Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2022

The Strangers, by Katherena Vermette

The Strangers is a very interesting novel which took me on a learning journey about the Métis people of Canada.

Amongst other things, I learned that I should not have included The Strangers in my post announcing First Nations Reading Week, and I should not have described the Canadian author Katherena Vermette (b.1977) as a ‘Red River Métis (Michif) Canadian First Nations author’ … because the Métis people are not among the First Nations of the North American continent.*

The Métis refers to a group of Indigenous peoples who inhabit Canada’s three Prairie Provinces, as well as parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Northern United States.

They have a shared history and culture and are of mixed Indigenous and European (primarily French) ancestry which became a distinct group through ethnogenesis by the mid-18th century, during the fur trade era.

In Canada, the Métis, with a population of 587,545 as of 2016, are one of three major groups of Indigenous peoples that were legally recognized in the Constitution Act of 1982, the other two groups being the First Nations and the Inuit.  (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes, viewed 17/6/22)

Vermette, as she describes herself on her website, is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer from Treaty 1 territory, the heart of the Métis Nation.

(So I have some editing to do on that post, which I will attend to ASAP. Update, later the same day: Done.)

According to Vermette’s page at Wikipedia, she was born to a Métis father and a Mennonite mother, and she grew up in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba, an area populated by about 25% First Nations and Métis people, and also an area which attracts negative outsider attention because of the reported crime rate.  Her writing is motivated by activism, and by her experience with working with ‘at risk’ marginalised young people.

So, how does this impact on the story she tells in The Strangers?

The title, for a start, has multiple meanings.  ‘Stranger’ is apparently a common name amongst Métis, making me speculate about how that came to be over time.  Because the novel is about family members who are estranged from each other, from mainstream society and from the culture that could sustain them.

The novel begins with the first of four narrators, the teenage Phoenix, whose first person narrative from a youth detention centre is marked by so much foul language that I was curious enough to actually count the 130 instances of one particular word over 22 pages.  What is interesting about this is that most of this narrative is internal.  She rarely speaks, so this is not offensive language used to provoke others or to belong in a peer group. Her sister Cedar, brought up in foster homes since the death of their little sister Sparrow does not speak like this.  Nor does anyone else in her family. It is the experience of youth detention that has caused this confronting language, which she has internalised.  It has become her default, which will have social consequences.  Some people will find it alienating and will make judgements about her because of it.  And because it is internalised, it is a habit that will be hard to break if she wants to change it.

What does stand her in good stead is her habit of thinking, but not articulating her contempt for others who make contemptible assumptions about her.  This first chapter is about the birth of her child, who is immediately adopted out. Later in the novel, when Phoenix meets the adoptive grandmother of this child, she is able to control what she says so that she doesn’t inflame the woman’s prejudice.  The reader notes that this character’s name is an allusion to the mythical Phoenix, and feels a flicker of hope…

The other narrative which challenges the reader is Margaret’s. Her life experience has been so debilitating that she has cast herself as a martyr, and her laments often cross over into tiresome whining,  She does have good reason to complain because her family is mired in grief and estrangement with little hope of reconciliation, but like Phoenix she internalises her anger.  She was on the way to being the first in her family to go to university and become a lawyer, but she was betrayed by the boyfriend who found her attractive enough to bed, but not acceptable to marry because she was Métis.  None of her three children Elsie, Alex and Joey have made successful happy lives, and she is burdened by the care of her mother Angélique because no one else will do it.

She is the grandmother of Elsie’s children Phoenix, Cedar and Sparrow, and reluctant rescuer of vulnerable people in her family.  Many of them (mostly men) have died prematurely or spent time in gaol, and she has been the one to pick up the pieces.  Too proud to ask for help, she channels her hostility and resentment into endless drudgery and is exhausted by the demands made of her.  She had brought up her drug-addicted daughter’s children until the crisis that brought them into the welfare services’ orbit, and she has never forgiven those who didn’t step in then, when she wasn’t able to.

Elsie’s narrative is a roller-coaster of good intentions and failure to escape drug-dependency.  Vermette depicts the struggle to get clean with sensitivity, portraying with authenticity what we all know: addicts struggle to make headway when their social contacts are users and dealers, and the support services that could help to break the cycle are wholly inadequate.  Margaret loses patience with Elsie and says some very cruel things to her.  Elsie’s daughters by three different fathers love her (and each other) but have learned the hard way not to have any expectations..

Cedar is the lone voice with potential for a different future.  She has been in and out of foster care, but in her teenage years she was sent to live with the father she has never known.  She didn’t even know his name.  Her life experience has taught her discretion, patience, and forbearance, which stand her in good stead with her stepmother Nikki and stepsister Faith.  She has also learned that education is the key to her independence, and that conversely, having an independent means of funding that education is crucial to getting it.  This character looks like she might be a success story on her own terms, but the trajectory of the other characters’ lives (especially Margaret’s) shows just how precarious her position really is. Her position makes an interesting contrast with Faith’s, because Faith strikes out on her own to reclaim her Métis identity.

Which brings an interesting point into focus.  When we think about the need to redress disadvantage among First Nations and Indigenous peoples, Vermette seems to be saying that while academic success is one pathway to a life less compromised, the academic pathway is not the only route.  Taking pride in Métis identity and belonging is important too.

Katherena Vermette is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer from Treaty 1 territory, the heart of the Métis Nation.  You can find out more about her at her website.

*In Australia, (for the purposes of establishing eligibility for services and benefits), Aboriginal or Torres Strait identity is defined by three essential elements: descent, self-identification and community recognition.  While both the inclusive terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘First Nations’ can be used, the use of ‘First Nations’ throughout the Uluru Statement from the Heart suggests that First Nations is now the preferred terminology and it applies to everyone who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait .

Author: Katherena Vermette
Title: The Strangers
Cover design by Jennifer Griffiths, cover art by KC Adams
Publisher, UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2022, first published in Canada in 2021
ISBN: 9780702265761, pbk., 9780702265761
Review copy courtesy of UQP


Responses

  1. You do present books of interesting peoples. I am not familiar with this group at all. This particular books does sound quite depressing but then most of the really interesting books in the world are depressing. They are the ones that stick in your mind for a long time.

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    • I was completely ignorant about the Métis, which just shows you the value of a book like this!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love it when reading can widen your horizons like this – I’d not even heard of the Metis before.

    Like

  3. I have been wracking my brain about Métis people because I came across them recently having never heard of them before, but I can’t remember who or where it was. An actor maybe with Métis background. Wish I could remember. This book would interest me.

    Like

  4. There is a publisher that is dedicated toward Metis literature:

    http://www.pemmicanpublications.ca/

    Like


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