Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of age, by Darrel J. McLeod. Douglas & McIntyre, 2018. ISBN 9781771622004.

mamaskatch-1Although it has been around since the late ’80s, in the last few years the concept of intersectionality has gained prominence when discussing oppression. Very simply, intersectionality theory states that those who are most marginalized in society are those who fall under multiple forms of discrimination. At times the dynamics of intersectionality can seem like an academic exercise, but in Mamaskatch, the concept comes to full and vivid life. This is the memoir of a Cree man coming of age under the barrage of colonialism, racism, homophobia, religious oppression and, tangentially, transphobia.

Although Darrel J. McLeod’s mother was sent to a residential school, and like so many others suffered greatly for it, her life didn’t completely unravel until after the death of her husband, Darrel’s father. There are passages in the book that convey the warmth of their family despite their not having much and the traditions of Cree culture that kept them anchored together. Sadly, these times came crashing down with his mother’s alcoholism and the resulting fragmentation of his family. The responsibility to keep the family together descends on Darrel who is in no position and much too young to make a success of it. The arrival of the government bureaucrat from social services to take the youngest children away is heartbreaking.

The memoir that follows says much about Darrel McLeod’s resilience, but he never frames it in those terms. Instead, he is unafraid to show his vulnerability as he navigates a frequently hostile world and tries to find his path between Cree and White cultures. The racism is often stunningly irrational: Darrel’s sister’s husband was happy to marry her, but they split in part because he didn’t want to “have kids with Indian blood.”

Darrel’s journey to understand his sexuality is as fraught with peril as his numerous other challenges. His problems are compounded when he is sexually abused by his sister’s husband when he is just twelve years old. The guilt and trauma that followed from that abuse – exacerbated by his unfortunate stint with a Christian group that sought to exorcise his homosexual leanings – made it extremely difficult to pick apart who he truly was and then be comfortable with that person. And there was one further complexity: the brother and uncle he grew up with began living as trans women. Several times he wondered could he too be trans?

Trina’s and Diane’s stories – his former brother Greggie and uncle Danny (who was close in age to his brother) – run through this memoir and are an unpleasant reminder of how transphobic the 1970s were. Even so, Darrel’s mother’s reaction when she first discovered Trina was on hormones was sympathetic: “We havta a-ssept him, Son. It don’t matter. We can’t discard him.”

If only that were enough. Trina’s and Diane’s fates are difficult ones: sex work, drug addiction, transphobia. The dodgy state of trans health at the time results in a surgery for Trina that is less than ideal. Diane takes her own life. She had returned home,

…seeking the acceptance and love she and Greggie – Trina – had experienced as young boys dressing up, playing house and doing girls’ chores. Perhaps if they had remained crossdressers, the acceptance would have been there. But complete gender alteration – a surgical sex change – was new territory for our people, and our culture had shifted. Catholic values had replaced the tolerance that our Cree great-grandparents and our older aunts and uncles had shown regarding sexuality and gender identity. Auntie Rosie and Mother had always been solid in their support of Diane and Trina, but others struggled with it or outright condemned them.

Mamaskatch is a reminder of a time not so long ago when racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia had direct and devastating effects on individuals. I hope we’ve become better since then.

Mamaskatch was the worthy winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.