An ArmchairMayor editorial by Mel Rothenburger.
RICHARD WAGAMESE died way too soon. That’s something we often say about people, but in his case it’s more than the fact that he was only 61. It’s that he had not yet reached anywhere near his potential as a writer and as a spokesperson on social and First Nations issues.
Reaction today (Saturday, March 11, 2017) to his death on Friday understandably includes many tributes, because he had a large following. Some say he changed their lives. Radio host Shelagh Rogers tweeted today, “Hearbroken over the death of my friend and chosen brother Richard Wagamese. He was story. He was love. RP dear one.”
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegard tweeted that Wagamese “profoundly told the stories of our peoples.”
Wagamese spent his life working hard at change. He was an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoon First Nation in northwestern Ontario, but he lived in the Kamloops area for many years and people here considered him a “local.”
His early life was tormented. Removed from his family, he was put in foster care and by his teens he was into drugs and alcohol.
In his mid-20s, he got into journalism on radio and television, later winning a National Newspaper Award for column writing. His first novel, Keeper ‘n’ Me was published in 1994, winning the Alberta Writers Guild’s Best Novel Award.
As he matured into his writing, he became a consistent, reliable author. He wrote largely about the First Nations experience, and there was always an element of himself in his writing. He wrote 15 books — fiction and poetry. And he won awards. The Native American Press Association Award, the National Aboriginal Communications Society Award. His novel Indian Horse was in the running in the Canada Reads showdown, and he was a Harvey Stevenson Southam Guest Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Victoria. The George Ryga Award. And many others. In 2010, Thompson Rivers University honoured him with an Honoroury Doctorate. He was recently nominated for a B.C. Booksellers award for Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations.
Medicine Walk, which came out in 2014, won him, among others things, the Mayor’s Gala Award right here in what had become his adopted home town. I sat on the panel that selected him, and it was a unanimous decision.
By then, Wagamese’ demons had returned to haunt him, big time. He went on a drunken driving rampage, crashing his truck on the frontage road in Valleyview. Three days later, he was driving drunk again. Nine days after that, it happened again, this time in Calgary. And it wasn’t the first time he’d gone on such binges.
He blamed it all on post-traumatic stress syndrome, saying he was in a dissociative state when these bad things happened.
A couple of days before his schedule court appearance, he wrote a letter of apology and sent it to local media, acknowledging that he’d put lives in danger with his behavior but saying he had been seeking help for his issues. He accepted his guilt, he said.
“I have continued to be an advocate for poverty and homelessness on Kamloops panels and committees and started the new Kamloops Poetry Slam for emerging poets and spoken word artists,” he wrote in trying to balance his bad behavior with the good things he was doing.
“I have offered my time, experience and expertise voluntarily to put good energy back into the community. It is my wish in the future to continue to offer volunteer energy as an ongoing apology for this circumstance.”
Then he went to court and pleaded guilty to three drunk driving charges and two of failing to appear. The Crown asked that he be jailed for 11 months. He was given an 18-month conditional sentence with house arrest. His driver’s licence was suspended for 10 years.
After that, he kept his word and worked hard to regain the trust of the community, speaking to groups about substance abuse and homelessless, and his own conviction that while he had never attended residential school, trans-generational trauma contributed to his issues.
He also conducted many writing workshops and spoke at conferences of all kinds about story telling, spending a lot of time going from one town to another. He returned to journalism, writing a column for The Kamloops Daily News and a number of other papers, and hosting a show on CFJC-TV called One Native Life.
In one Daily News column, he wrote, “We know that every action we take affects something or someone else.”
In another, writing about the Ajax mine proposal, he commented, “Harmony means all things ringing true together.” The mine, he said, represents “a disregard for the sanctity of the one planetary home we have. It’s disregarding the sanctity of ourselves – the total absence of harmony.”
All the time, he was still fighting his past, searching for his own harmony. “I needed to always be managing my disorder and my grip on reality,” he told a Daily News reporter in an interview.
Wagamese’ celebrity continued growing, though he was still a developing writer — not yet up to the standard of, say, a Joseph Boyden or a Wayne Johnston.
But a comment by one of those Mayor’s Gala judging panelists in 2014 said much. Wagamese, said the panelist as we were discussing the entries, was an author who was on the cusp of joining the ranks not only of the best of Canadian writers, but would soon be recognized on the international stage as well.
We don’t yet know how he died, but his life has been cut short before he was able to ascend to that next level.