'Rich with perspective': Writing program mentors emerging Indigenous authors

EDMONTON — From dealing cards at a casino to working in oilfield camps in northern Alberta, addictions counsellor Justin Buffalo turns sorrow into stories permeated with comedy and urban legend.

Buffalo, 34, was raised by his grandmother on the Samson Cree First Nation south of Edmonton. He lived a quiet childhood in an isolated part of the reserve, he says, and spent most of his time reading books that two of his grandmothers gave him.

“I always read,” says Buffalo. “It’s free, it’s cheap, it doesn’t take batteries.”

Buffalois in the second year of Audible’s Indigenous Writers’ Circle, a six-month workshop and mentorship program for First Nations, Inuit and Métis writers in Canada. The audiobook subscription service company started theprogram to support emerging Indigenous writers and provides mentorship and learning opportunities to help participants tell their own stories.

There are 19 writers in this session. They are eligible for a $1,500 bursary to support their participation in the program. Audible does not publish their stories but helps writers refine and elevate their work.

One of Buffalo’s biggest inspirations is "Angela's Ashes," a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by Irish author Frank McCourt. Given to him by a teacher, Buffalo says he drew similarities between the book and his own experiences.

“I saw a lot of parallels of him growing up as a poor Irish boy and then moving to the big city,” said Buffalo. “This completely different identity, completely different perspective, was actually so in line with mine.”

While Buffalo grew up on Samson Cree First Nation, he has resided in Edmonton for many years. While working in a casino and in camp kitchens, he also wrote grassroots, environmental reports for the First Nation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Buffalo took to journaling and writing stories that reflect his own experiences. He also used the opportunity to go back to school to become an addictions counsellor.

His time in casinos and camps paved the path to addictions counselling. While Buffalo doesn’t write about his clients, he does use their experiences to inform the perspectives of his work.

“It does give me an alternate view on certain things.”

Indigenous author Clayton Thomas-Mullerhas been mentoring Buffalo over the past few months. Thomas-Muller is known for his memoir "Life in the City of Dirty Water," which is a national bestseller and is a CBC Canada Reads finalist.

He is a member of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation on Treaty 6 territory in northern Manitoba but was primarily raised in Winnipeg, where he currently resides.

“Justin is an incredibly deep and creative soul,” says Thomas-Muller.

“One of the true representations of moccasin on your left foot and Adidas on the right. Having lived between the rez and the big city, he is rich with the perspective this kind of dichotomy brings.”

Thomas-Muller says he chose Buffalo from the program's applicants "because his story and potential really resonated with me.”

He says he and the other mentors in the program shape it to match the needs and interests of the writers.

“This type of program didn’t really exist when I was starting out,” says Thomas-Muller. “I’m thankful the Writers’ Circle is a place where we can support those who are coming up now."

Buffalo is currently working on a pseudo-memoir titled "Eagle Whistles and Elders Echoes," about a man who doesn’t know he’s a bear and is trying to get home for his brother’s wake. Buffalo says that the book is dark, but offers a balance of lightness through humour.

“It’s about dealing with loss and the unique trials of just trying to make it through the day,” says Buffalo. “I wanted to write something that has a modern myth vibe to it.”

Buffalo says that the use of the bear is mainly for comedic effect and that he took inspiration from the Duck Man in the "Discworld" series by English author Terry Pratchett.

“I use it as an excuse to derail the conversation and change the tempo."

Buffalo says he values learning how to refine his writing and more about the industry through the program, which “really earns the ‘Indigenous’ in the Indigenous Writers’ Circle.”

“I’m really proud of what I’m doing right now,” says Buffalo, "regardless of which direction it goes.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Angela Amato, The Canadian Press