Lisa Bird-Wilson’s “The Red Files”: a review by Ethan Vilu

In The Red Files, Cree-Métis author Lisa-Bird Wilson has crafted a call for sincere acknowledgement of the violence done to indigenous peoples throughout Canadian history which is both purposeful and haunting in its masterful clarity. With writing that is supremely sharp and unclouded, Bird-Wilson lays bare the atrocities committed within the residential school system, and the continuity between that system and the abuse towards indigenous peoples which is ongoing in this country. In so doing, she has created a work whose sheer power is truly noteworthy, and deserving of wholehearted attention.

Within The Red Files, Bird-Wilson utilizes the narrative poetry format in a complex and effective manner. Rather than writing in an explicit, plot-driven style, the author makes skilled use of vignettes in order to steadfastly explore the totality of residential schools, including both the horrific violence intrinsic to the system as well as the resilience and humanity of those forced to endure it. With the first section being devoted most unequivocally to the experience of those within residential schools, the second and third sections take the reader on a passage through time, with attention being paid to the intergenerational trauma and hardship which has resulted from the brutality inflicted on indigenous peoples. This, too, is accomplished through the simple illumination of humanity: the reader is given stories of love and intimacy, of resentment and dysfunction and loss, and is tasked with making the connection between these experiences and the reality of colonial violence.

Indeed, the duty towards truly authentic reconciliation to which Bird-Wilson calls the reader is made plain in her poem “The Apology”: “you apologize for having done this / thing that is still in the doing”. In creating this powerful testament to the humanity of those who have suffered at the hands of colonialism, the author has made a resolute call for the rectifying of wrongs which continue to this day, to this country’s shame. At a time in which discussions of what reconciliation is and should be are ongoing, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s The Red Files is a powerful, timely call to action, and comes highly recommended.

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