Wild Authors: Jennifer Dance

By Mary Woodbury

For this post,  I travel to North America to look at historical and modern Canada, and the environmental, social, and economic cruelty and injustice befallen to its people and land. I talk with Jennifer Dance, author of Red Wolf, Paint, Hawk, and the play Dandelions in the Wind. We’ll concentrate mostly on Hawk here, though the three novels have been bundled together in the White Feather Collection. I stumbled across Jennifer’s novel Hawkrecently on a trip up to 100-Mile, British Columbia, as my husband and I had some time to kill on a snowy afternoon and, as is usually the case, ended up in a bookstore.

I found the book immediately gripping, and the subject matter right up my alley. Hawk, a First Nations teen from northern Alberta, is a cross-country runner who aims to win gold in an upcoming competition between all the schools in Fort McMurray. But when Hawk discovers he has leukemia, his identity as a star athlete is stripped away, along with his muscles and energy. When he finds an osprey, “a fish hawk,” mired in a pond of toxic residue from the oil sands industry, he sees his life-or-death struggle echoed in the young bird.

Slipping in and out of consciousness, Hawk has visions of the osprey and other animals that shared his childhood home: woodland caribou, wolves, and wood buffalo. They are all helpless and vulnerable, their forest and muskeg habitat vanishing. Hawk sees in these tragedies parallels with his own fragile life, and wants to forge a new identity – one that involves standing up for the voiceless creatures that share his world. But he needs to survive long enough to do it.

Here is my conversation with Jennifer.

Can you briefly describe your thoughts on each novel (Red Wolf, Paint, and Hawk)?

All three books use an animal to help shed light on a sensitive human problem. Although each is an independent story, when taken as a whole, they join the dots between the colonial policies of the past and the situation that Canada finds herself in today, regarding both the environment and racism against indigenous people. They open the door to reconciliation as well as to activism, and as such, they have a place in classrooms across Canada, from middle grade up. Having said that, these books are not just for children. They are equally suitable for adult readers. Red Wolf for example is the adventure story of an orphaned timber wolf and the First Nations boy who raises him, but on a deeper level it’s about colonialism, the Indian Act of 1876, and the residential school system that grew out of that legislation.  Paint, set in that same era, is the story of a mustang on the prairies at a time when settlers are moving West. Through the life experiences of the horse, we see that greed and racism virtually eliminated both the buffalo and the Plains Indians, and made irreversible changes to the grassland itself, ultimately leading to the Dust Bowl.

Hawk, rooted in that same colonial pastfast forwards to today, to the Alberta oil sands. The story compares the struggle for survival of both fish hawks and humans who live downstream of the industry. Racism rears its ugly head again. Sure, the Canadian economy is benefitting immensely from the oil sands industry, but what if the Athabasca River ran the other way? What if instead of flowing north to a few First Nations and Metis communities, it flowed south to Edmonton and Calgary. What if people there were getting sick? And what if the last hundred years had taught you that the government would do nothing to help you? The honest answer to that question brings us back around to Canada’s endemic racism toward indigenous people, racism that was seeded by colonialism and fed by residential schools.

What inspired you to write these novels?

All three books were inspired by the subject matter. Writing is my form of activism. I write, to tell people about the shameful things, past and present, that I see happening in Canada, things that my peers don’t know or understand. I write to inspire today’s youth to take a stand for justice or equality or the environment, or any other cause that’s important to them. Our youth are the leaders of tomorrow, they are the ones who will win justice and equality for indigenous people in this country. They are the ones who will clean up the environmental mess that my generation has caused, but only if they know about it and only if their hearts have been touched. I try to educate young and old about the issues without leaving the after-taste of a history lesson. I try to pull at their heart-strings, in a story that keeps them turning the page, and helps equips them to make the world a better place.

My passion for justice and equality goes back to when I was 17, to that pivotal moment in 1966 when I met the boy who I would later marry. He was black and I was white. To put that in the context of the times, it was still two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King. I was naïve and I really thought that we could make a difference, and show those around us that skin color didn’t matter! The reality was harder than I imagined. The day-to-day racism that we experienced as a couple culminated in an unprovoked attack by Skinheads. Keith was left with a fractured skull and broken ribs. It took a while, but he recovered and we came to Canada looking for a safer place to raise our mixed-race children. Shortly after we got here, Keith died – unexpectedly – a complication from the earlier head injury. I was 30. Our daughter was 3, our son not yet two and I was 5 months pregnant. It was hard. But I came through it with an even greater passion for fighting racism. I know for a fact that without Keith’s influence on my life, these stories would never have been written. So, looking back, I guess Keith was my inspiration.

You also wrote the play Dandelions in the Wind. Can you talk some about that?

Dandelions in the Wind is a musical drama, and it’s my life’s work. It contains much of my own experience as a young white woman married to a young black man during the sixties and seventies. But I set my personal story into the backdrop of the United States to raise awareness about the Civil Rights struggle and the countless young people who bravely confronted hatred with love.  Fifty years later, that struggle is far from over, making Dandelions in the Wind really timely.

With this musical, as with my books, I try to make a difficult subject suitable for both youth and adults. Spoken Word acts like a pair of bookends, sandwiching more traditional genres of music, and asking where are we are now, as individuals and as a people? Are we still in chains, still bound by racism, or are we free?

The show has been performed in both Canada and England. I dream that it will become part of Black History month for school audiences throughout North America. The biggest problem however is money. It takes a fortune to stage a fully professional show of this calibre.

Can you explain the title Dandelions in the Wind?

Imagine dandelion parachutes blowing in the wind. That imagery represents the diaspora of the African people, blown all over the world by slavery and racism. But more importantly, it represents a powerful, personal memory. The day of Keith’s funeral, I took my children to the park. Our three-year-old daughter picked dandelions that had gone to seed, gathering them in a bunch to give to her daddy. The funeral had taught her that flowers mean “I love you,” but she was perplexed as to how to give them to her father. I blew some of the parachutes heavenwards. She watched them float back to earth, her bottom lip trembling. And then she said, “If I think really hard, can I think the flowers to daddy?”

This spotlight focuses on Hawk, as we travel to the Albertan oil sands in Canada and see the effects of Big Oil on Aboriginal residents. What’s going on up there?

It’s hard to even verbalize without using curse words! It’s appalling. It’s devastating. It’s heart-breaking. I still cannot fathom it, and I’ve been there! I’ve driven through it, at least the parts that I was given access to. And I’ve flown over it, all of it! Flying is the best way to grasp the extent of the devastation. The boreal forest has been stripped bare from horizon to horizon, and replaced with a heart-wrenching mess. Or it has been carved up by seismic lines which don’t look as bad from the air but which fracture the habitat for wildlife and are equally devastating as clearcutting and surface mining. Even talking about it now, makes me upset again!

The problems are immense and I have only just touched the tip if the iceberg with my story, but I hope it raises awareness at least. I was stunned that the processing plants are right on the edge of the Athabasca River. It makes sense of course, because the industry uses hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand. In fact, more water is taken from the river each day than is used by the entire city of Toronto. As if that’s not bad enough, they then pump the dirty water along with the carcinogenic waste (called tailings) into enormous open ponds to evaporate down. These tailings ponds are lined with packed clay. Some are literally right on the edge of the river, so if they leak or seep, the carcinogenic petrochemicals end up in the river. And the river goes north.

First the water floods into the Peace-Athabasca Delta – a precious wetland named by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The world recognizes this delta as an environmentally significant area, yet hardly anyone in Canada knows about it, or realizes that it’s right downstream of the oil sands industry! And people don’t know that it’s on the migration route of literally millions of birds.

From the delta, the water trickles into Lake Athabasca and to the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan where Adam in my story grows up.  The residents of Fort Chip have lived a traditional life style for eons, eating fish, duck, geese, moose etc., everything coming directly or indirectly from the river. And for twenty years or more, people there have been getting sick. These days most of the people have a family member working in the oil sands industry. It’s the only way they can afford to eat imported “safe” food and water. I try to show all these issues in my story.

Then there’s the land reclamation. The lease agreements between the oil companies and the government guarantee that the mined land will be reclaimed once all the bitumen has been removed.  The industry proudly advertises their reclamation successes, directing you to visit an area where tress have been planted and buffalo have been reintroduced. Only three species of tress had been planted and the buffalo were nowhere in sight – they are kept in paddocks most of the time, so they don’t over graze the land. 

The reality is that the land is never going to be like it was before. Wetlands called muskeg, will be gone. Thousands of species of flora and fauna will be lost for ever. Woodland caribou are already probably past the point of salvation. And even after all this time, the industry still doesn’t have a good long-term plan for what to do with the sludge from the tailings ponds. Right now, they are mixing it with gypsum to solidify it into “rocks” which they put onto the mined land as the first stage of the reclamation process. They then cover it with sand and topsoil, and plant trees. But gypsum is the same stuff they use in plaster casts, and I know that it crumbles when it gets wet. (One of my kids was in a body cast when he was still in diapers!) So, won’t these “rocks” crumble in the damp soil and release the toxins into the ground water? And won’t it all end up in the river?

Going up there – meeting the people of Fort Chipewyan, hearing their stories, seeing it all for myself – was a challenging experience, but one that impacted me greatly. As a scientist, I had hoped to find a balance between opposing views of the industry, but I discovered families, just like Hawk’s, trapped between earning a living and losing their health and traditional lifestyle. If you visit my website, you’ll find a photo journal of my trip.

I agree about this completely heart-breaking subject matter. I’m curious, what inspired your character Adam?

I wanted Adam to be a regular kid, one that non-Native readers could relate to, but I also wanted to show the generational effect of residential schools on Adam’s family, and the positive impact of a loving grandfather.

In the first draft of Hawk, Adam was a girl. I figured that the protagonists in both Red Wolf and Paint were boys, so it was time for a change. But although I tried hard, I couldn’t create a believable girl! I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because I was never a girly girl myself. I was always out playing in the woods, riding ponies, and befriending hurt animals.  Back in my own parenting days, there was not much material for boys to read, and based on my own experience, boys don’t take to reading the way girls do, so, I worked hard at keeping boys engaged in the story.

In developing Adam’s character, I tried to verbalize his emotions as he faces leukemia. Keith was an inspiration here. He was in a coma for the last month of his life.  Sitting at his bedside, I often wondered if he had already left his body and was flying free… getting a glimpse of heaven. That’s why I was able to write Adam’s out-of-body experiences as well as find suitable reactions and emotions for Adam’s friends and family as they sat and watched, helplessly.

Thanks so much, Jennifer. I can’t even begin to express my sympathy for your losses. Your activism through art is an amazing accomplishment.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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