KAMLOOPS, B.C. – Although Edna Manitowabi did not know author and journalist Richard Wagamese well, she knew the power of his words.
The Ojibway elder and professor emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., spoke at a memorial service on Saturday for Wagamese, who died in Kamloops, B.C., on March 10.
She told the crowd gathered at Thompson Rivers University that while reading his book “Indian Horse,” she recognized “the power of (his) gift because his voice, his words, delved into the soul of my being.”
“Indian Horse” is a story about a boy abused in the residential school system who finds his release in a love of hockey. The novel is being adapted for a movie and was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013.
Wagamese, who grew up in foster homes, often described himself as a second-generation survivor of the residential school system of which his parents and other family members were students.
Christine Haebler, one of the producers of the adapted film Indian Horse, said, “A national treasure gone too soon.”
Wagamese’s first novel, “Keeper’n Me,” tied for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta fiction award in 1995. He eventually went on to write a dozen novels.
Before writing books, Wagamese was the native-affairs columnist at the Calgary Herald and became the first indigenous journalist to win a National Newspaper Award in 1991.
His death came just one week after he was nominated for a B.C. Book Prize for “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations.”
Close friend Dan Ferguson told the memorial about some of the hardships Wagamese faced throughout his life and about their discussions on the importance of being sober and of being able to apologize.
Fergus also told stories of the lighter side of his friend, describing him as someone “who really loved expensive shirts, the colour pink and the (Boston) Red Sox.”
Long-time literary agent John Pearce recounted the “playful and intense” sides of Wagamese, and said the author “could always get your attention.”
On receiving the Indian Horse manuscript, he said, “It came with a warning from Wagamese that the last 15 pages of this novel will rip the heart right out of you.”
Yvette Lehman, the author’s life partner, said Wagamese “taught me how to love.”
The service was attended by Wagamese’s former wives Debra Powell and Carolyn Deby, his son and granddaughters. A second celebration of his life is scheduled for March 26, in northern Ontario, where he was born.