He loped across the back yard regularly when I was writing Red Wolf. It was always thrilling to see him and even more thrilling to get this photo because normally by the time we got the camera, he was long gone. But this one day he stopped and turned and looked at us as we took this photo! And I felt sure that he was thanking me for telling his story… the story of the persecution of his ancestors. The only problem about having the wolf visit us was that we had a cat! His name was Bailey and he loved being outdoors. And unfortunately, one day during that year, Bailey went outside and he never came back, so I’m pretty sure that the wolf ate my beautiful cat.
Q 3: Tell me about the racism you experienced.
A: When we lived in England, Keith was attacked by a gang of Skinheads. Skinheads are white supremacists. They hate people who are not white, like them. They kicked him with steel toed boots, they stomped on him and they left him for dead. But he wasn’t dead. Not quite. His skull was severely fractured, but he recovered. And we moved to Canada… one of the most multicultural and tolerant countries in the world. Like so many millions of others, we came here looking for a safe place to raise our children. But then unexpectedly… shockingly... Keith died. He died from complications caused by the earlier head injury. We'd thought he was better. But he wasn’t. He was 33 years old.
Q 4: How old were your children?
A: Joanna was three and James was eighteen months and Kate was born 4 months after Keith died. He never got to meet her.
Q 5: How did you manage?
A: It was difficult. My children were the only reason I had the will to keep living. I had to get out of bed every day and look after them, because they needed me - they were so little. Being pregnant was kind of neat. It was like Keith left me a gift, saying do not open until Christmas. It was something to look forward to. But I got over protective. I didn’t want to let the children out of my sight because I was worried that something bad would happen to them, too. So when my oldest child, Joanna, got on the school bus for the very first time and went off to school for one whole day without me, I was devastated. But at the same time I remember thinking how awful it was for First Nations mothers who were saying goodbye to their children, not just for one day, but for 10 months a year... for 12 years! I was angry that there was no legal way for First Nations parents to fight back, because residential school was the law for them. They couldn’t go to the police, because the police enforced the law. They caught runaway children and took them back to school. And they fined, or jailed parents. When Joanna got on the school bus that first day the reality of all this really hit me. My gut reaction reminded me of how I had felt at university when I learned about slavery, and when I took on the guilt of my British ancestors for the part they had played. I realized that slavery, although very different from residential schools, was at its heart, the same! It separated families. And the breakdown of families over several generations leaves people with a gaping hole in their hearts, a hole that cannot be easily filled.
Q 6: I can hear your passion for this subject.
A: Yes. I know from my birth what it's like to be British, colonial, at the top of the pecking order so to speak, but I know from my life experience what it's like to be discriminated against. I relate on a gut level to people who are the victims of injustice and persecution. And I know where hate can lead us. I think that this has given me a slightly different perspective when it comes to my writing.
Q 7: Why did you write Red Wolf ?
A: I thought that my children would be taught about Residential Schools and the Indian Act in school, but they weren't! It was Canadian history! Yet it had been silenced. I wanted to change that! So I started writing Red Wolf.
Q 8: How many years ago was that?
A: About 30!
Q 9: It took you 30 years to write Red Wolf!
A: Yes... and no. I wasn't actually writing all that time! But It was in my head, usually in the background. Every now and again, I tried writing more of the story, but I couldn't get it right. My children grew up and the book still wasn’t finished. But then my daughter, Joanna, met and married a First Nations man, Jason. And the missing part of the puzzle fell into place. When I told Jason’s family about Red Wolf, they encouraged me & shared their stories. So I got back to writing. From that point, it took me about a year to finish the story; a year of writing almost every hour of the day.
Q 10: I heard that Red Wolf was a play at one point along the way.
A: Yes, the early draft was a musical. But it's very difficult and very expensive to stage a musical, so I switched to telling the story as a book, trying to describe in words what I saw in my head. I hope that one day someone will want to stage it as a musical or maybe a movie.
Q 11: Who do you relate to most in the story?
A: StarWoman. She has only a small part in the story, but my own loss gave me a special empathy with other mothers whose children were taken from them. If someone had taken my children away from me after Keith died, I wouldn't have made it. Having said that, there is a small part of me in many of the characters in the book! I relate to most of them in one way or another. I do have the ability to put myself into the shoes of another person, and that helps me when it comes to creating characters.
Q 12: How did you get the idea to tell part of the boy’s story through the life of a wolf?
A: I don’t know! The idea just came to me. It dropped into my head, like most good ideas do and I thought, Wow! That’s a great idea! It was actually one of the best ideas that I’ve ever had! It was the moment that the story, Red Wolf, came to life. And it was the moment that shaped me as a writer, because it gave me a unique style. I now use animals now to help tell all my stories.
Q 13: Tell me about the wolf that visited you, during that year you were writing.
It was sad, but it made me realize that my back yard is the wolf’s home! I live on HIS territory, the place where he and his ancestors have hunted for thousands of years. I live on aboriginal territory, too. All of us immigrants do, no matter whether we arrived here yesterday, or whether it was our great-great-great grandparents who came here.
Q 14: Tell me about your life today?
A: It's busy. I'm just finishing up my fourth book for young people, A TANGLED TALE. It's about Alzheimer's disease. And I'm working on my musical, DANDELIONS IN THE WIND, another project that has been on the go for many years. Check it out on the PLAY page on my website. I still enjoy walking in the forest and riding my horse. Life is good!
But it was 1966, still two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. America had only just passed laws to let Black Americans vote! There was a lot of unrest. A lot of violence. It was a time when white girls did not date black boys. My parents tried to split us up but they didn’t succeed, and a few years later we got married. My parents didn’t come to our wedding. And after that there were no phone calls, no visits, nothing. Today, mixed marriage is not that big of a deal, but fifty years ago it was a big problem. We lived in London England. We didn't think that the racism there was too bad, but we were wrong.
Jennifer has a B.Sc. (Agric) from the University of the West Indies. Before coming to Canada in 1979, she worked in medical research at St. Thomas Hospital in London, England. She lives on a small farm in Stouffville, Ontario and is one of the few people around who knows how to milk a cow by hand, make cheese, butter and yogurt. When her children were young, Jennifer was a stay-at-home mom, feeding her family off the land. These days she buys food from the store but is still able to indulge her life-long love affair with horses. A passion for justice and equality and a love for the natural world is evident in all her books for young people.
Q 2: Is that why you came to Canada?
A: Yes. We came in 1979 - with our two small children. We came looking for a safe place where our kids could have equal opportunity, regardless of skin colour. There was a lot of racism in other parts of the world, but not Canada…we thought. So when we got here, we were shocked to find out that although new immigrants like us had many opportunities, the original people of this country were still being treated badly. They’d lived here for thousands of years before settlers arrived, yet they'd been tricked, or forced, onto land that the settlers “reserved” for them. And once they made their mark on the white man’s paper… paper that they couldn’t read and couldn’t understand, they became wards of the government. And that meant they had to obey a law called the Indian Act. One of the things that the Indian Act said, was that their children had to go to school. But the schools were not in their own neighbourhoods, not like ours are. The schools were so far away that the children had to live there… reside there… hence the name residential schools. The parents had no choice. It was the law for them. Keith and I knew about racism. We'd lived it, so we recognized it here... in the Indian Act, and the residential school system.
Jennifer's life has demonstrated her passion for justice and racial equality.
She has experienced first-hand where racism can lead.
"Looking back, it has made me more sensitive to the pain of others. It has driven my creativity."
Q 1: Can you tell us a little about your early life, where you were born, and places you have lived.
A: I was born in England in 1949. It was in a time when kids had a lot of freedom to play outside unsupervised, and I did just that... climbing trees and wading in streams, watching tapdoles turn into frogs and caterpillars into butterflies, and collecting all sorts of injured or abandoned animals... birds, mice, rabbits, cats, dogs and even a pony. It was a great childhood. But I grew up totally unaware of other cultures. I don't recall a single non-white person in my school or community. Then, when I was 16 my family moved to Trinidad, and everything changed. As the only white girl in a class on West Indian history, I learned about slavery. It was the first time I had ever seen the British in a bad light, and I wanted to crawl under my seat and hide. It was a life-changing moment. Looking back, it was the start of my journey to stand up for justice and equality, and to try and make the world a better place. In that era the races didn't mix, but I saw people for who they were inside, I didn't judge them by skin colour. This was quite unusual for those times. I remember when I started going out with Keith and I took him home to meet my parents for the first time, I was really surprised that they freaked out. It had not even crossed my mind that they might object.