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 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, as well as write books, hoping to make the world a better place by inspiring the next generation of young activists.
Q: Red Wolf is the first book in your White Feather Collection. Can you tell us what inspired you to start writing books about such difficult issues?
A: I had the idea for Red Wolf way back in 1979 after reading a newspaper article about the closure of a residential school. I was shocked because I didn’t even know that they were open, or that they were the law for Indigenous children. The idea of separating children as young as 4 from their parents and communities really tugged at my heart strings. The more I investigated, the more outraged I became. But when I talked to other people, they thought that the Canadian government and the churches were doing a good thing; that Indian residential schools were like British boarding schools. For me, there was a huge difference. British parents sent their children to boarding schools because they wanted to send them there, because they would get the best possible education, and make the best possible connection. Indigenous parents in Canada had no choice. Their children had been taken away against their will for a hundred years already and they were still being taken away! I was sickened. I thought that my own kids would be taught about it school since it was Canadian history going back to John A. MacDonald. But they weren't – it had been silenced. I wanted to change that. I thought that if I could tell the historic truth in a way that was engaging to young people, their innate sense of fairness would make them empathetic. Some of them might become activists for justice and equality. I wanted to inspire the next generation to take up the torch! I started writing. With hindsight, it was like the topic chose me rather than the other way around.
Q: How many years ago was that?
A: About 30!
Q: It took you 30 years to write Red Wolf!?
A: Yes and no. I wasn't writing all that time! 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 day. That was in 2000
Q: But Red Wolf wasn’t published until 2012. Why did it take so long?
A: It was ahead of its time. It was only after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started raising awareness that publishers saw the need for my book and I got a contract with Dundurn. The book was published at the exact right time…. when schools were becoming aware of the subject matter. It filled a niche in the classroom. And since most of the teachers knew nothing about residential schools either, it was really helpful, giving them a good intro to the historical background! Plus there’s a Teacher’s Guide.
Q: Both Paint and Red Wolf are historical fiction, but Hawk is set today. It’s very different yet is still part of the same collection. How come?
A: Hawk is rooted in the same colonial history as both Red Wolf and Paint. It’s founded on Treaty 8 of 1899, in which the land occupied by the oil sands industry toady was ceded to (or stolen by) the Crown. But even more importantly it shows the ongoing racism against Indigenous people and the legacy of residential school on the characters in the story.
Q: Where did your passion for fighting racism came from?
A: I was born in England in 1949. Kids back then 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 toward activism, toward standing up for justice and equality, toward making the world a better place.
When I met a black engineering student and took him home to meet my parents, I was really shocked that they freaked out. It had not even crossed my mind that they might object. But it was 1966, still two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior. America had only just passed laws allowing 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. Keith was attacked by racists. His skull was 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: 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. Joanna was three, James was two and I was 5 months pregnant. Being pregnant 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. My gut reaction reminded me of how I had felt at university when I learned about slavery. 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: 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: Who do you relate to most in the story?
Red Wolf's Mother: StarWoman. If someone had taken my children away from me after Keith died, I wouldn't have made it. I guess my own loss gave me a special empathy with other mothers. No matter our ethnicity we are all like mother bears…we fight to protect our offspring.
Q: Are you going to write any more books in the White Feather Collection?
A: No, I don’t think so. I'm just finishing up my fourth book but it's not about First Nations issues. It's about Alzheimer's disease, but I still use an animal to help tell the story … this time an old golden retriever.
Q: Tell me about your life today?
A: It's busy. I'm working on re-staging my musical, DANDELIONS IN THE WIND. It’s about black-white racism, and has a lot of personal details from my life with Keith. Other than that, I still enjoy walking in the forest and riding my horse.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org