The life and times of Antoine Mountain, Dene residential school survivor

How to describe Antoine Mountain? It’s almost true to say that this book takes 377 pages to do so. 

I’ll do my best. Antoine Mountain is a painter from the N.W.T.’s Sahtu region. He’s also a residential school survivor (the subhead of his memoir, From Bear Rock Mountain, is “The life and times of a Dene residential school survivor”), a radio producer, a former competitive cross-country skier, a father, a son, not much of a hunter (he dislikes killing animals) and a PhD candidate in Indigenous Studies at Trent University. 

But painter is the keyword here. It’s the thing that’s follows him through his whole life, from the time when he was sketching with charcoal on birchbark to when he first tried painting in grade school. Mountain describes himself as the “sensitive, artistic type,” and shows other traits that often accompany this: rebelliousness, a distaste for authority (particularly the authority of the colonial N.W.T. government), that aversion to killing animals. 

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This book is not a memoir. I.e. we don’t go back in time with the author and experience his gropings and awakenings. This is a collection of thoughts based on experiences, many of them with books. The structure is more or less chronological, with various pauses and detours through Mountain’s unique and roving life.

Mountain was born in 1949, to a sixteen-year-old mother stricken with tuberculosis, and set out in the cold to die (the idea being that his mother wouldn’t be able to feed him). Restored to the family by his grandmother, he grew up in and around Fort Good Hope with this grandmother and an auntie while his dad worked as a fishing guide on Great Bear Lake and his mother (and himself as a young child) received treatment in Aklavik. 

He remembers the log house and the cold walk to the stove in the morning. Chopping wood and tending the fire were both important jobs for kids. Summers were spent at fish camps along the Mackenzie River. 

Mountain recalls both the good and the bad of this life: the freedom of camp living and the joy of the outdoor life alongside lice, TB and superstition among people “isolated from the rest of the world.” This was during the time of moosehide boats — giant canoes made from up to fifteen moose hides, designed to haul a whole camp and their catch downriver after hunting in the mountains. Mountain describes this as joyful and thrilling, but also “dangerous, with sharp rocks on all sides ready to rip the entire craft to pieces and drown all within. I lost uncles on those boat rides.”

Mountain was nine and his sister Judy seven when they were taken to school in Inuvik and lodged at Grollier Hall, the student residence that would later become infamous for the convictions of four men who worked there between 1959 and 1979 (according to the hall’s history in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report). 

Mountain spares the details, but this experience marked him for life. 

“The Mackenzie Delta was certainly physically colder, and there was a new kind of coldness awaiting us young and innocent children at residential school there,” he writes. “We were all marked for failure except, of course, for the favoured pets, ‘sister’s pets’ — the cuter ones who did who knows what for the nuns in private.”

[Incidentally, this book opened my eyes to the danger of just getting to residential school. “For we students bound for Inuvik, almost 317 kilometres over the Arctic Circle, all six passenger seats were taken out and about twenty of us were crammed in, many for the first airplane ride ever.”]

In 1965, aged 15, Mountain was sent to Grandin College in Fort Smith, a high school designed to produce future leaders (Herb Mathison did a great story about this school in Up Here). Here he is shocked to find white students among the boarders, sleeping two to a room (a luxury after dorm life). In these years, he thrived as a cross-country skier, basketball player and lead singer of a band named Electric Storm. 

Mountain drifts a little after high school, grabbing onto anything that seems artistic (media studies is the nearest option at hand). He experiences low points, spending time in jail and on the streets of Yellowknife (and in Fort Good Hope where he sets up a tent for several years, and talks his way into sleeping in the college building due to the severe housing shortage). Alcohol becomes a problem, which he appears to beat for good in 1992. 

He finds his home at an alternative art school in Toronto, and later, the Ontario College of Art and Design, for which he’ll spend a semester in Florence, Italy. 

Native spirituality is a big part of Mountain’s life. Involved in the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (later the Dene Nation), he describes a trip to a conference in Alberta. “This was the first time our group from Yellowknife was ever exposed to any real native spirituality… Even in the North, where our people still lived close to the land, the hold of the foreign Mola [white man] churches was yet too tight for any Dene roots to show.”

Later, he’ll make repeat journeys to the American southwest to spend time with the Dineh and take part in the peyote rituals of the Native American Church (rituals hinted at but never fully lived in this book). 

In between accounts of his actual life are traces of his intellectual one. Mountain makes reference to Muhammad Ali, Kent State, Malcolm X, Hiroshima, Christopher Columbus, the Paulette case, Geronimo, the prophets of Deline, and more. Reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was so distressing for him, he set it down for six months halfway through. 

But the subject he returns to again and again, starting on page one and every twenty-five pages or so thereafter, is his comparison of the residential school system with the Holocaust. Mountain quotes from several Holocaust survivors and makes an extended meditation on Claude Lanzmann’s landmark 1985 documentary Shoah

This is the third book I’ve reviewed for this blog that began as a column for News/North, where Mountain has been writing “A. Mountain View” (no paywall!) for fifteen years (and that’s not including Dave Bidini’s Midnight Light). Mountain actually mentions publisher Bruce Valpy in the first sentence (Valpy is giving him the sound advice to keep his audience in mind while writing his memoir). This makes me wonder what the actual tally — of authors as much as books — that outfit has generated. 

It’s pretty clear that the column — an invitation to lay out some thoughts on any subject at hand — was the primary generative force for this wide-ranging, interesting read. 

From Bear Rock Mountain: The Life and Times of a Dene Residential School Survivor
Antoine Mountain
TouchWood Editions, 2019
377 pages

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