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Friday April 1, 2016

She wrote of literature's power to heal

In Taking Back Our Spirits, she explored how public policies harmed native people and how indigenous writing can cure

Jo-Ann Episkenew believed books could transform people, and her own life story is a powerful case in point. Without a postsecondary degree, she once supported her children on a low-ranking clerk's salary, but then went on to receive her PhD as a mature student and became a professor of English literature and an award-winning author.

Her book, Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy and Healing (2009), traces the links between Canadian public policy, injuries inflicted on indigenous people and aboriginal literature's ability to heal.

In addition to her work as an educator, Dr. Episkenew, who died in February of complications from pneumonia, was active in aboriginal communities conducting health research and working to understand and reduce poverty.

Jo-Ann Thom was born in Winnipeg on Aug. 19, 1952, to Scottish and Métis parents, Jim and Wilma Thom, who also had a son, Sandy.

Gail Bowen, a Regina author and playwright, was Jo-Ann's teacher at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. "Jo-Ann was a very, very smart young woman. There was something special there that I noticed immediately as her teacher."

She was only 18 when she enrolled in the Indian Social Workers Program, where Ms. Bowen taught the English component. The promising student soon withdrew from the program, but she would be back.

Clayton Episkenew, who is Saulteaux from Standing Buffalo First Nation, near Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask., says he knew Jo-Ann Thom was special the first time he laid eyes on her, in 1986. "I was working at Taylor Field for the City of Regina and Jo-Ann was on her way to work. I whistled at her ... and she didn't respond," he said.

Since they lived in the same North Regina neighbourhood, Mr. Episkenew kept bumping into her.

"I was working on my car in the driveway when I said 'Hello' to her again and we started to talk. It was raining so she asked for a ride home. We were a couple for many years before we got married in March, 2001."

When the two first met, she worked as a Level One clerk at SaskTel, the Crown telecommunications corporation, in Regina. She was frustrated with the limits of her clerical job and she wanted more.

"What are my options? I can rise to Level Four clerk," she told Mr. Episkenew, exasperated.

"So quit then," he said. But she didn't quit right away; instead she accepted a transfer to the advertising department, where she could embrace more challenges. And in 1988, she re-enrolled at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College to start working toward an undergraduate degree in English literature.

Once again she found herself in Ms. Bowen's English class, now a mature student and mother of four, including a one-year-old baby she had with Mr. Episkenew.

Ms. Bowen recalls that she was highly motivated. "Her main concern was for her children. She wanted to be a role model for them. And she was. Jo-Ann won a President's Medal for her academic ability."

The English major completed her BA in 1991 and followed up in 1992 with an Honours Certificate. Ms. Episkenew earned her master's degree next, in 1994. In 2006, she was awarded a PhD, magna cum laude, from the Institute for English and American Studies at Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Greifswald, Germany. She then became a professor in the English department at Regina's First Nations University of Canada.

In 2009, Dr. Episkenew published Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy and Healing, which won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Scholarly Writing in 2009 and the First Peoples Writing Award in 2010.

Her book explored both Canada's earliest settler policies and the dysfunctional, contemporary government-run social programs. She believed in the healing properties of indigenous writing. "Without truth there can be no reconciliation," Dr. Episkenew wrote.

"Jo-Ann was a force of nature," Bruce Walsh, publisher at the University of Regina Press, said. "When we found out she died, our whole office cried. She really touched everyone."

Dr. Episkenew played a key role as a prominent member of the publishing house's board, Mr. Walsh said. When the board had a group discussion, "Jo-Ann would let everybody talk and then she would say, 'Okay, I guess I'm going to have to be the one to say it ...' That would signal it was time for her to cut through the BS and offer up her unvarnished truth on the subject."

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