Priests, Mounties and poverty in indigenous Canada

Maria Campbell’s memoir, Halfbreed, is short (157 pages) and free-flowing. It is a shocking, true account of what it is like to grow up poor and mixed-race in Canada. The book today is read almost universally by school children in Canada.

Here is one paragraph that I found particularly shocking:

When I was still quite young, a priest came to hold masses in the various homes [of our reservation]. How I despised that man! He was about forty-five, very fat and greedy. He always arrived when it was mealtime and we all had to wait and let him eat first. He ate and ate and I would watch him with hatred. He must have known, because when he finished eating all the choice food, he would smile at me, rub his belly and tell Mom she was a great cook. After he left we had to eat the scraps. If we complained, Mom would tell us that he was picked by God and it was our duty to feed him. I remember asking why Daddy didn’t get picked by God. All through my childhood years that priest and I were enemies.

Maria Campbell, Halfbreed (McClelland and Stuart Ltd., 1973; Reprinted as a paperback November 1982 by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London), pp. 29-30.

Maria Campbell (born 1940) is Assistant Professor and Special Scholar at the University of Saskatchewan.

Wikipedia contains an article on Ms Campbell with a wealth of information. Here highlights from it that I accessed on 31 October 2018:

Campbell is the oldest of eight children, and had to drop out of school to care for her siblings when her mother died. She moved to Vancouver at age fifteen, but returned to Saskatchewan in her twenties and became an organizer in her community.


Campbell’s first book was the memoir Halfbreed (1973), which deals with her experience as a Métis woman in Canada, and the sense of identity that is generated by being neither wholly Indigenous nor Anglo. …. Halfbreed … recounts the difficulties Campbell faced in her search for self-discovery, including poverty, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and sex work. Halfbreed continues to be taught in schools across Canada, and inspires generations of Indigenous women and men.


In May 2018, researchers from Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada) published an article detailing the discovery of two missing pages from the original Halfbreed manuscript. These pages, discovered in the McClelland and Stewart fonds at McMaster University, reveal how Campbell was raped at the age of 14 by members of the RCMP, and how she was prevented from including these pages in her published autobiography by publishers McClelland and Stewart. [snip]

Here is the passage excluded by the publishers:

During all this time Dad worked for Bob and poached on the side, and as usual the Mounties and wardens were often at our house. We were eating fairly well, as Dad made good money from the sale of meat. One day he was away and Grannie and I were drying meat in the bush. We had a tent set up about a mile from the house and all the children were with us. I raced home to get something we’d forgotten just as three R.C.M.P drove up in a car. They said they were going to search the house as they knew Daddy had brought meat home the day before. I let them in and said that everyone else was at the store, and prayed that no one would come from the camp. While one Mountie was upstairs and another in the barn, the third followed me into the kitchen. He talked for a long time and insisted that I knew about the meat.

Suddenly he put his arm around me and said that I was too pretty to go to jail. When I tried to get away, he grabbed my hair and pulled me to him. I was frightened and was fighting back as Robbie came running into the room. He tried to hit the Mountie but was knocked to the floor. I was nearly to the door when the other one came in. All I can recall is being dragged to Grannie’s bed where the man tore my shirt and jeans. When I came to, Grannie was crying and washing me off. I must have been in a state of shock, because I heard everything she said but could not speak or cry despite the pain. My face was all bruised and I had teeth marks all over my chest and stomach. My head felt as if my hair had been pulled out by the roots.

Grannie was afraid that Dad would come home, so she helped me upstairs and put me to bed. She told me not to tell Daddy what had happened, that if he knew he would kill those Mounties for sure and be hung and we would all be placed in an orphanage. She said that no one ever believed Halfbreeds in court; they would say that I had been fooling around with some boys and tried to blame the Mounties instead. When Daddy came home she told him that King had gone crazy and had thrown me. Dad sold King because he was afraid that I might be crippled or even killed next time. I don’t know what Grannie told Robbie. After that, he always hated the police, and when he grew up he was in trouble all the time and served prison terms for assaulting policemen. My fear was so great that I even believed they would come back and beat me to make sure that I told no one. For weeks afterwards, if I heard a car coming into the yard, I would be sick to my stomach with fear.

Deanna Reder and Alix Shield (May 29, 2018), “I write this for all of you”: Recovering the Unpublished RCMP “Incident” in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973)“. Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review. Retrieved 2018-10-22.

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