At Trent University, my alma mater, the largest lecture hall on the main campus is Wenjack Theatre in Otonabee College. Upon hearing this, you might think that its namesake, Charlie Wenjack, was some philanthropist, or at least a corporate executive desperate for some gloss of academic legitimacy.
But he wasn’t. Charlie Wenjack was a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died after trying to run away from a residential school. His body was found a week after he went missing, lying next to a railroad track.
In contrast, I never even learned what a residential school was until I started studying at Trent. For those who don’t feel like clicking on that Wikipedia link, here’s a basic summary courtesy of that page’s opening paragraphs:
The Indian Residential Schools were a network of “residential” (boarding) schools for Native Canadians (First Nations or “Indians”; Métis and Inuit)….The policy was to remove children from the influence of their families and culture, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system’s existence, about 30% of native children, or roughly 150,000, were placed in residential schools nationally.
There has long been significant historiographical and popular controversy about the conditions experienced by students in the residential schools. While day schools for First Nations, Metis and Inuit children always far outnumbered residential schools, a new consensus emerged in the early 21st century that the latter schools did significant harm to Aboriginal children who attended them by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, through sterilization, and by exposing many of them to physical leading to sexual abuse by staff members, and other students, and enfranchising them forcibly.
I’m still not sure what to make of Trent’s decision to name a lecture hall after him. In one way, it makes sure that we never forget Charlie Wenjack or others like him, who were chewed up and spat out by the residential school system. But also: isn’t naming an academic lecture hall after him kind of a slap in the face, considering that he died because our education system was operating under some pretty horrible assumptions? Also consider that I never learned about the residential school system at all until I was nearly 20. Why was such an important, destructive legacy of the country I live in swept under a rug for so long?
There’s a huge gap between Charlie Wenjack’s life and mine. It’s not even a gap: it’s a hungry maw full of shame, cultural denial, abductions, generational abuse, and broken lives that, for too long, have been denied the respect they deserve.
Is there any possible way to bridge this chasm? I don’t know, but I hope so. And I think that books like The Outside Circle are a crucial plank of that bridge.
Written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, the director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), The Outside Circle is a graphic novel about Pete, a drug-dealing gang member who goes to prison for murdering his mother’s junkie boyfriend. Although his time in prison is rough, with the help of a long-term rehabilitation program that reconnects him to his First Nations heritage, Pete overcomes a history filled with crime, drug abuse, and intergenerational poverty to forge a new identity for himself.
Pete’s time within the rehabilitation program to find his inner warrior is spent smudging, talking with elders, taking part in sweat lodge ceremonies, spending time in the wilderness on a vision quest, and discovering new branches of his family tree. On top of this, his mother Bernice dies while he’s in treatment, and he worries that his younger brother, Joel, will go down the same crime-filled path if he doesn’t intervene. LaBoucane-Benson’s professional experience has definitely informed Pete’s story — although it’s fictional, it sounds like it’s a composite of the experiences of many young men in similar situations.
This composite method allows LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings, the artist, to paint in both fine detail and wide brush strokes. Pete’s story arc as he moves from rage to acceptance and strength is a bit too straight, and his final confrontation where he rejects his former gang is a bit too easily resolved. However, the scenes where Ray, the uncle that Pete found out about only after his mother’s death, details his family’s heritage, are powerful.
LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings also interweave Pete’s narrative with straight-up info-dumps about the history of the First Nations experience in Canada. For example, the legal form that Bernice signs to waive her parental rights over Joel transforms from just another legal document into a page-long summary of the history of the residential school system and how it reinforced the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
My favourite example of this technique of weaving the historical and the personal is when Violet, an elder at the rehab centre, draws a two-page spread of her own family tree with detailed iconography describing instances of sexual abuse, alcoholism, and early death. Violet’s family tree is a beautiful, yet potent, summing up of how these negative experiences compound over time.
That being said, this graphic novel is better understood as a tool for education rather than one for pure entertainment. Pete’s story, while compelling from a sociological standpoint, doesn’t deviate much from the typical redemption narrative. As well, many of the scenes where Violet talks about the violence and theft that Western culture inflicted upon the First Nations reads like Indigenous History 101.
This may sound like a condemnation, but I think otherwise. The topic of The Outside Circle is important! What’s more, the University of Winnipeg has just announced that it will require all undergraduate students to take at least one course about Indigenous people. This is tremendous news, and I hope that other universities, especially Trent University, follow its example.
I hope that this course requirement will help this graphic novel find a wider audience, because if there’s one book that should be required reading for such a course, The Outside Circle is it.