Maria Campbell met an eager audience in Toronto, the evening of Nov. 18. Campbell is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, department of English. Best known for her autobiography Halfbreed, which she wrote in 1973, she is a respected Metis author. Campbell was guest speaker at the University of Toronto's Distinguished Speaker Series, hosted by the Aboriginal Studies Department.
She read stories from her book, Stories of the Road Allowance People, answered questions from the audience, and later signed copies of her books.
Professor Simon Ortiz introduced Campbell as a "sister and Elder."
She is also an activist, storyteller, poet, novelist, lecturer, teacher, community worker, facilitator, mother and grandmother.
For this occasion, Campbell appeared as a teacher and storyteller. The importance of education and the importance of the story-telling tradition were among her themes. But she started her talk with a story about the Metis people as overcomers.
Campbell began by asking the audience: "You must be thinking: Who are the Road Allowance People?" To answer the question, she gave short geography and history lessons. A road allowance is Crown land. Until a highway is built, this land was open to squatters. The Metis, the only Aboriginal group in Canada with no homeland, came to occupy road allowances.
Campbell drew a map of Saskatchewan, to show where in that province the Road Allowance People lived. She related the history of the Metis after the battle of Batoche, when they fled to northern Saskatchewan and Alberta and as far south in the United States as Louisiana. Always on the move, often burned out of their homes, evicted from land, pushed out by settlers, moved by governments, and finally losing their children to adoption in the 1950s and 1960s. Of the 15 families in Campbell's village, only two had kept their children. She recounted the humiliation and shame that led to alcoholism and drug addiction in the communities, and the decades of struggles to restore families, culture and language. The Metis Nation of Canada, Campbell said, was founded in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In the 1970s, Campbell became active in politics then started to work with women, and to bring Elders together with women, she told the audience. Her early teachers were Elders, who told her "Education is our buffalo."
Campbell, who has won many awards for her writing and her work in film and theatre, said her main career is community worker and facilitator. She works with teens from foster homes and institutions. She feels that the most important thing in this work is to love them and honor their experiences and their stories. The youth are kind and generous with each other, and their stories are about survival, she said.
Campbell said that storytelling is regaining its importance and that oral stories are a way to tie the generations together. The oral tradition of storytelling remains most important to her and she is now teaching one of her grand-daughters. She said that an oral story loses many qualities when it is put on paper, and when stories are written down, the person who is a storyteller does not have the same role in society as before.
She was asked why she published then, seeing that she has such strong feelings about how oral stories change when they are published.
Her answer included the fact that the Metis have been invisible, that the culture has been maligned and derided, so it was a sense of responsibility that led her to publish the Stories of the Road Allowance People. So people will know who they are.
"Stories," she said, "are the Metis homeland. We can hear the voices of the old people in the stories." She remembered that when her people were having a hard time they would play the fiddle and tell stories. "A story is good medicine."