Red Wolf opens in the year 1885, in the Algonquian wilderness of Ontario, Canada. A young wolf pup, Crooked Ear with his father Tall-Legs and his mother Tika and his wolf-siblings encounter Uprights who smell different from the people who live in the forest. The Uprights, who are lumberjacks, kill Crooked Ear's family. He manages to escape into the forest where he spends several months starving as he forages for food. By summer Crooked Ear arrives at the camp of The People who smell like they belong in the forest but who smell different from the lumberjacks.
However, The People are too distracted to notice the howl of the orphaned little wolf pup. Instead they are worried about "the pale-faced people moving up from the south, cutting down the great white pines." With the forests gone, the birds, deer and elk begin to vanish and their way of life too. Despite their discussions around the fireside, their drumming and praying, The People do not know what to do.
Two months after both the wolf pup and the boy had been at Clear Lake, their paths cross. Red Wolf wants to go to the pup but his father, HeWhoWhistles holds him back for fear of the pup's mother. When she does not show and HeWhoWhistles notices the pup is starving they feed him. As the weeks pass, Crooked Ear becomes a healthy juvenile wolf. Although HeWhoWhistles sends Crooked Ear away so he can learn to be a wolf, the young pup continues to return to The People's campsite, sleeping against the outside wall of Red Wolf's family wiigwam. He wants to be near the young Upright called Red Wolf.
One day a stranger comes to the camp riding a horse. Red Wolf is captivated by the stranger's horse and leads him to graze in the grass. The stranger, who has white skin, speaks Algonquian and tells The People that he is an Indian agent. The Indian agent informs The People that they must leave this land as loggers are moving into the area. The People tell the agent they cannot move as the land belongs to them, they live off the land and the trees must not be cut. But the Indian Agent tells them the land no longer theirs as it has been sold. He produces a piece of paper which is the title to the land and tries to encourage them to move to the reserve where they will be given land and a house. This doesn't satisfy The People because their ancestors are buried on this land. The Indian Agent tells them they will be given food and there will be a school for their children. When the agent is ready to leave, he is angry that Red Wolf has taken his horse and accuses the little boy of trying to steal him.
The Indian Agent's visit results in confusion and disagreement among The People. Some want to migrate further north away from the intruders, some to learn the ways of the newcomers, others to stay and fight for their land. In the end, HeWhoWhistles takes his wife, his son Red Wolf and his parents and moves to the reserve. The wolf, Crooked Ear, follows the Uprights to the reserve.
When HeWhoWhistles and his family arrive at the reserve, they find a mix of shacks, wooden buildings and wiigwams. HeWhoWhistles asks the guide where all the children are and is told they have been sent to the school in Bruce County, a five day journey by foot. HeWhoWhistles learns that his son will be sent to the school to live away from home. This enrages HeWhoWhistles who reminds the agent that Red Wolf is his son. He is told that because he signed the paper, he is part of the Indian Act which he must now obey. This means he must live on the reservation and his son is a ward of the government. StarWoman begs the agent not to take their son but the guide tells her that the government will educate the Indian children and make them Christians. When StarWoman attacks the guide she is almost shot. The Indian guide gives HeWhoWhistles a ten day pass to escort his son to school and tells him he must return to the reservation within that time otherwise he will be jailed.
Red Wolf and his father journey to the school and are followed by the wolf, Crooked Ear, but only as far as the tall grass. Despite Red Wolf's fear, HeWhoWhistles tells him he needs to learn the white man's ways. They are met at the iron gate of the school by a bald man, Mister Hall who forces Red Wolf behind the gates and tells HeWhoWhistles to return at the end of June. Inside the school, Red Wolf is whipped with a leather whip when he speaks his native language, stripped of his clothing which is burned, has his hair washed in kerosene and cut short, and given the name of George Grant and the number 366. So begins Red Wolf's experience in the residential schools of Canada.
While Red Wolf spends his first weeks attempting to survive the harsh treatment at the (fictional) Bruce County Residential School, Crooked Ear waits at the edge of the tall grass for his return. When the big Upright returns alone, Crooked Ear travels quickly to the school but finds his path to the young Upright whose scent he can smell, blocked by barbed wire. Unable to reach Red Wolf, and with the unrelenting call to return to Clear Lake, his birth place, Crooked Ear journeys back to his old pack.
Crooked Ear finds that his brother Seraph is now the alpha male and he must submit. He becomes the wolf with the lowest standing in the pack. When Red Wolf journeys home with his father at the end of the school year, Crooked Ear meets up with them. Whenever Red Wolf accompanies his father into the bush, Crooked Ear would accompany them but he never stayed for long. When HeWhoWhistles takes his son back to the school, Crooked Ear once again refuses to cross the meadow. He returns to the pack at Clear Lake led by Seraph. When spring returns and Red Wolf journeys home with his father he is once again met by Crooked Ear. When Red Wolf runs away from school in his third year, Crooked Ear is there to guide him home. However, Crooked Ear becomes trapped in a snare and it is the young boy who saves his life, rescuing him from the trap. They reach the reserve safely, outwitting the Indian agent, but Crooked Ear is unable to warn Red Wolf in time and he is captured by the soldiers and taken back to the residential school.
Red Wolf's father does not return after his third year he learns the awful truth about what has happened to his family. Crooked Ear shows up at the meadow by the edge of the forest but the boy does not appear. The meadow is now a corn field and the forest, pastures with fences, filled with four-leggeds. Crooked-Ear seeks the boy Upright at the reserve but he is not there either. So he travels further north where he spends years with the Great Northern wolf pack. But he is restless, returning to his birth den at Clear Lake and missing the boy he has formed a bond with. Likewise as time moves on Red Wolf grows up, graduates from school and moves into the world. He too is restless, unable to find work and returns to the reserve. But the adult Red Wolf will one day meet the son of Crooked Ear and find a way to begin again.
Red Wolf is the fictional account of a young Anishnaabe boy's experience in one of Canada's residential schools but is based on the personal accounts and memories of those who attended and those who worked in the schools. Dance parallels Red Wolf's narrative with that of the wolf, Crooked Ear, who has a red tinge to his fur. Both Red Wolf and Crooked Ear share similar experiences when they encounter the white man.
The residential schools were Canada's attempt to assimilate the indigenous population which was considered inferior and savage. The arrival of European explorers and settlers to North America, meant that the cultural imperialism that was brought to India, Africa and South America also influenced policy in British North America. The indigenous peoples were scattered throughout Canada on land sought after by settlers. In an attempt to remove them from their land and to "civilize" their culture, a policy of assimilation was pursued. The churches were willing to participate because they were in the business of evangelizing souls and schools which removed the children from their "pagan" and "savage" culture were seen as the means to accomplish this.
This exact view was expressed by Canada's first prime minister as quoted in the Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada dated May 9, 1883 :
"When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."
Throughout the 1800's, the government of pre-confederation Canada began implementing social policies and laws that supported this action. The first residential school to open in Canada was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford in 1831. The Bagot Commission (1842-1844) determined that the best way to assimilate Canada's "Indians" would be by removing them from their homes and the influence of their parents. Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson recommended that education of "Indian" children focus on religious and agricultural training. Canada's Indian Act was passed in 1876 and it gave the government almost absolute control over the lives of indigenous peoples. In 1879, the Davin Report recommended the creation of residential schools which was authorized in 1883 by Sir. John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister. In 1884, amendments to the 1876 Indian Act allowed for the creation of residential schools. These schools were to be funded by the Government of Canada AND the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. All traditional indigenous ceremonies were banned. The story of Red Wolf begins in 1885, just after these amendments became law.
|Students and family members, Father Joseph Hugonnard, Principal, staff and Grey Nuns on a hill overlooking the Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Lebret, Saskatchewan, May 1885|
The arrival of the Indian agent, whose manner is haughty, brings more disaster. The Anishnaabe are told their land does not belong to them and they must move to the reservation where they will be given land, food and their children educated. The Anishnaabe do not understand this concept of property. "Why should we move to a new place? Our ancestors have lived and died here since time began...Their bones rest in this soil. We cannot leave their spirits here!" Despite this HeWhoWhistles decides to enroll his son, Red Wolf into the white man's school so his people will understand the white men and not be further deceived. However, HeWhoWhistles and StarWoman learn their son will be taken far away. HeWhoWhistles feels fear and shame because he is unable to protect his son.
The novel excels at realistically portraying the experiences of young indigenous children in the residential schools through the eyes of Mishqua Ma'een'gun (Red Wolf). Upon entering the school his sense of identity is attacked and broken down. Red Wolf experiences fear and shame as he is stripped, his clothing, lovingly crafted by his mother burned, his long braids which were to be cut only when someone died are shorn and burned. Like other children entering a residential school, Red Wolf is not allowed to speak his language and is punished for doing so. This happens when Red Wolf explains his name to Father Thomas in Anishnaabemowin. Each student is assigned a new English name (Red Wolf is given the name George Grant) and a number, by which they were often referred to. Children were not allowed to return home until the summer and their families not allowed to visit during the school year. Letters were often not delivered or destroyed. In the novel, Red Wolf's only friend, Turtle discovers Mother Hall burning the letters sent to the children by their parents. Isolated from the loving care of parents, family and community these children suffered terribly. They forgot their language and their customs.When they returned home during the summer months, the children were often unable to communicate with family and found their own culture now strange.
Perhaps the most insidious damage inflicted by the residential school system was changing how the indigenous children viewed themselves, their families and their culture. Dance shows how almost every aspect of indigenous identity was attacked in the schools. In the novel, Red Wolf and the other children are repeatedly told they are stupid, worthless Indians or filthy savages. After only a year, Red Wolf "...had learned quite thoroughly that he was a filthy Indian and a savage. The knowledge had left him feeling sullied and ashamed." When questioned by his father as to what he has learned at the white man's school, Red Wolf reflects privately, " I learned that I am a savage. That The People are heathens and pagans. That we are all dirty Indians." Unable to express this to his father in his native language and ashamed to tell his parents Red Wolf instead tries to explain to his father about Jesus and Hell. After his first year, Red Wolf along with the other indigenous children has been given an assignment "to turn their parents away from the sinful, savage ways that led to Hell, and guide them instead on the path to Jesus." When Red Wolf is taken to the fields he is told by the farm manager, "The wandering lifestyle you all have, picking berries and hunting, isn't civilized." Dance also portrays many of the other problems that characterized the Indian residential schools; poor nutrition, hard manual labour, cruel teachers and staff who abused children physically and sexually, and a high rates of illness and death.
The larger effect of the residential schools on the indigenous communities is also demonstrated by what happens to Red Wolf's family over time. When faced with the forced enrollment of their second child, a daughter, HeWhoWhistles fights the Indian agent and kills him. The judicial system, unconcerned with hearing HeWhoWhistles perspective hangs him and StarWoman, now alone, turns to alcohol. This results in her permanently losing custody of her daughter, Lali, Red Wolf's sister. Red Wolf, furious at his father's inability to protect him, begins to abandon his identity as Red Wolf and comes to refer to himself as George.
The ultimate goal of the residential schools, supposedly to assimilate the indigenous population, has the exact opposite effect. Red Wolf graduates from the school but is unable to find work. Instead he is only fit for manual labour and drifts from farm to farm. Red Wolf/George returns to the reservation with the intention of farming the land that is his, except he is unable to get a bank loan to buy the agricultural equipment he needs. He becomes an alcoholic, living on the reserve with others like himself who attended the residential schools but who are now unable to form bonds with spouses and children. Eventually Red Wolf makes the decision to be who he really is - Mishqua Ma'ee'gun - Red Wolf.
Dance attempts to provide a balanced perspective by portraying some of the white people in the novel as decent. The neighboring farmer feels pity for the children working in the fields with only shovels and even comes to help them harvest the hay before a storm. Eventually he helps Red Wolf escape from the school, although he does very little else to help Red Wolf and becomes concerned for himself later on. The school nurse, witnessing the lack of compassion for the children and especially for Red Wolf who is the last to leave after Grade One, comforts him, reassuring him that his parents do love him and would come if they could. However, most of the white people are shown to have little understanding or concern for the indigenous families and their children. Father Thomas in particular tries to convince Red Wolf that his parents do not care for him and that being separated from them is "the very reason we take you from your families; to spare you this pain of rejection... Believe me, George, you are better off without them."
Co-narrating the novel is the red wolf Crooked Ear who like Red Wolf, suffers from his contact with the white man whom he calls "Uprights". His family is murdered by the white man and he becomes separated from the pack. His life parallels that of the little "Upright" Red Wolf who is also separated from his family. Just as Red Wolf does not learn the culture of his people, Crooked Ear does not learn the skills necessary to fend for himself in the wild and within a wolf pack until he is older. Both become outsiders, struggling to fit into the world, forever changed by the white man.
There aren't many young adult novels that explore the residential schools and their part in Canadian history. Red Wolf is an excellent starting point for young people and adults alike, to explore the devastating effect of residential schools on Canada's First Nations people. Jennifer Dance can be extremely proud of her attempt to portray the destruction inflicted on generations of indigenous people through the residential schools.
The following resources will be helpful in researching more about Canada's residential schools:
The Canadian Encyclopedia has a wealth of information on residential schools, their history, as well as all aspects of the schools.
Project of Heart is also an excellent resource that focuses on "examining the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and to seek the truth about that history, leading to the acknowledgement of the extent of loss to former students, their families and communities."
The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools
Residential Schools in Canada Education Guide
The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives has a webpage devoted to residential schools.
The Catholic Church and residential schools.
Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2014