‘This Place: 150 Years Retold’ is a graphic novel that tells the complex and, at times, tenuous story of Canada’s history through the eyes of Indigenous peoples. Published by Highwater Press—an imprint of Portage and Main Press that focuses on sharing stories from Indigenous authors— the book has received critical acclaim and won several awards.
Recently, the novel was named recipient of the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher; and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for 2019, which came with a cash prize. The authors decided the best use for the money would be to put it back into the community.
“We’re a publisher and a group of artists that are committed to supporting young people and reading,” states Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, one of the authors featured in the book. “We wanted to support Indigenous youth, so we took the entirety of the prize money and donated copies of the book to people in the community.”
The Winnipeg Boldness Project was one of the community groups that received copies of the book, which were then passed along to members of the Project’s Parent Guide Group to share with their families and children. Sinclair explains that books were also donated to folks currently serving time in prison through the Manitoba Library Association, as well as other communities that some of the authors work with.
“I know that Boldness works with young people,” responds Sinclair, when asked why he chose Winnipeg Boldness as a group to receive the books. “I couldn’t really think of a better organization that works with frontline youth who deserve… vibrant reading materials… and there’s frankly nothing more vibrant than a graphic novel.”
The novel features 10 different authors telling both fictional and non-fiction stories of Indigenous peoples throughout history and beyond. From Confederation in 1867 to 2017, each author was assigned a 15-year period of Canada’s history to cover and then worked with an illustrator to collaboratively develop a compelling graphic story. This resulted in a collective of 20+ contributors to the book, most of whom are of Indigenous background.
Sinclair explains that each author took a different approach to their story, with some choosing to focus on one or several historical events, to others creating fictional timelines 150 years into the future. Sinclair’s contribution to the book covers the time period of 1990 to 2005, with a particular focus on the Mohawk Resistance – often referred to as the ‘Oka Crisis.’
His story features a character named Washashk, an apathetic teen who accompanies his mother on a road trip to Oka, Quebec to support the Mohawk people in their resistance against the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous land. The reader follows Washashk through his journey of learning about the unjust treatment of Indigenous peoples throughout history, and the importance of contributing to a collective goal of creating change for Indigenous rights in Canada.
“All of this maple-syrupy sweetness about Canada 150 was really lacking an Indigenous perspective, so we decided to provide that perspective,” states Sinclair. “In many ways, that character [Washashk] is built on my experiences living in Winnipeg in the 1990s… it’s a person who represents many parts of myself.”
Several of the characters in the book were inspired by some of the Indigenous women and activists in Sinclair’s life, who he credits with doing a lot of the heavy lifting with respect to political movements during that time period.
“Because of all of the activism in the 90s and before that, we have organizations—like Boldness—which are Indigenous-led,” reflects Sinclair. “In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, we didn’t really have a lot of Indigenous-led organizations, so what was happening was that you had people on the streets but not people in the institutions. So now… it’s indicative that when Indigenous peoples are in the institutions then the institutions have to change.”
When reading his books, Sinclair hopes that young Indigenous people are left with a feeling of hope regarding their culture, land, language, and communities, and that they recognize the impact that activism of the past has had on their future.
“I hope they see that during some of the darkest days in Canadian history Indigenous peoples were actively working for them,” states Sinclair. “They were fighting to ensure that they would have the identities that they have today.”