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Author Jo-Ann Episkenew wrote of aboriginal literature’s power to heal

In Taking Back our Spirits, Jo-Ann Episkenew explored how public policies harmed native people and how indigenous writing can cure.

Eagleclaw Thom

Jo-Ann Episkenew believed books could transform people, and her own life story is 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.

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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.

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"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.

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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."

Mr. Walsh said he'll be hard-pressed to find another supporter with such strong leadership skills. "She was the most valuable type of board member you could ever have. She spoke the truth but she always did so compassionately," Mr. Walsh said.

The Regina publisher noted that Dr. Episkenew's contributions to the establishment of an indigenous literature were considerable. "This is a major moment for Canadian indigenous literature. They have something to say that has not been heard. And it will be heard around the world."

According to Mr. Walsh, Dr. Episkenew contributed an important element to that movement since she acted as a catalyst on behalf of the indigenous community. He adds that she played a pivotal role within an extensive network of academics, publishers, students and policy analysts.

First Nations University professor Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber was a beneficiary of Dr. Episkenew's legendary mentorship and generosity after meeting her at a talk she gave in 2001. The two kept in touch and Dr. Episkenew later told him about an opening in the English Department at First Nations University, and she helped him with his application. He got the job.

"I owe a lot of my career to Jo-Ann," Dr. Archibald-Barber, who is an active member of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association, an organization co-founded by Dr. Episkenew, said. The group assembled for the first time last October and will reconvene in May in Calgary, where they will celebrate the dynamic professor's legacy.

"I'm working on an anthology of indigenous literature and I'll be excerpting from her book, Taking Back Our Spirits," Dr. Archibald-Barber, now an associate professor of English, said. He also plans to establish a writing award in Dr. Episkenew's name, in support of aboriginal literacy.

"There is some solace in the fact that her work will carry on," Dr. Archibald-Barber said.

Her contributions as a colleague, writer, academic, activist and educator were noteworthy. "We will continue to teach the course she developed on residential school literature. She was a leader in her field," Dr. Archibald-Barber said.

Her reach extended beyond the limits of academia. Dr. Episkenew was a member of the Boards of Directors of the Aboriginal Health Research Network, the Lung Association of Saskatchewan and the newly established Lung Health Institute of Canada. She was also a member of the Regina Riel Métis Council and received a lifetime achievement award in 2015 as a YWCA Woman of Distinction.

Her work also found a receptive audience with broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, who bought a copy of Taking Back Our Spirits at Munro's Books, in Victoria, B.C., in 2010. The groundbreaking book impressed the seasoned journalist, who wanted to expand coverage of indigenous literature on her CBC Radio books show The Next Chapter. So Ms. Rogers invited Dr. Episkenew to appear as her guest

In the months leading up to the interview, an e-mail friendship developed. "We started to engage woman-to-woman, not just as journalist and author," Ms. Rogers says. "Her book was transformative. Learning about indigenous literature was a serious education for me. It's about the power to heal from literature. It's medicine and we all need it," Ms. Rogers said.

"Jo-Ann prompted me to use my voice to promote equality for aboriginal people in Canada. And she urged me to face some stark truths about my own family so I can work toward better relations with aboriginal people. I knew that no matter what I found out [about my family tree], I wouldn't lose my relationship with her."

In 2010, Dr. Episkenew took a leave of absence from her position as a professor in the English department at the First Nations University to become director of the Indigenous Peoples' Health Research Centre (IPHRC). The researcher had played a significant role as a co-principal investigator at the centre, so the move was a natural outgrowth of her grassroots interest in indigenous health and the use of storytelling as a healing tool. In 2014, the IPHRC appointed her to serve on an advisory group on poverty reduction.

Dr. Episkenew died on Feb. 18 in Regina at the age of 63. She leaves her husband, Clayton; their blended family of 13 children; and more than 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

With files from Globe staff

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