BRISSENDEN, Constance




Author Tags: Kidlit & Young Adult, Non-Fiction

Born January 13, 1947 in Kingston, Ontario, Brissenden is a freelance writer and editor and teacher. She formed the Living Traditions Writer’s Group, with Larry Loyie, to encourage First Nations people to write about their traditions and experiences. She is the author of numerous history and travel books and has co-authored As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood Books, 2002) with Larry Loyie, illustrated by First Nations artist Heather Holmlund. Their collaboration earned the $10,000 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction. It recounts Loyie’s family life and adventures as a Cree in Slave Lake, Alberta before he was deported to a residential school. See Larry Loyie entry. Brissenden also contributed the text for “The Greater Vancouver Hall of Fame” for The Greater Vancouver Book (Linkman Press, 1997) edited by Chuck Davis. In 2007 she moved to High Prairie, Alberta, with Larry Loyie to build a log house.

BOOKS:

Info To Go For Women on the Go (YWCA, 1992)
Triple O, The White Spot Story (Vancouver: Opus Productions, 1993)
Whistler and the Sea to Sky Country (Altitude Super Guides, 1995)
Over Vancouver (Whitecap Books, 1999). With photos by Russ Heinl.
As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood, 2002). With Larry Loyie.
The Gathering Tree (Theytus, 2005). With Larry Loyie.
Portrait of Vancouver (Heritage House, 2008)
The Moon Speaks Cree: A Winter Adventure (Theytus 2014) with Larry Loyie. $14.95 978-1-926886-18-3

[BCBW 2008]

As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood $18.95)
Article



To salve his conscience, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated $50,000 to Vancouver in 1901 to build a library. The Carnegie-built library at Main and Hastings slowly lost its lustre as the city’s elite moved westward. The building languished as a museum until 1967. Seven years of lobbying by Bruce Eriksen, Libby Davies, Jean Swanson and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) slowly convinced the city council to transform the building into the Carnegie Centre—a community centre for Strathcona residents such as Larry Loyie.

In the late 1980s, Larry Loyie went to the Carnegie Centre to upgrade his writing skills, and to learn typing. One of his instructors, Constance Brissenden, quickly realized she was learning as much from him as he was learning from her. A partnership emerged—and paid dividends. In September, Brissenden and Loyie won the $10,000 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction.

His poignant memoir As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood $18.95) recalls Loyie’s last summer of freedom before he was forced to attend residential school.

Born in Slave Lake, Alberta, Larry Loyie led a traditional Cree life until he was placed in St. Bernard’s Mission school in Grouard, Alberta, at age ten. He was forbidden to speak Cree and his family life ended. “Mostly what I learned there was how to pray and how to work and how to sing Latin at Mass. We got to go home once every school year, though many children stayed the whole year. It was basically worse than jail.”

Cree artist George Littlechild suggested Loyie write for children. “I told George about the truck that picked us up and took us away,” Loyie says. “The sides were so high, we could only see the sky.”

Until he was confined at St. Bernard’s, Larry Loyie didn’t know about sin and heaven and hell. “Everything that was natural to a small child was a sin and we got punished for it. I was always getting beatings from the nuns. We were punished for the fact that hundreds of years earlier Jesuits had been killed by Native people.

“I ran away twice and both times I was caught and severely beaten. After that I started reading everything I could get hold of. There were classics like Huckleberry Finn but there was exactly nothing about Native people.”
At 14, Loyie left school to work on farms and in logging camps. At 18, he joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, stationed in Calgary, where he first met writer/publisher Chuck Davis. After living in Europe he returned to work in northern British Columbia and Alberta. For more than 25 years, he worked in fishing, logging and Native counselling. The longing for the traditional First Nations way of life stayed with him.

Loyie wanted to be a writer but his education was lacking. In 1987, he decided to upgrade his education and writing skills. He took English grammar at Vancouver Community College and he taught himself to type at the Carnegie Centre. There he was inspired by his first creative writing instructor Mary Frances Smith. The results were almost immediate.

In 1991, Loyie travelled around British Columbia to interview Native teachers for two radio documentaries. After travelling throughout Canada to gather submissions for a 1,000-page manuscript, he co-edited a 1992 anthology for novice writers called The Wind Cannot Read. His published residential school drama Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us) has been staged in prisons and at festivals; his second play Fifty Years Credit, based on the media’s view of First Nations people, was first performed at the Carnegie Centre; his third play No Way to Say Goodbye was commissioned for an Aboriginal AIDS Conference in northern Alberta.

With Brissenden as collaborator, Loyie also contributed the entry on First Nations for The Greater Vancouver Book. Shortly after becoming a couple, Loyie and Brissenden launched Living Traditions Writers Group to encourage writing in First Nations communities. They have since taught creative writing classes in every province from B.C. to Ontario. In recognition of his work as an educator, facilitator and writer, Loyie received the Canada Post Literacy Award for Individual Achievement (British Columbia) in 2001.

To promote As Long as the Rivers Flow, Brissenden and Loyie have done 90 readings. Loyie talks about his life and culture while Brissenden acts as MC and reads the text. Children are fascinated by the story of Larry’s tiny grandmother, Bella Twin, who shot the biggest grizzly bear in North America. Many listeners are moved to tears.

First Nations communities are using the book in classrooms, at conferences, and for healing purposes. “What’s happening with As Long as the Rivers Flow is just phenomenal,” says Brissenden. “The book opens so many doors for dialogue and understanding.”

In mid-September, the Cree writer was singled out for an honour dance at the Niagara Native Friendship Centre in St. Catherine’s. More than 200 people lined up to shake hands with the writers, then gathered behind them as they danced slowly around the arbour while drummers sang a special song. “Being recognized by my own people this way,” says Loyie, “was the greatest honour I could have.”

Illustrated by Ontario watercolour artist Heather D. Holmlund, As Long as the Rivers Flow reflects Loyie’s perspective at age ten as he cares for an abandoned owl, watches his grandmother make moccasins, helps the family prepare for a hunting trip and receives a new name, Oskiniko—meaning Young Man—a name he still uses. 0-88899-473-7

[BCBW Winter 2003]