Book Review: Halfbreed Maria Campbell

Halfbreed – Maria Campbell (McClelland & Stewart, 2019)

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Halfbreed is a memoir by Maria Campbell, the story of her life from childhood into early adulthood. Originally published in 1973 this edition was re-released in 2019 with a new introduction and some additions. The introduction by Kim Anderson outlines the depth and breadth of Campbell’s influence, as well as of the book itself. As you might imagine, not a lot of books by Indigenous authors were being published in 1973, let alone by a Métis woman.

(An aside about terms: Campbell exclusively uses “halfbreed” and “Indian” throughout the book. While these are derogatory terms, obviously Campbell has made her choices deliberately and there is power in her claiming of these words. As a white, non-Indigenous person, I am aware that my use of these words would be very different and so I will use the terms Indigenous and Métis instead. Métis is a French term used in Canada to refer to those of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. The Métis were only recognized as a part of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in 1982. A theme throughout Halfbreed is the lack of status for Métis people; not recognized as an aboriginal group but also rejected by the majority white population.)

Campbell grew up in rural Saskatchewan, her family living a fairly subsistence level lifestyle though still incorporating many aspects of traditional Indigenous communities. This was, in large part, due to her cheechum or great-grandmother. Community is an important aspect of their lives and Campbell’s writing portrays this in a compelling and readable manner. Many parts of her early life reminded me of another book I read earlier this year by an Indigenous author local to me, Etched in my Memory. The descriptions of large gatherings and the multi-generational interactions are joyous.

At the same time, Campbell doesn’t shy away from the hardships her family and her people faced. While the Canadian government was technically giving away land in Saskatchewan at this time in history (or at least, not long before Campbell was born), it required the land to be cleared within three years. This was impossible for many of the Métis families and the land they had worked for was given away to European immigrants and many of the Métis forced into subsistence living and poverty. This is a part of Canadian history that was largely unfamiliar to me.

As the eldest sibling, many of the daily household responsibilities fell to Maria and when her mother dies in childbirth, Maria struggles to keep their family together. For years afterward, she balances the impossible task of providing for her younger brothers and sisters while attempting to go to school. The family moves in order to prevent social services from taking the younger children away and eventually Maria marries at a very young age in hopes that her new husband will take care of her siblings.

Life continues to be hard for Maria and she ends up in the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, both a young mother and a drug addict. Her telling of her own story is brutally honest as she shares her struggle with addiction, her desire to care for her children, and her growing disconnect from her own heritage.

Ultimately though, this is a hopeful story and one made even more positive by reading it forty-five years later, being able to learn more about the work that Campbell is still doing among Indigenous and Métis people. There is still much work to be done and responsibility to be taken for the harm done by Canadian government policies. Yet one of the most encouraging things for me as a reader was to think about the growing number of memoirs, novels, and books of poetry being written in Canada by Indigenous and Métis authors. In this alone, we can see the powerful influence of Maria Campbell and Halbreed.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Halfbreed Maria Campbell”

  1. I know you’ve read a number of memoirs and collections by indigenous people; do you feel like the stories are similar, or quite different? I ask because even in the U.S. a lot of stories by Native Americans feel similar as a result of the things other communities have done to Native Americans. There’s a lot of poverty and drug addiction. When COVID-19 caused the first lock down (a couple of states are doing it again), the big concern was reservations, as some homes had 20+ people living in them and no indoor plumbing to wash hands.

    1. I notice similarities between various generations. Like this one and other memoirs of people who are now elderly have similarities but a memoir from someone closer to my age is quite different. Unfortunately, poverty and alcoholism are recurring themes. I think a lot of it stems from the effects of residential schools and other government policies but that shows up differently in different generations. The reservations that I know of in my province have effectively done their own lockdowns. They’ve asked people to not enter their land unless needed (which is very noticeable because part of the band’s land is in the middle of our town!) and our local reserve has set up its own school in order to isolate from the rest of the community. I haven’t heard a lot of concerns surrounding poverty but I could see that being an issue in some of the more remote regions.

  2. Having read this over a decade ago, I’ve totally forgotten what it’s about, other than the obvious details, and I can’t remember that reference to land being taken away after not having cleared it for the first three years. I obviously knew it at one point, but it shocks me all over again to hear about it! Such blatant discrimination is hard to believe, even that long ago, so I’m thankful we are (slowly) improving.

    1. That part really stood out to me because I know my great-grandparents were some of those Europeans given land in Saskatchewan. That history has always been told as if there was just all this empty land and Canada needed people to live there. But there were already people there! Yet another reminder that we only learn one side of history.

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