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Saturday March 25, 2017

Ojibway author found salvation in stories

He was homeless, alcoholic and on drugs until he discovered a library that offered shelter, warmth and all the books he wanted

Richard Wagamese understood the power of words.

He made a living from writing - eventually, after terrible struggles - but he also knew what words, put together the right way, could do for a life: They could save it.

He knew this as a writer, and also as a reader. Whether his words were on the page or spoken aloud in mesmerizing performances, they were alive with raw honesty, searing insight and a delicate eloquence.

"He got to our cores; he got to where we are most human," says CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, a friend whom Mr. Wagamese called his Chosen Sister. "And his words resonated with us. The fact that they were beautiful was gravy."

The self-taught Ojibway author's works were infused with his excruciating history. The tragedies that shaped him from early childhood gave birth to demons that chased him throughout his too-short life. But through books (and nature and music and animals and baseball and love), he found refuge.

"Stories are meant to heal," he wrote in his 2008 memoir One Native Life - one of 14 books he published in his lifetime, which included non-fiction, novels, poetry and children's books.

"That's what my people say, and it's what I believe. Culling these stories has taken me a long way down the healing path from the trauma I carried."

Despite an intense shyness, Mr. Wagamese was a spellbinding speaker - leaving adults in tears or inspiring the toughest high school gym crowd. He told traditional stories, anecdotes from his life. He might do some stand-up or a Rocky impression.

"He briefly drummed to call in the ancestors and then he spoke for 45, 50 minutes without notes, with fluidity and eloquence and such grace," says Jane Davidson, recalling his appearance at her festival, the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.

"He talked about how important it is to speak to each other, neighbour to neighbour."

Mr. Wagamese died March 10 at his home in Kamloops. He was 61. He died in his sleep of natural causes, according to his fiancée, Yvette Lehmann. "In my opinion it was just heartbreak," she says. "From the life that he had to live, the past."

Richard Wagamese was born on Oct. 14, 1955, on the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. His first home was a canvas army tent hung from a spruce bough frame, he wrote in his essay The Path to Healing. His family fished, hunted and trapped. But his parents and extended family were deeply scarred by residential school.

"Each of the adults had suffered in an institution that tried to scrape the Indian out of their insides, and they came back to the bush raw, sore and aching," he wrote.

Mr. Wagamese inherited their trauma.

His childhood was dreadful. In that same story, he recounted having his left arm and shoulder smashed as a toddler. And how when he was almost three, the adults left him, his two brothers and sister alone in the bush on a bitterly cold winter day. They ran out of food and firewood. His older sister and brother hauled the two younger boys across a frozen bay and they huddled at the railroad depot. A police officer took them to the Children's Aid Society. "I would not see my mother or my extended family again for 21 years," he wrote.

He was fostered out and at the age of nine, adopted by a family he described as staunch white Presbyterians who led a regimented life and tolerated no disorder. "The wounds I suffered went far beyond the scars on my buttocks." He was moved to southern Ontario, separated from his native heritage.

He left home in St. Catharines at 16. For years, he lived on the street or in jail. Even when working, he was often homeless. He sometimes raided gardens and fruit trees. One winter, he spent a month living in a nativity scene. He became an alcoholic and a drug user.

But even in that darkness, there were life-changing events.

In St. Catharines, Mr. Wagamese, looking for shelter, followed people into a building. It was a library - and there he found a quiet, warm haven. And he found books. He would stack them into a mountainous L-shape surrounding him, worried he might be asked to leave.

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