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Le générique du Bulletin
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July/August 2003
Vol. 35, no. 4
ISSN 1492-4676

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Where the Voice Is Coming From: The Origins of Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry in Canada

Don Carter, Research and Information Services

The April 2003 SAVOIR FAIRE seminar was presented by Armand Garnet Ruffo. He addressed an interested and attentive audience on the topic "Where the Voice Is Coming From: The Origins of Contemporary Aboriginal Poetry in Canada."

Professor Ruffo is the author of three plays: Portrait of the Artist As an Indian; A Windigo Tale, winner of a recent CBC Arts Performance Showcase competition; and Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney. He is presently working with Distinct Features on a film adaptation of A Windigo Tale, which is slated to go into production in the winter of 2004.

Armand Garnet Ruffo is also the author of two collections of poetry: Opening in the Sky and At Geronimo’s Grave. The second collection was the winner of a recent Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry. As well, he has written a creative biography: Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, from which his play is adapted. Strongly influenced by his Ojibway heritage, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Professor Ruffo currently teaches in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The speaker began his illustrated talk by referring to statements made by Harold Cardinal, well-known author of The Unjust Society, in reaction to federal government policies regarding Aboriginal people in Canada in the late 1960s.

He continued by describing the subsequent proliferation of Aboriginal newspapers and magazines in the 1960s and early 1970s in Canada and the groups that published them. He explained that these publications provided a national vehicle for expression and communication relating to common social and political life experiences, and acted as a catalyst for later writing. Professor Ruffo explained that, for Aboriginal people, English was the most common language of communication in these types of publications, serving as a link between diverse linguistic groups.

The speaker then considered some early representations of contemporary Aboriginal poetry, which had begun appearing in periodicals in the early 1970s. He focussed primarily on what the Aboriginal authors were saying about their position in Canada and about themselves.

Political and autobiographical issues dominated the writing, which was written for the Aboriginal community. Many of the writers were occasional poets, with little or no training, and the form of the poetry varied widely. Professor Ruffo showed slides of a number of poems and read several selections from them.

A number of examples of Aboriginal literature of the period were considered, including George Manuel’s The Fourth World: An Indian Reality and Waubageshig’s The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians. These and other similar texts provided a critical context for an analysis of the literature.

Following his presentation, Professor Ruffo made the following comments concerning Library and Archives Canada: "I used the library collection extensively to locate and retrieve the Aboriginal magazines and newspapers that I needed to consult for my study. As such, the library was invaluable in providing the material for my primary research. Without such a repository, writers and researchers simply could not carry out the research they do."

SAVOIR FAIRE presentations are held on the third Tuesday of each month at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.