Born in British Columbia to French-Canadian and America parents, Deni Y. Béchard was living in Montreal when he published his first novel, Vandal Love (Doubleday, 2006), about a French-Canadian family that is divided by a genetic curse that makes the Hervé children either runts or giants. Largely set in B.C. and on Granville Island in particular, his follow-up Cures for Hunger (Goose Lane, 2012) was also published by Milkwood in the U.S.

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Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation by Deni Ellis Bchard and Natasha Kanap Fontaine, translated by Deni Ellis Bchard and Howard Scott (Talonbooks $19.95)

Review by Dylan Burrows

Not all books are intentional. Some arise accidentally, or tragically. In 2015, an 11-year old Ojibwe girl named Makayla Sault died of leukemia after her parents had refused chemotherapy on her behalf.

Contrary to her physician?s wishes, Makayla?s parents had sought traditional medical treatments and homeopathy.

A Qubcois journalist named Denise Bombardier subsequently ridiculed Indigenous culture in a blog as ?deadly? and ?unscientific.?

At a literary event, Innu poet Natasha Kanap Fontaine tried to read a letter to Bombardier that expressed the hurt her words had wrought.
Bombardier cut Fontaine off, and read aloud her own definition of ?Amerindian??the French for ?Indian??from her most recent novel.
After witnessing Bombardier?s condescension, Vancouver-born Deni Ellis Bchard approached Fontaine and commiserated. Their subsequent friendship and 26 letters have resulted in Kuei, My Friend: A Conversation on Race and Reconciliation.

As Bchard reveals, his grandmother had once told him his ancestors ?walked like Indians.? Rather than assume this could be evidence of having ?Indian blood,? Fontaine sees it as a reflection of how Bchard?s family adapted to the customs of Indigenous lands.

?One day, perhaps,? she writes, ?Qubcois will understand what it means to ?walk like an Indian.? Walk in their shoes. I believe that the day will come soon where ?Indians? invite the ?Whites? to make a journey with them. And the latter will perhaps notice that it is comfortable to walk in shoes that don?t imprison feet. Shoes that are adapted to the territory, shaped by it. And that bring them freedom.?

In Kuei, My Friend, Bchard reckons with his father?s bigotry. Virulently anti-Indigenous, the elder Bchard also bore a deep self-loathing nurtured by English-Canadian stereotypes of Qubcois inferiority.

Fontaine, in turn, writes honestly about Innus? struggle to heal from the ?wound of Colonization.? The ?vile, genocidal, alienating intention? behind Canada?s reservations and Indian residential school system, she writes, lingers like a poison in Indigenous minds and bodies.

Some things do get lost in translation. As one of two translators, Bchard renders ?allochtones??French for ?non-natives? or ?settlers??as ?Whites,? a decision he justifies at length. This unfortunately frames reconciliation as a responsibility exclusive to Indigenous peoples and settlers of European-descent.

Towards the end of their correspondence, Fontaine poses to Bchard an incisive question. ?What is your relationship with the idea of Indigeneity,? she asks, ?now that I have revealed so many secrets to you??
Bchard?s answer is anticlimactic: Indigeneity is tied to an ?openness? to other intellectual and cultural traditions outside his own.

Kuei, My Friend also includes a chronology of events that led to the establishment of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; an English to Innu-aimun lexicon, and questions and exercises for educators to use in the classroom.
Ultimately Kuei, My Friend pursues honest, open-ended dialogue over political expediency. Through their letters, Bchard and Fontaine chart future possibilities for reconciliation. Their letters shake up the stultified debate spurred by the 2015 publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada?s final report.

Although political leaders quickly recognized the TRC?s damning conclusions, few have paid more than lip service to implementing its 94 calls to action.

9781772011951

Dylan Burrows is an Anishinaabe Ph.D. candidate at UBC?s History Department. Raised in central Ontario?s Kawartha Lakes region, his doctoral research focuses on the nature and meaning of Inuit labour under the aegis of Danish, British, and Canadian Arctic exploration and sovereignty exercises between 1849 and 1948.

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BOOKS:

Empty Hands, Open Arms (Milkweed 2013) $29.95 978-1-57131-340-9

[BCBW 2013] "Fiction"