The Story of Red Wolf

The Story of Red Wolf

Posted on February 20 by Jennifer Dance
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My husband and I migrated to Canada in 1979. We were a young bi-racial couple, searching for a place where our children could achieve their full potential regardless of skin colour. But my husband died shortly after arriving in Canada, and suddenly I was alone in a new country with two pre-schoolers and a third child on the way. It was then that I learned about the Indian Residential School System, and the Indian Act that enabled it.

I was struggling to carry on despite my own devastating loss, clinging to my children as a life-support system, so it was not surprising that I related to other mothers whose children were taken from them and placed in residential schools. There was no recourse under the law, because residential schools were the law! The fact that Aboriginal mothers had endured this for four generations broke my already shattered heart.

By the time my own children were in school, I realized that this period of Canadian history was not taught in the curriculum, and that many adult Canadians were only dimly aware of the residential schools that were still in operation. In an attempt to help in some small way, I started writing Red Wolf.  I had lots of ideas, but felt I lacked the authority. Besides, I was one of the bad guys! It wasn't until my daughter married a Status Indian that I found the encouragement and support to get back to the story.

I wanted to write for Canada’s non-native population; children with little or no understanding of the pain that Aboriginal people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the government, the RCMP, the churches and the population at large. But finding the right target audience was tricky. To begin with, I wrote for younger children, believing that they would easily see themselves in Red Wolf’s predicament, their unhardened hearts open to his plight. In an attempt to engage these youngsters, my original draft was the story of a boy and a wolf in which the animals communicated like humans. They even sang songs ...  because my background was musical drama!  But I was unable to expose the hard truths to this age group, so I discarded the talking animals and took a different approach for older children.  

Knowing how unenthusiastic many boys are about reading, I worked hard to engage them, trying to reveal the history in a spirit of adventure, focusing on the similarities between the experiences of boy and wolf. I wanted the reader to feel Red Wolf’s fear and loneliness as he was taken from his family, to sense his panic at the prospect of punishment, to struggle alongside him as he learned a confusing new language, and to be saddened as he succumbed to the wrenching loss of identity. I also wanted to hint at the secret things that went on behind locked doors and barred windows, and I wanted the reader to feel outrage.

Despite all of these thorny issues, writing the book was the easy part! Getting it published took far longer and required a much thicker skin. Year after year, my manuscript was rejected. But I kept trying. Awareness of residential schools was gradually spreading across the country and Aboriginal writers were finding their own voices. This was truly wonderful, but it worked against me. I was told that I was not Native, the implication being that this wasn’t my story to tell.  But Red Wolf finally came to the attention of a keen-eyed editor at Dundurn who saw merit in my work. And now the endorsement from Joseph Boyden! I’m so thrilled that he is “deeply impressed” with my work! 

I believe that as Canadians, our most urgent social issue is the massive chasm that still exists between Native and non-native people. Teaching our children the history in such a way that they can feel the injustice in their own hearts, can do no harm in bridging the rift. This was, and continues to be, my ultimate goal.

 

"With Red Wolf, Jennifer Dance has come howling out of the wilderness . . . and I'm deeply impressed." -Joseph Boyden

Book Trailer for Red Wolf

Jennifer Dance

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
Jennifer Dance photo

Jennifer Dance

Jennifer Dance was born in England and holds a B.Sc. in Agriculture and Animal Science from the University of the West Indies. She migrated to Canada in 1979. With family in the Native community, Jennifer has a passion for equality and justice for all people. Her first novel, Red Wolf, was endorsed by Giller Prize–winning author Joseph Boyden. An avid environmentalist, Jennifer lives on a small farm in Stouffville, Ontario.