One morning, a five-year-old Jónína Kirton woke up in her home in Portage la Prairie, Man., and heard her parents drinking in the kitchen with her grandmother. Curious about what they were up to, she snuck around the corner — and witnessed her Métis father punch her grandmother in the face.
This was the first time she recalls witnessing violence. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Kirton remembers only part of her childhood due to severe trauma. Her father would bring strangers from the bar. She recalls a night in particular when she would hear them knocking on the bathroom door while her parents partied in the living room. On many occassions, she would wake to her mother crying for help, but it was the violence against her brothers for being “visibly Indigenous” that stung Kirton the most.
A quote by Nicola I. Campbell, “Love was the first thing taken away by the colonizers and Indian residential schools, replaced with hurt and shame,” stuck with Kirton as she grew to understand the experiences and pain that led to her father’s behaviour.
Kirton, who is a Red River Métis/Icelandic poet, author and facilitator, has spent a significant portion of her life discovering her identity and coming to terms with it.
Born in Portage la Prairie, Man. (Treaty One and homeland of the Métis people), she currently lives in New Westminster, in the unceded territory of many Coast Salish Nations.
Kirton, who started writing at the age of 50, is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and has three books published under her name: page as bone ~ ink as blood (Talonbooks 2015), An Honest Woman, (Talonbooks 2017) and Standing in a River of Time (Talonbooks 2022).
She was raised by an Icelandic maternal family and a Métis paternal family. However, Kirton’s father, although “visibly Indigenous,” called himself a French man “who was raised on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Kirton said she spent the better part of her childhood and early adulthood in confusion, as her family discouraged any talk of Indigenous matters. She remembers the fear instilled in her, passed on from generations before.
“We weren’t allowed to talk about it, other than my mom saying your dad hates being native,” she said. “So I tried to ask his mom and she just started shaking — effects of residential school and colonization. She said ‘We’re French.’ When I went to talk to her sister, same shaking and said, ‘We’re Scottish.’”
She said her grandmother’s fear that her four children would be taken away to residential schools after the death of her Métis grandfather might have been the beginning of concealing the family’s Métis identity.
This is why Kirton now believes that reconciliation is important.
“There was so much to learn, not just about my family, but about this country and what happened here.”
Overwhelmed by the first confirmation of her Métis identity in her early 30s, she fell to her knees, she said. However, learning her family’s history, she also had to reconcile with its traumatic side.
She said that it took a long time to take pride in her identity. Attending events, becoming a part of Métis and Indigenous gatherings gave her a sense of pride in their strength, she said.
It was something an Elder said in a ceremony for the 215 children whose unmarked graves were found by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School that made her realize the depth of the trauma that was passed on generation after generation, and that caused her grandmother and her father to conceal their Métis identities.
“My grandmother had been committed,” Kirton said with tears in her eyes. “She had breakdowns, she had been committed, she had electric shock. And I started to realize all those things are related. And this one elder said, ‘My dad always told us that you’re not going to get anywhere being an Indian.’”
“So all this time I knew that Métis people were hiding and why they were hiding. But it wasn’t till that man, who looked like my dad, said that, that I’d understood what he was going through and what his life was like and why he was the way he was.”
Kirton believes this is the time for us to talk about these stories; that Canada needs to make peace with its history. “They took away so many things from us, not permanently,” she said. “Some things were taken permanently like people, but some teachings, lost languages are coming back. We have so much to share.”
The persistence of systemic racism is felt by Indigenous people to this day.
When she was young, Kirton remembers, she was asked, “What are you?” And when the response was, “I’m an Indian or Métis,” the questioner’s face dropped, she said. “There is even prejudice within my own family. My mother’s father, my grandfather talked daily about those “dirty Indians” and two of his daughters married Métis men.
She feels that formal recognition of the need for truth and reconciliation — Orange Shirt Day, National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and the Every Child Matters movement — is helping spark an essential dialogue for the country to acknowledge injustices.
With her books coming out and her voice expressed, her father was not initially interested in acknowledging his identity or embracing it.
“But just before he died a few years ago, he talked about getting his Métis citizenship,” she said.
Friends, relatives, non-
Indigenous Canadians are apologizing for the actions of their ancestors, and she believes that this is the change that the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has fostered, allowing Canadians to acknowledge their history and embrace it.
“It’s interesting, who gets erased out of the history, and whose accomplishments are erased,” she said.
She said that writing helped her unravel her own history and confront the difficult truth of what it meant to be a survivor of intergenerational trauma as an Indigenous woman.
She is participating in literary fests this year including the Whistler Writers Festival from Oct. 13 to Oct. 16. You can find more online at www.