Queen’s prof nominated for Governor General’s Award

Armand Garnet Ruffo talks reconciliation and responsibility

Armand Garnet Ruffo is nominated for the 2019 Governor General's Award.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Visit Kingston's Mayor's Arts Awards 2017 video.

Armand Garnet Ruffo’s life has always been marked by treaties. Many decades ago, his great-great-grandfathers signed them, and today in the twenty-first century, his life as an Ojibwe Canadian is still shaped by the many treaties governing the existence of Indigenous people.

His latest book, a collection of poems, titled Treaty #, is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Treaty # approaches life as a Canadian through the lens of treaties and their impact on community.

Treaty # is the second book by Ruffo—an English professor at Queen’s known for pioneering courses on Indigenous literature—to be nominated for the award. His first was the 2015 biography of Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, titled Norval Morriseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird.

The book came together as Ruffo mused about the state of Indigenous affairs in Canada today, where dialogue about residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women dominate the national consciousness. 

“I was trying to track where it came from and I realized it really did come from the disempowerment of Indigenous people, and the central mode[s] of disempowerment were the treaties. They were the first documents of contact, and were really established to get rid of Indigenous people,” said Ruffo. “I started writing about that, and the whole concept of treaty opened up for me.”

The collection tackles both the obvious and the subtle impacts of treaty. In his poem Dinner Party, Ruffo discusses the impact of personal history and how people carry their backgrounds and experiences with them as they move through society.

The poem paints a picture of comfortable middle-class wealth, but Ruffo’s descriptions of it create a sense of unease, describing shadows “leaking…across the easy smiles” and a “white towel” that soaks up blood. He sheds light on Indigenous people’s experiences in Canadian society at large, where they often end up feeling like strangers on their own land.

Although his heritage informs his writing today, growing up in Chapleau, Ontario in the 1960s and 70s, Ruffo’s main inspirations were artists like Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Gordon Lightfoot, whose music was more accessible than poetry to a boy growing up in what he calls “boreal forest country.”

Now, Ruffo is happy to see poetry resurface as an art form that young people are drawn to. He says the reason for poetry’s appeal is that it’s often a short and easily shared medium of expression.

He notes lyric-forward hip hop’s role in poetry’s revival, a genre that has come to replace the singer-songwriters of his youth as a way to bring poetry to the masses.

Just as with poetry, the author says the times have changed since he began his work at Queen’s.

When he arrived, he often had to fight to start Indigenous initiatives, and now, he’s happy to report an effort to hire new, young, Indigenous faculty across programs, as well as develop courses in Indigenous subjects that honour the spirit of reconciliation.

To Ruffo, gestures that bring Indigenous people into the greater context of Canadian history are incredibly meaningful. Through Treaty #, Ruffo wants to add to the dialogue about what it means to be Canadian in recognition of how treaties impact all of our lives. 

“How can you have a country called Canada without Indigenous people being central to it?” Ruffo said.

“We all talk about our rights, and in Anishinaabemowin, the word implies responsibility as well. [...] We are all treaty people, and that’s what I want people to come away with.”

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