Meet Parliament’s Poet Laureate: Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer
May 19, 2021
Louise Bernice Halfe — Sky Dancer became Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate on January 1, 2021. Ms. Halfe is the ninth poet to hold this office, succeeding Georgette Leblanc, whose two-year term ended on December 31, 2019.
Born in Two Hills, Alberta, Ms. Halfe was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social work — as well as honorary Degrees of Letters from Wilfried Laurier University, University of Saskatchewan and Mount Royal University — and previously served as Saskatchewan’s second Poet Laureate. Ms. Halfe’s published works include Bear Bones and Feathers (1994), Blue Marrow (2004), The Crooked Good (2007) and Burning in this Midnight Dream (2016), all of which have received numerous accolades and awards. Sôhkêyihta, published in 2018, features selected poems and Ms. Halfe’s latest work, awâsis – kinky and dishevelled, was released in April 2021.
Congratulations, Ms. Halfe, on your appointment as Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Why take on this new role and what do you hope to achieve during your two-year term?
I had been asked two times previously if I would allow people to submit my nomination and I declined. I like my relative anonymity. So, when a third person asked me and I was talking to my husband, my husband said to me, “What have you got to lose?” And I thought, “Well, he’s so right. What have I got to lose? I’m 68 … I’ve got a shorter life ahead of me. I might as well go for it!” So that was the turning point of accepting the nomination and then the position.
And what do I hope to achieve? My focus this year is to highlight as many Native poets as I can in each province across Canada. Next year, my focus is to bring other minority groups into the picture as well. My background is in social work, so I’ve had a lot of criss-cross relationships over the years with many people from different walks of life.
You are a survivor of the residential school system and your book of poetry, Burning in this Midnight Dream, was born of the emotions and memories you experienced and recalled as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission conducted its work. Do you think your appointment as Poet Laureate represents a positive step forward in Canada’s reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples?
I think it will help feed into that moving forward.
I have an analogy for you. In our Creation Story, the little muskrat dives deep, deep, deep to get a piece of dirt so he can create the world. And he comes back up more dead than alive with this handful of dirt. Burning in this Midnight Dream, essentially, was that for me.
When and how were you first drawn to writing poetry? Did you weave – or code-switch – between Cree and English in your poems from the very beginning?
I started writing when I was 16 and it was poetry, but I didn’t know it was poetry back then. I left it alone and then I started writing again, probably in my early 30s. I wasn’t intending on being a poet; I was just keeping a journal and it evolved. Poetry presented itself and I didn’t argue. That was the way I was meant to write and I had to follow that call. I’ve tried other genres but I’m not very good at it. This is my passion.
“Code-switching” is not my word because I wasn’t even thinking of code-switching when I was writing. In my first book, I didn’t think about it. As I progressed in my writing career, I was thinking about mainstream writers who write and insert sentences or paragraphs in their texts and don’t offer translations. I thought: “You know what, if it’s good enough for you folks, then I can do it.” That’s when I started inserting my Cree.
Why is the inclusion of both Cree and English in your writing important to you?
Several things — it’s preservation of the language. English is not my first language; when I went to residential school, all I spoke was Cree and I had to learn a foreign tongue that was completely alien to me.
And … it breaks the ice, learning how to go into another language. When I’ve travelled the world, I’ve asked people for words on how to speak their language — and it’s not to make fun of people, but to enjoy the essence of where they’re coming from. It’s honourable to do that, to make that effort and extend that interest. It also opens dialogue, I think.
In addition to being an accomplished writer, you’re also a trained social worker. How does that experience and expertise inform your poetry and your writing?
I do have my bachelor’s in social work and I had two years of addictions educational training and facilitated workshops. What I have found is that my social work has married into many aspects of my life, not only with the apprehended children that I work with, but we also work with the elders who work with these apprehended children in social services and the families of these children. I also work with students at the university as an elder-in-residence and I bring my social work training and writing career there too, because I sometimes ask them, “Do you mind if I write this story? It’ll be fictional, it’ll be poetic and no names will be exchanged.” And then I just weave aspects of their story into my poetry.
Name a poem or a poet that you think all parliamentarians — and Canadians — should take the time to read and why?
Well, there are a lot of poets but one of the ones that I want to mention today is Armand Garnet Ruffo and this book he’s written, The Thunderbird Poems. It’s about his interviews and his interactions with Norval Morriseau, who was a great Aboriginal painter — Anishinaabe painter. He developed a great relationship with this man and then wrote the story in The Thunderbird Poems. It’s beautifully written, it’s powerful and Armand’s been around for a long, long time and I think he deserves to be highlighted in this country.
What words of advice would you give to an aspiring poet?
Read, read, read, read! Use a dictionary as if it was a Bible. And write, write, write, write — every day! Don’t listen to your censor.