now, a lot of people don’t even know that that’s where it came from. They don’t understand that this wasn’t our traditional way.
CS: This book made me hungry: for smoked salmon, bannock, and moose stew, but also for James’ prawn paella. In some ways, part of James’ quest in this book seems to be very much about learning to honour his body—its appetites, its connection to nature, its truth. Do you agree?
DJM: I think he was exploring hedonism, guilt-free hedonism. That is a positive thing, you know? Trying to get away from the guilt associated with pleasure of anything—including food.
But food is such a huge part of Indigenous culture everywhere I’ve been. And for Cree people… my mother and my grandfather had this huge love for food. It was a big part of our lives and they would spend a lot of effort acquiring it, and then preparing it and enjoying it.
So that was one of the joys that I was able to give my character. And a lot of other hedonistic things.
Resources for Indigenous Youth in BC:
- Spirit of the Children Society: https://sotcs.ca/
- Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society: https://www.vacfss.com/
- City of Vancouver Resources for Indigenous People (including grants for artists and cultural healing and wellness): https://vancouver.ca/people-programs/resources-for-indigenous-people.aspx
Ways to Support Indigenous Youth in BC