A man proud of his heritage, Larry Loyie lived a Cree life
Larry Loyie had two dreams back in 2005. The first was to leave Vancouver and return to Cree country, the source and inspiration for his award-winning children’s books.
The second was to live in a log house.
By 2007, both of his dreams were reality. With his partner, editor and writer Constance Brissenden, he set up a base near High Prairie. The couple enthusiastically travelled across the region, enjoying Cree gatherings, doing research, writing books, visiting schools, and supporting local museums and archives.
Born in Slave Lake on Nov. 4, 1933, Larry passed away on April 18 in Edmonton at the age of 82 years. Larry lived a traditional Cree life in his early years. His grandfather, Edward Twin, of Kinuso, was a respected Elder who taught him the right way to accomplish everyday tasks.
“He would show me once and say ‘If you have a better way, try it.’ I learned that his traditional way was always the best,” Larry recalled.
His grandfather gave Larry his Cree name of Oskiniko, meaning “Young Man.” Edward Twin’s straightforward teachings influenced Larry’s books. Larry encouraged indigenous people to write their stories in a true fashion, with “no Hollywoodizing or fantasizing, not just to make it sound good, or to sell.”
After three years in public school in Slave Lake, Larry spent six years in St. Bernard Mission residential school in Grouard, returning home for two months every summer.
“I swore I would never lose my language in that school, where speaking Cree was forbidden,” he said.
Larry transformed his childhood memories, both good and difficult, into his popular children’s books.
While in residential school, 12-year-old Lawrence [as he was known] was struck with a mysterious illness. He ended up in the High Prairie Health Complex, cared for by Dr. J.B. Wood. While there, Larry read a Look magazine. He poured over photos of the fascinating life of American writer Ernest Hemingway.
“Hemingway was in Spain, watching exciting bullfights, with pretty ladies on either side of him. That looked good to me. I decided I wanted to be a writer one day,” Larry would later tell his students.
At 14, Larry left the mission school to work on farms and in logging camps. He joined the Canadian Forces as a paratrooper, living in Europe before returning to work in northern British Columbia and Alberta. Raising his family of three sons: Edmund, Lawrence and Bradley, he worked in commercial fishing on the West Coast and as a prison counsellor in Peace River.
The longing for a traditional First Nations way of life stayed with him. He never forgot his determination to become a writer.
In the mid-1980s, Larry went back to school in Vancouver to learn grammar and typing, took free creative writing classes at Carnegie Learning Centre, and wrote short stories.
Larry was deeply involved in the Canadian literacy movement. In 1991, the year of literacy, Larry crossed British Columbia interviewing indigenous teachers for two radio documentaries. He was co-editor of The Wind Cannot Read, an anthology of learner’s writings published by the Province of British Columbia.
Larry met his partner, editor and writer Constance Brissenden, at the Carnegie Learning Centre.
“I was the teacher, but it turned out that Larry was a far better writer than I was,” Constance remembers with a smile.
They soon formed Living Tradition Writers Group and launched a 23-year adventure as co-authors and educators.
Constance, a University of Alberta theatre graduate, directed Larry’s first play, Ora Pro Nobis, Pray for Us, based on his residential school years.
They pair travelled through winter snowstorms with their actors, including Evan Adams, a well-known actor, who today is a respected medical doctor, to five federal B.C. prisons. In 1998, they adapted the play for a Treaty 8 conference in Kinuso, with students from the Swan River First Nation School as actors.
After three more plays, Larry decided to write children’s books.
“I wanted to share the culture and adventures I loved so much as a child with a wider audience,” he said.
Together, Constance and Larry gave more than 1,600 presentations in classrooms, libraries, at conferences and festivals across Canada. One of their favourite venues was the High Prairie Municipal Library which they consider to be one of the best libraries in Canada. They always said yes to school invitations, no matter how remote or challenging the journey to the school.
A week of touring set a demanding pace with 20 or more school talks lined up. Organized by the Young Alberta Book Society, they visited the Fort McMurray area in 2010. They flew into Fort Chipewyan, visiting the school as well as the old Hudson’s Bay Company site.
Larry later wrote an article for the High Prairie South Peace News about his ancestor Toma, a voyageur in 1828, the subject of his to-be-published last book. He discovered that many northern residents had fur trade roots, including Northern Lakes College library technician Shirley Anderson, whose ancestor James Anderson came from the Orkney Islands to work for The Bay.
Larry’s first children’s book, As Long as the Rivers Flow, is about his last traditional summer with his family before residential school. Published in 2002, it won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction and First Nation Communities Read award. The French version, Tant que couleront les rivières, is published by Les Editions des Plaines in Manitoba.
Kokom Bella Twin is a highlight of the adventures in As Long as the Rivers Flow. The tiny 63-year-old Cree wo- man, who lived on Rabbit Hill overlooking Slave Lake, shot the biggest grizzly bear in North America.
“I had to put Bella into the book. She was being forgotten. The only people who remembered her were readers of hunting magazines,” said Larry.
The huge grizzly’s skull is still in the north, housed in a private museum near Slave Lake.
The sequel, Goodbye Buffalo Bay, answered the question, “What happened to Lawrence in residential school and after?” Larry’s last year in Grouard and moving on is written truthfully, with insight, humour and hope. The author was thrilled recently to learn that the Province of Nova Scotia had ordered 450 copies for its schools.
In When the Spirits Dance, Larry shared his family’s Second World War years. Completing the “Lawrence Series,” he wrote The Moon Speaks Cree, A Winter Adventure, set on Rabbit Hill in the mid-1940s. As in all his books, the pressures of changing times are felt by the family.
He wrote The Gathering Tree in 2005, encouraging HIV awareness and prevention with support from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s Chee Mamuk aboriginal health program. Eleven years later, the book is still in print and taught in schools.
The last four years of Larry’s life were taken up with his greatest writing challenge. Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors is a national history, based on 20 years of research, and more than 200 interviews with school survivors.
Larry collaborated with Mohawk writer and residential school expert Wayne K. Spear and editor Constance Brissenden on the book. Published in the fall of 2014, the couple launched the full-colour, hard cover book at the High Prairie Municipal Library. Dozens of residential school survivors from St. Bernard Mission as well as Joussard’s St. Bruno Indian Residential School, joined Larry and Constance at the November event. The iBook version will be available at the end of April from Apple Canada. Included are five video clips of Larry speaking about his residential school days, thanks to Big Lakes County’s historical biography project in 2010.
“Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors has been embraced by readers, students, and schools across Canada,” says GoodMinds.com publisher Jeff Burnham, based in Brantford, Ontario. “Larry was one of the grassroots survivors who spoke up about residential schools more than 25 years ago, when it was still a hidden history. Like Larry, his books are honest and compassionate, reflecting the respect he had for other survivors and his readers.”
The book was also introduced at the Peace River Museum, Sagi- tawa Friendship Society, La Société Historique et Généalogique de Smoky River in Donnelly; and the Native Cultural Arts Museum in Grouard.
“It was a great honour to have been friends with Larry Loyie, and a treasure to have had him bring so many teachings to our museum, through his stories, his visits and his books,” says Native Cultural Arts Museum curator Rachel Cripps. “We are dedicating our annual open house on Saturday, July 16, to Larry in honour of his memory.”
Larry loved his years at his log house. He chopped wood for the stove, fed the birds, picked berries, and explored the forests. Hockey games in High Prairie and McLennan were winter highlights. Larry and Constance were always ready to put the coffee on for visits from their many friends.
Larry’s love for his Cree culture was with him throughout his life, as was his passion for writing and for teaching the young. He received a Sage Award for Education in Edmonton in 2015, recognizing his many school visits.