First Nations Studies, Achievements

First Nations Studies undergraduate Melanie Mercer earns student essay award from Blue Metropolis Literary Prize

June 21, 2018

By Christine Lyons

Melanie Mercer writes powerfully and eloquently about her life as an Indigenous woman who was adopted and raised by white parents of European descent.

 “Dearest Canada: A Letter from your Daughter,” (published in its entirety below) is an emotional tour de force response to Stó:lō writer Lee Maracle’s equally powerful book of essays, My Conversations with Canadians. Maracle’s book questioned the historical and ongoing assimilationist policies of Canada and her book earned the 2018 Blue Metropolis First Peoples Literary Prize.

Mercer wrote “Dearest Canada” for an assignment in First Nations Studies 222: Introduction to Public Policy. Dr. Jeannie Morgan, the instructor, submitted “Dearest Canada” to the newly established Blue Metropolis student essay contest on Mercer’s behalf and it won top prize.

Mercer says she is “honoured and humbled” to receive such recognition for her writing. In the letter, she explains how, despite being well-cared-for by her adoptive parents and even encouraged by them to have ancestral pride in her Indigenous roots, many of her closest family cannot “fathom the depths of [Indigenous peoples’] confusion or the tears in our hearts.”

She writes from a deeply personal yet critical perspective, explaining how the success and damage done by assimilationist policies impacts her directly, how she struggles to negotiate and reclaim self-worth and her Indigenous identity alongside familial tensions and strife: “You can see, Canada, many in my life celebrate my assimilation while simultaneously cursing your residential school policy, while crying foul against the sixties scoop. It is the perfect case of innocent ignorance, of being unable to see where the experiences overlap.”

Mercer's adoptive parents, Patti and Jim Mercer, have gained new insight into their daughter and her struggles after reading her letter. "I think maybe she thought that we might be upset or hurt after reading her essay" Patti Mercer recalls, "but when I read it, the first thing I said to her was, 'I get it now.' I hugged her and, for the first time, I thought to myself, I know her."

"I always knew she had a strong voice," Patti Mercer recalls, "but in reading this letter, and in the conversations that have followed, I'm beginning to undersand the depth of what she is learning, what cultural identity she struggles with and has been missing out on, even though her dad and I did the very best that we could. I also know I have some work to do myself."

Melanie Mercer first came to study First Nations Studies at SFU in 2016 at the suggestion of her counsellor at the time who felt that learning Indigenous history and literature through the avenue of university would be important for Mercer’s healing.

“Post secondary education has purely been a journey of discovery for myself as an adopted, Indigenous woman,” she says, and she’s had incredible experiences taking courses in Indigenous history with Sandy Dielissen, Indigenous Literatures with Deanna Reder, and Indigenous Peoples and British Columbia with Joyce Schneider, to name a few.

In Schneider’s class, Mercer says she worked on one of the most “liberating and meaningful projects” she’s ever done: a presentation on an Indigenous culture group from BC. “My group was Group Respect and my peers, Brynja, Mo, Kelsey, and I all became very close during this project. We decided to visit Kelsey's home community of Chiwathl in Stó:lō territory to speak with community members, elders, and teachers to try and practice Indigenous research methodology with friendly faces.”

Mercer says she came away from that assignment with “a greater appreciation and understanding for Indigenous knowledge keeping and tradition. As someone who is completely cut off from those aspects of my culture, to experience it first hand was humbling and emotional.”

Mercer says she is grateful for the support and well-wishes she’s received from people following the success of her letter. “It was written out of a place of extreme sadness,” she says, “but also out of acceptance of how Canadian-Indigenous history has directly affected my life, who I am, and who I call family and friends.”

At the time she wrote the assignment, Mercer was in the thick of really grappling with the effects of intergenerational trauma, namely post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety—both her own and that of her half-brother with whom she had a difficult reconnection a couple of years previous. Having grown up in poverty and struggling with alcohol and drug abuse himself, she explains, he directed anger and abuse at Mercer for having been taken care of during her youth.

“It was an awful, dark time in my life,” she recalls, “I had a difficult time trusting anyone and was terrified to take the skytrain alone. I was missing classes. I was trying to live outside the abuse.”

“As difficult as it was though,” she goes on, “the writing and ideas that came out of that time are important. And I think people need to see that it’s ok to ask for help and to be vulnerable about your depression, anxiety, or PTS. It’s okay not to be okay.”

Currently, Mercer works full-time as Director of Manufacturing and Inventory Manager for the Tsawwassen-based clothing company No.Mi.No.U and is taking some time away from school to focus on self-care, healing, and her mental health.

While the letter has given her adoptive parents insight into her daily struggles, she says, “I hope that my writing can help others see that this history is not in the distant past with distant consequences. It is around us every day, affecting everyday people who are just trying their best to find a way to belong in Canada.”

Dearest Canada: A Letter from your Daughter

In Response to an excerpt from Lee Maracle’s “My Conversation with Canadians”

By Melanie Mercer

I can hear you, Canada; do you hear me? I am a lost daughter of “your” Indigenous peoples. There was a time when I was proud to be of you; no longer. I have become aware, despite your attempts to silence the darkness in your past, of what you have done. Your actions and inactions have broken me and I am struggling to rebuild my self-worth and reclaim my identity as an Indigenous woman. There was a time when I diligently abided by your narrative: that I was lucky to be out of my primitive culture, with its promiscuous women and violent men, its rampant substance abuse and perpetual poverty. I was blessed; I was lucky; those words burn in my brain like a cold flame, inciting both fury and despair.

I did grow up blessed. I had a room of my own, with boy band posters and a bunk bed; dinner was always at five o’clock and lunch was always from Mom, with love; soccer was on Sundays, no time for church, but always time for a coffee run with Dad. The perfect Canadian family. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged and instilled pride in my ancestral heritage. Mom made sure I was enrolled in “Aboriginal Program” in elementary school, so I would have somewhere to escape to and ask all the questions she could not answer. But even then, I did not belong. You see, Canada, I was adopted and the other children were not; I did not know where I was from, the other children did. Once again, O Canada, the divisions placed upon us by your outsider law transferred to my peers; No status, not “Indian”. White Family, not “Indian”. Just alone.

Are you listening now, Canada? I am not the only one. There are thousands of lost children from “your” Indigenous Nations scattered across the provinces. Many of us are trapped in homes that cannot begin to fathom the depths of our confusion or the tears in our hearts. I have been studying you, Canada, and I am disappointed to say that even those whom I hold nearest to my soul cannot begin comprehend the magnitude of what has been done. I feel like you have won, for if my closest friends and family refuse to see the truth in our shared history, then why should anyone else? My curse evolved, not only am I an Indigenous woman without “indigeneity” as outlined in your stereotypes, I am an educated Indigenous woman with no clear path back to culture, land, and identity.

            You can see, Canada, many in my life celebrate my assimilation while simultaneously cursing your residential school policy, while crying foul against the sixties scoop. It is the perfect case of innocent ignorance, of being unable to see where the experiences overlap. Instead of seeing an individual robbed of cultural identity, they choose to see someone who has avoided a life of hardship and poverty through being thoroughly exposed to Euro-Canadian society and values. How is that fair, sweet Canada? Our nations were to be partners, walking side-by-side, sharing in our triumphs and failures. Lee Maracle laments,

…nor do the treaties say we do not get to be ourselves. Most of the treaties attest to our right to hunt and fish. And they accord us education rights. Some promise us homes, others say ‘the canoe will never be empty’, and at least one says treaty payments will go up as income from the land secessions rise. There could be no hunting or fishing guarantees unless the treaty makers had recognized our original freedom of access to our ancestral lands. They show that we had the absolute right to continue to provide for our lineages. (pg 5)

Dearest Canada, you are all I have ever known. I wish you were who you made yourself out to be on the world stage; I believed for so long that you were just and kind. Now, I just see a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who made fools of a good-natured people, and attempted to steal the future from their next generations. While I may be the perfect example of “taking the Indian out of the child”, perhaps your creators could not comprehend that, maybe, the child would try to “take the Indian back.”