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First Nations Studies undergraduate wins student essay literary prize

June 21, 2018
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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 (a link to her essay is located at the bottom of this story) 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. Jeannie Morgan, the instructor, submitted the essay to the newly established Blue Metropolis student 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 says, "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 B.C.

“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 OK not to be OK.”

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.

She is grateful for the support and well-wishes she’s received from people following the success of her letter.

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.”

Click here to read Dearest Canada: A Letter from your Daughter.