CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 38. . . . June 1, 2018
Mistasinîy, meaning old/big rock in Cree, metaphorically represents the dual fissures explored in this work: one between the two main characters and the other between Canada’s historical amnesia and Indigenous remembering. Zach, a Cree student in a predominantly white Saskatchewan school, has a strained relationship with Danny, one of his former victims of his past stint as a bully. They haven’t been on speaking terms since the third grade. Back in the same class after several years from their fallout, their seventh-grade teacher tasks each student with a social studies project to excavate their Canadian origin story from their ancestors by asking them how they came to Canada. Worst yet, Zach and Danny are paired up to work on their projects together. Feeling marginalized by the project – Zach’s ancestors never came to Canada, they have always been here – Zach angrily marks his desk with flurries of black marker in an attempt to cross out the project from his mind and try to (re)write the lost history of his people. The remaining char from this fiery episode, however, begins the healing process of reconciliation.
The novel explores the meaning of histories lost to all Canadians and shows how getting to know your neighbour, even a former “enemy”, leads to new discoveries of both others and yourself. The old rock in the narrative grounds Zach and Danny’s eventual friendship and cleverly reveals how their seemingly disparate families are intimately connected. The mistasinîy remembers who they are.
As described in the epigraph, they occupy two different countries: Canada and a lost land that has been forgotten but not disappeared. This is chiefly and expertly explored by the novel’s use of three modes of storytelling: the ocularcentrism of writing, the dialogic form of Zach family’s storytelling, and the subtly evocative illustrations by Heaven Starr, a Dakota Cree woman from east central Saskatchewan, who pencils for Bishop. All three modes of signifying help the reader appreciate the ways that various communities remember and how some modes of remembering can usurp or erase others. It is only through the dialogic mode of expression that the boys reconcile with their histories, one another, and themselves. This process of truth and reconciliation begins with their educational system.
A big turning point in the story is the teacher realizing, through conversation with Danny, that his assignment excluded Zach. At first, the teacher pushes back, feeling defensive. Later the next day, he realizes that he was wrong and that he misused his authority, prompting him to invite Zach and his family to the school to apologize. The Canadian education system operated to dismantle the flesh, words, and stories of oppressed peoples—their teacher tries to reconcile with this marginalized existence. Mistasinîy deftly handles these post-colonial ideas with a refreshingly methodical and nuanced pace, especially for its given audience. Cleverly, Mistasinîy interweaves all of this around a poignant story about a newfound friendship that will reward the patient reader. This is a must-own for any school or public library in Canada. Find your favourite mistasinîy in your neighbourhood, sit down on it and give Mistasinîy a read to bring new meaning to that old rock.
Lonnie Freedman is the Teen Advocate at Vaughan Public Libraries in ON.