Alex Cyr Interview


Alumnus publishes debut novel documenting athletic experience at StFX

Alex was interviewed by Yanik Gallie on August 14, 2018. Runners of the Nish: A Season in the Sun, Rain, Hail and Hell is now available for purchase online through the FriesenPress or Amazon websites.

Photo: Heckbert's Photography and Gallery

Photo: Heckbert's Photography and Gallery

Alumnus Alex Cyr published his debut novel Runners of the Nish: A Season in the Sun, Rain, Hail and Hell on July 25, 2018. Alex’s novel is an autobiographical reveal of life as a StFX athlete. 

Alex is a journalist who has written articles for U Sports and Canadian Running Magazine. Prior to publishing his novel, Alex published interviews with Olympic athletes Eric Gillis, Melissa Bishop, and Reid Coolsaet.  


YG: Can you share your experience of writing a first novel?

AC: There were a lot more steps to the experience than I thought. I started writing not thinking I was about to write a novel. The way it started is my coach Bernie Chisholm asked me if I wanted to chronicle a few things throughout the season like a race, workout, that kind of thing. As time went on, I filled in the gaps with things that happened. Not only races, workouts and hard outcomes, but also fun events that the team did and nights out. The process of writing my first novel really came in small, small, increments to the point where I didn’t know where I was going with it. It didn’t feel like a job until I got to the point when I looked at what I had and thought I can publish this. Because it was about something that I cared about and enjoyed, it was really a painless, and fun, process.

The publishing process took a lot more out of me than I thought. There is a lot that goes into taking a manuscript and making it into a book. Before that, I didn’t realize how many people would get to work with me. There is so much to be done. There’s editing, design, layout, copyright, getting your ISBN registered. All in all, I think it was a super cool experience and something that I might want to do again someday. It was eye-opening and rewarding.

YG: Knowing the book reflects your personal experience, is there content you were hesitant of including or redacted from the first edition?

AC: Yes. When I decided that I wanted to make a book out of this, I had to make a critical decision in that do I keep the events real and make it a non-fiction or do I embellish it and make a story out of this? Eventually my decision was to keep it real. I put the results as they were. I put the events as they were. Tell the stories as they were. When I made that decision, it made me have to draw a line somewhere else. How intrusive can I be in this endeavor? The people I write about are my teammates and also my best friends. When writing something about them, you want to portray them in a way that is very real, respectful and indicative of who they are. At the same time, you want to present them as characters and highlight little traits and funny characteristics that they have. Most of it, I tried to keep PG. There’s college life in there and stuff. For that part, I tried to gloss over some things that may not be appropriate for the book. I wanted to keep it friendly for the general population.



YG: Coach Bernie Chisholm is a treasured mentor of yours. How are you keeping the teachings of Bernie with you in P.E.I. and Ontario? 

AC: Something I think you’ll hear from many people who have been coached or taught by Bernie, because he was also a teacher, is Bernie became a bit more than a running coach. He became a life coach. 

I think Bernie instills good values in his runners and students. He’s a person with very consistent beliefs that he vocalizes. He’s also a guy who will tell you when you’re stepping out of line. He’s someone who implements a strong team culture and holds everyone to the same high standard. 

Personally, a lesson I am taking back with me from StFX, and from Bernie especially, is the ability to be mentally tough. I apply this to my running mostly, but it’s also a lesson that I apply to life. It’s the ability to push through things when they are not going my way. When you are doing a discipline like running, chances are you are going to replicate that behavior in other aspects of your life. With Bernie, he taught me to persevere and to be patient while working hard. That’s probably the number one quality that I have that I can attribute to Bernie’s coaching.

YG: You beat your personal best this May, well done. What goals are you pursuing with the University of Windsor Athletics Club?

AC: I still have one more year in my master’s at Windsor. After that, I don’t know where school, life and running will take me. There are things that I like about the environment in Windsor and if the next chapter of my life is there, my goals with running are to take it as far as I mentally and physically can. If I’m able to do that for the next few years, the goal is to be increasingly competitive on the national stage.

YG: What athletic tips would you give to a first-year student who is interested in running for StFX?

AC: I would encourage that student to go tryout and give it their shot. I think successful runners on the StFX team come from all walks of sport. You will have those who are superstars coming in and they don’t take as much time to walk up the ranks in the team and become intrinsic members. You will have those who have to wait a bit longer and stick it out. A tip that I would give is to be patient and trust the process. It wouldn’t be to work extremely hard for one week as it would be to work quite hard for 52 weeks and do it again, and again. 

Now, I’m one year removed from X and my best friends that I talk to everyday are fellow X-Men and X-Women, roommates and teammates. Cross-country and track-and-field are in essence sports for individuals. However, at X, there very much is that aspect of team that follows you wherever you go. Work consistently hard and results will come. 


Sarah Mian Interview


Staff Writer Addy Strickland and Co-Editor-In-Chief Yanik Gallie interviewed novelist Sarah Mian at Trellis Cafe on Tuesday 24th of July. Sarah is writing the script for a film adaptation of When The Saints. Sarah is also in the process of writing her second novel, The World in Awful Sleep.

Photographer: Shaun Simpson

Photographer: Shaun Simpson

Sarah Mian's debut novel, When the Saints, won the Jim Connors Book Award, the Margaret & John Savage First Book Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The book has just been optioned for a feature film and she is writing the screenplay.  


AS: You recently left your day job with the RCMP to become a full-time writer. What does a typical day of work look like for you now?

SM: I wish I could say that I had a routine that I stick to everyday. It’s more random than that, because I never know what project is inspiring me on a particular day. I am working simultaneously on my second novel, the screenplay for When The Saints, and a few other freelance projects. I try to get the tight deadlines out of the way first. Generally speaking, I write better at night, and now that I don’t have to get up everyday and go to a day job, I can write all night. I find that I think much more clearly in the evening, so I usually start writing on the heavy stuff after 7pm, go till about 2am or so, and then I wake when I wake. I try to get some exercise in there. I find that when I do something repetitive like running, walking or paddling, a different part of my consciousness can come forward and I’m better able to work out all of the plot points that weren’t coming to me when I was typing. 

AS: When The Saints is your first novel, correct?

SM: I wrote what I call a starter novel in my 20s, and I highly recommend it because it taught me how to be a better writer. When I read it back, not only is it a capsule of the way that I thought in my 20s – my gosh, I’d be mortified if it would ever be published because it’s so saccharine, idealistic, naïve --but when I read it back, it I can see that the writing gets better halfway through. All that consistent writing really paid off. The beginning is weak, and the ending is so strong, I can see the transformation of myself as a writer through that manuscript. It was absolutely worth doing. 

I teach writing classes now at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and I always tell students, “never throw anything away.” If I had thrown that manuscript in the wood stove once I realized it wasn’t going to get published, I would have lost some really poetic descriptions of weather, landscapes and the ocean. I’m pulling those out and using them now in my second novel. It’s like a gift from my former self.

AS: What was the process of writing When The Saints like compared to your first novel?

SM: It started out as a flash fiction exercise I was doing with my writing group. I just kept adding to it, and it became a short story. Then, it was longer than a short story and I was still working on it. I had no intention to write a novel based on it – but the voice was so compelling and urgent. So, I wrote the whole thing from start to finish. Then, I went back to the beginning and made every line lead up to that ending. It felt like with this particular story, like it wanted to exist, or it already existed, and it chose me to take it down like a scribe which makes it sounds easier than it is. My second novel is not going down that path at all. It’s a completely different beast. I really value the fact that When The Saints came to me so fully formed.

AS: When the Saints took home the notable Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award and Margaret and John Savage First Book Award in 2016. As a debut author, how were these awards significant to you?

SM: Because those awards are judged by other writers in the Maritimes it felt really good to be recognized by my peers. It meant a lot to me while I was writing the book, and after I wrote the book, that people here embraced the book. It is such a Nova Scotia story. It was also shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and there were only three finalists - the other two well established with many novels under their belts and had been shortlisted or won the thing before, and me. And, this is a big event where it’s black tie and they sing the national anthem. That was kind of surreal for a kid who grew up in the hood in Dartmouth on social assistance.  

YG: What did you take away from working with the major publisher, HarperCollins?

SM: I had no idea there were so many layers to the editing process. There’s an editor, and there’s a copywriter, and then there’s a proof-reader. I was getting emails like, “hey, you have someone drinking a pineapple cooler, and the book takes place roughly around 1996. I don’t think those were invented yet, here’s a list of coolers that you can choose from.” So, I think I changed it to Calypso Berry. I was thrilled that somebody is actually like, “hey if they drive to the stop sign and turn left, wouldn’t they be going the wrong way?” They’re actually paying attention to my imaginary town. 

Then there’s a jacket designer. I sent them a photo of something that I had in mind, and then they had their artist create this cover. I’m so happy with what she did. When it was published, HarperCollins gave me a publicist. It felt like I had a whole team. Through it all, I had a say in everything. My contract stated that I am the top authority over my creation, and HarperCollins stuck by that.

YG: It sounds like you had a lot of creative liberty to make the book’s aesthetic and content exactly to your liking, which is awesome.

SM: Yes, but when it comes to the screenplay, it’s going to be completely opposite. Having had this experience, I really need to brace myself for the fact that I’ll have little control over the decisions. But hey, Hemingway famously said that if anyone ever options your book, you should drive to Hollywood, throw your manuscript over the fence, wait for the bag of money to come back and then drive away as fast as you can. It’s just a totally different medium and the book will be completely unrecognizable. It will be a good challenge for me to think through how we can lose the flashbacks or condense characters or eliminate scenes and still retain the information that those scenes conveyed. I’m excited about that, and not excited about that at the same time. Hopefully it will still retain its flavor, tone, and characters. If they find really good actors and nothing else – even if the budget is small and the set is tiny – I think they can pull it off. 

YG: The title When the Saints alludes to the familiar lyric, “when the saints go marching in.” An acute reader could anticipate the reuniting of the Saint family. Was this planned foreshadowing?

SM: I can’t recall at what stage of writing the novel the title came into play. The name Saint came from the RCMP. There had been a woman in a small town who had committed countless petty crimes with the last name Saint. I felt there was great irony. In other police files, there were whole families who were the shit disturbers in the town. So, I put those two together and formed the Saint family. It seemed to me the most logical title because it works in that your mind automatically connects with the rest of the sentence. As soon as you start reading or even read the back you’re going to see that they’re the kind of people who take no prisoners.

Photographer: Darren Schrader

Photographer: Darren Schrader

YG: Many reviewers on Goodreads mention that they connect with Tabby on a deep level. How did this brave character come to be?

SM: She, I would say, is a composite of people I grew up with in a rough neighbourhood, in Dartmouth. There are elements of family members, elements of myself, but then some of her was always her own person who kept talking to me and I kept listening. I also feel quite an affinity for her. I don’t know how we met, but I’m glad we did.

YG: Literary critic Laura Eggertson from The Star praised your exceptionally-developed characters. What is your process for developing characters?

SM: I think with the Saint family, they are all very strong personalities, and their motivations are overt. They’re very outspoken, which kind of made them easier to know. Once they knew who they were, and what their motivations were, all of the plot lines evolved very organically out of themselves. They drove the whole thing, just being who they are. They are all sort of characters from my upbringing. They’re all mish-mashes of many different people. 

I spend a lot of time musing about characters when I’m not writing. Like if I’m watching a concert, I would try to put myself into that person’s body and mind, and think to myself how would Jackie react to this right now? Would he be patient? Would he be secretly really moved by it? I try to inhabit them outside of the writing process on occasion and sometimes that leads to some really cool insights. 

I take a minute to check in with them. Even if I’m just camping with friends, I kind of go off in my head, often, and my friends are used to that - where I’m thinking about the people who don’t exist while hanging out with people who do exist.

YG: I would argue that it’s a reason why your fictional world comes to life so much. 

SM: I think it’s important not to treat them like your Barbie dolls where you just tell them what to say. If they start to live and breathe on their own, they’ll resist that anyway. You tell them they want to go this way and they won’t. So, you trust them, and you follow them. You don’t steer them to places where they wouldn’t go. 

YG: You wrote the book in 1st person narration and present tense, which are interesting choices for style - why did you choose this style of narration?

SM: I think because it’s all filtered through Tabby and she’s just come back to this world, she’s the outsider now. Like us, the reader, she knows nothing. I wanted us to learn things as she learned them. I wanted to be inside her head, hearing only her thoughts and feelings the entire story, because it really is her journey. When the Saints is the story of Tabby's transformation from rejecting her family to accepting her family. 

AS: Would you ever consider writing a sequel, or will you leave the story as is?

SM: I never want to write anything twice. As much as I’ve been asked that a lot, I’m always trying to express myself in new ways. I kind of like the idea of people who read my second novel for the first time, never in a million years would they think that it’s the same writer. I want to lose myself in each new story so completely that I don’t have a consistent voice because the story is the voice. I wouldn’t want to revisit because I’m excited to see what I’m capable of next.

YG: In what ways do your Nova Scotian roots manifest themselves in your writing and vocabulary?

SM: There’s been a lot of mention in reviews about the language, because it is rather extreme, however that’s the way people talk here, especially in the world I grew in, and especially in Nova Scotia. When I tried to tone the language down in certain places, I couldn’t and still feel true to the characters. I let the characters express themselves according to their upbringing. There’s a certain poetry to it, I think it wasn’t peppering it with expletives for shock value, it was very controlled. It’s just the way that people talk around here. I eavesdrop on conversations all the time and make notes in my writing journal if a turn of phrase catches my ear.

YG: Did Jim Lahey inspire your use of the word “shitstorm”? 

SM: No, but after the book was published , John Dunsworth, the actor who played him, gave me his Dicshitnary. I said, “man, I wish I had this as one of my reference books when I was writing the book When The Saints.” The book has been described as Winter’s Bone meets Trailer Park Boys, which I’m not against. I’m hoping the movie version will be more like Winter’s Bone because while it is a funny novel, it’s also a very serious story and a very heartfelt story. I don’t want it to end up a parody. It’s important to me that this screenplay is not just entertainment. It has to show that these people aren’t to be taken lightly. This is a real true experience. This same cast of characters in another neighbourhood would probably flourish. We don’t always get to transcend our upbringing, not everybody does. When your soil has no nutrients, it’s hard to grow. I think that was the big question I was trying to answer when I wrote this book: Can we do better than our parents? I taught adults in a program designed for people who had been out of the workforce for a very long time or never had a job either because they had addiction issues, some had been prostitutes, some of them had been incarcerated. The historical damage within those bloodlines – they didn’t stand a chance. We all are presented with similar opportunities in a way but if you have no self-esteem left, you’re not going to pursue them. I wrote this book to honor that experience. 

YG: You mention Alistair MacLeod’s short stories as a source of inspiration in your interview with Shannon Webb-Campbell. How did Alistair influence your style of storytelling?

SM: I remember the curriculum in junior high, elementary, even high school, there were very few Nova Scotian writers. So, it was exciting to read one whose writing was so nuanced, had a tinge of darkness.  It was our experience reflected back. I was very moved by his work, I still am, and I am now a fan of his son’s, Alexander MacLeod, works. 

Alistair did a lot for the literary community in Nova Scotia. I feel like he’s one of the last of the old-school writers who wrote by hand. I like the idea of being on a windswept, rocky coast someday writing by candlelight, by hand. It’s hard to reconcile what I thought a novelist’s experience would be with the reality in 2018 where with social media, it’s hard to be mysterious. I always liked being mysterious. You always secretly want the author of our favorite book to be their character, then we’re disappointed when they’re not. It’s better to just keep the shade down. It was really hard for me when the book came out. My publicist at HarperCollins sent me a social media audit in which he had taken screenshots of everything I was not doing, or doing wrong, or could do better. It was like, you should have a Facebook page, and you should have a website, look these people are commenting on Goodreads so you should talk to them. I didn’t want to do it, and I still don’t want to do any of that. I joined Twitter for five minutes and was like, “I can’t, I’m out.” I’m a luddite who listens to only vinyl records and just got a cellphone at forty. I don’t like the idea of being that connected, but because the book industry is not as lucrative as it once was, there’s an expectation that you fulfil some of the marketing requirements yourself. I do have an author Facebook page, but I don’t think I’ve updated it in a year. I do have a website, and I’ll say, “post to come!” 

I do love reading to people, but I don’t love talking about myself as a writer. I’ve done acting and I perform music sometimes, and that’s different because I’m being somebody else when I do that. When I’m me, at my most authentic self as a writer, I feel so naked. That’s been a learning curve about how to get used to the spotlight on me personally and not me as a character. I’ve had other writers recommend that I create Sarah the writer as a character but that feels wrong because I don’t want to separate myself from my writing life in that way. 

AS: Are there any other books or authors that are always on your reading list, or that you’ve enjoyed recently?

SM: I don’t know that I have authors that I revisit again and again, because I’m always trying to learn from new voices. I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories because my new novel is a bit of a scary suspense story, and I’m trying to deconstruct what works and what doesn’t. Everything from the classics like The Haunting of Hill House or Edgar Allan Poe. I’m reading Elizabeth de Miriaffi’s Hysteria right now. A lot of what I read in fiction is in service to my own fiction, depending on what it is I’m trying to get better at myself. For pure love of reading, I love short stories. I appreciate that art-form and would love to get to the point where people would want to read my short stories, which usually happens after you’ve developed a following. I just read a collection called I am, I am, I am by a writer named Maggie O’Farrell, an Irish writer, and each of the stories details a time she almost died. Within those stories, she kind of gives us a whole narrative of their life and I thought they were perfect. 

AS: You’re working on a new book, The World in Awful Sleep. Can you tell us about where you’re hoping to go with this new project?

SM: The first draft of this book is not coming as easily as When the Saints did. It’s a very complex story with characters who don’t reveal themselves easily. It’s like starting over and learning from scratch how to be a writer. I tried to write it the same way as I did with When the Saints from beginning to end and it would not comply so I’m building it very slowly from the ground up.  It’s a lot more fleshed out, but slower moving. I’m hoping to have a full first draft ready to show my editor by next spring. 

AS: Is there any advice you would give to an aspiring writer who wants to write a novel?

SM: There is so much advice that I wish someone had told me fifteen years ago. I’ll narrow it down to my top 5. Number one: Start a writing group. That feedback is invaluable, and that support system is invaluable. It’s a really lonely and difficult job. Your family or partner, they don’t always necessarily understand that part of you, so to connect with other people who do, and people that you trust and give you knowledge and feedback, you start to become this family in which success for one of you is a success for all of you.

We used to workshop each other’s work. If it were your turn you would email or send us what they’re working on in advance. We all will have read it and have feedback prepared and would discuss it at length. We’d have a short little exercise at the start and then we just drink and gossip. It’s now at the point where we’ll meet up on a long weekend and go to a cabin and spend three days together. It’s motivating because if you know you’re going to meet up with your writing group, you need something to show. It gives you a deadline. So, start a writing group, or join an existing writing group. Sometimes you don’t gel, you have to find the right people, but I feel like when it’s fate, the wrong people will fall away and the ones who are supposed to be there will find you. Number two: Keep learning. I still take writing workshops. I read books about writing all the time. I tap other writers for advice. I would never presume to think that I know anything about writing. Having written one novel, I discovered that all of the techniques I used in the first one are not working in the second one. It’s like I’m starting from scratch. I’ve been talking to a lot of writers about second novel syndrome. Number three: Keep a journal and never throw anything away. You may use it later. It’s really hard to cut passages from your writing that are so eloquent, or a really precise thought that you had in your head, and you’re proud to have put on paper, but if it doesn’t move the story forward, it has to go. To temper that loss, put it in a safe place and keep it., I have used many things that I have thrown away. Number four: Keep your rejection letters. Send things out all the time. Keep a spreadsheet of where you sent them, and when you get feedback write down what it was. Was it a personal note? Was it a form letter? Write the dates down and send it everywhere often. It’s so hard not to get lost in the shuffle. Send your work everywhere, often, and keep your rejection letters to tell the story of how you made it. I read that in Stephen King’s On Writing autobiography and I started doing that. Now when I go talk to kids who want to be writers in schools, I bring this giant binder and say, “this is what it takes to be a writer.” I never doubted that I would become a novelist. I knew I would and I knew I would because I knew I would never give up. That’s the only difference between a non-successful writer and a successful writer. Number five: Get an agent. It’s almost as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher, but it’s well worth it. I highly recommend finding out what the agencies are in Canada, find out who the agents are and which writers they represent. Find one that you think would be a good fit for you. When you have something to show them, write them a letter about why you’d be a good match. Include why you’ve written this book, why only you could write this book, and why it has to be written now in your letter. Try to give them a sense of your writing voice so they’re intrigued enough to want to read more. Don’t send them a book in the mail. Ask them if they would be interested; make them interested. The agents have all their editors in their pockets that they can call, and then that agent is almost guaranteed to read it as opposed to you mailing it to Penguin or Random House where it sits in a slush pile for who knows how long. 

What happened with me is that I sort of blindly applied for my first grant to go and I got it and went to the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. One of the writing mentors I was paired with loved my book so much, she offered to work together long distance after the program had ended - which is rare, and so generous. After I had finished the next draft, she gave me a little more feedback and said, “when you’re done with those few things, send it to my agent.” The agent loved it and signed me right away, and a month later, I had a book deal with HarperCollins. It felt like a complete fairy-tale and a fluke, except I had thirty-year apprenticeship of writing behind that. Since I was a little kid I’ve been honing, and honing, and honing my craft. I would never have wanted to be published anything that I didn’t feel was necessary to other people.I want what I write to be important so I must dedicate my life to mastering my craft. Taking this step and quitting my day job to do this even more deliberately, I feel that I will get better and that I will learn more.


Alan Syliboy Interview


Arts and Community editor Salome Barker and Co-Editor-in-Chief Yanik Gallie of The Xaverian Weekly did an interview with Alan Syliboy on June 24th, 2018 at NovelTea Bookstore Cafe in Truro, Nova Scotia. Alan is the artist of Mi’kmaw Animals, released on May 30th by Nimbus Publishing. The baby board book is now available for purchase at Chapters and select bookshops across Canada. 


Alan Syliboy grew up believing that native art was generic.  “As a youth, I found painting difficult and painful, because I was unsure of my identity.”  But his confidence grew in 1972 when he studied privately with Shirley Bear.  He then attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where 25 years later, he was invited to sit on the Board of Governors.  Syliboy looks to the indigenous Mi’kmaq petroglyph tradition for inspiration and develops his own artistic vocabulary out of those forms.  His popularization of these symbolic icons has conferred on them a mainstream legitimacy that restores community pride in its Mi’kmaq heritage.


YG: Two years ago, you held the Coady Chair at StFX. What did you gain from that experience?

AS: I think the hardest part at the very first was, exactly what is that position? What do they expect? Trying to define what is was, that question, came up a lot early on. I didn’t worry about it too much and I just kind of let it happen and that’s generally how I do things. I do a diagnosis of it as it’s going on. I found a good number of indigenous students there who were very thrilled that I was there. In my being there, they felt supported. They got noticed too because I was there. Every time I would be invited somewhere, they were there. It was a mutual, beneficial, thing and I felt that I was already benefiting from the position. Also, there was an indigenous student who was in a wheelchair, and her husband who was sort of the manager in some way, sort of directed me how to be an ombudsman in a way. That’s how I saw the role.

The first day I was there I was on FOX campus radio. Well, I'll come and watch the show. I thought that was the plan all along. Right away, I’m running against the establishment in my very first day. There couldn’t be a better cause. I found out how difficult it is to make change in that structure, because it’s nuts and bolts, it’s money. If you wanna change a building, it’s a big effort. These buildings are from different ages. One student in a wheelchair had to crawl through the snow to get to class a couple times. It was just so difficult. When this woman got to StFX, she was so happy to have finally made it. And, it took her an extra year to graduate, because she had to drop classes as she couldn’t physically do them. She wanted to go to lunch and she had a lunch voucher but couldn’t make it there a lot of the times because she had to get the key to the elevator. You got to find that person with the key to get access. All of those things were against her. It’s amazing.

When we had the president’s colloquium, that was probably the highlight of everything I did there because I had panelists and they never did panelists that way before. I said, “It would have an effect, if I do it. But it would be a stronger effect, if I had 3 other opinions on the same subject.” That’s what I did, and it was a phenomenal success. That was addressed there, the issue of a person in a wheelchair. Very uncomfortable, I think, for the establishment who sat there. I was surprised that they sat there, and they listened. I felt that was one of my main achievements there. I didn’t do it alone, I had the right people. I listened to them who directed me too because I had no idea. I had Senator Murray Sinclair there and we had the flag issue came up at the time, the Mi’kmaw flag. It’s up, it’s down. Murray was told about this problem with the flag. He said, “I went to the Senate. They gave me two flag poles and it was Canada and my Nation. He wanted another flag for his community. They said, “No. We only have two poles.” So, he said, “Ok.” He opened the window and he put his flag up and you could see it. That’s how we dealt with that. Next day, he had a pole haha.

There were a lot of grad students’ voice grievances, it was very touching. It’s very isolating when you come from a small community and you’re in this university. They’re not really equipped. Some of the indigenous personnel weren’t indigenous. They took the job because no one else was taking it. It’s getting better, of course. It shone light on issues like that which should have been addressed. They are being addressed now. It was good for me in the sense that I had all of these classes. I did more talking than I had ever done before. I was talking for three or four hours a day. Then you’re in big demand, so they’re trying not to wear me out.

I took classes voluntarily on my own. So, I couldn’t blame them for all the workload. I even had a daycare come into my studio on-campus. They came twice. I wasn’t there on the first day, but they watched my animation. The next day they came in, I read them a story. Some of them were three years old. I felt really connected in doing these things. It was very positive. I wouldn’t want to do that every day, I couldn’t do that every day. But, I’m glad of the experience.

Also, I had to talk and tell my story so many times it refined my story. It made me a better public speaker. It improved my message to a large extent as well. I felt that. Basically, you’re telling the same story over and over, so you refine it. You also find the keys that turn in the right direction at the right time. It was a very good and rewarding experience.

SB: You’ve had many accomplishments as an artist such as creating the first Indigenous coin for the Royal Canadian Mint. Reflecting on your career, what other big accomplishments stand out the greatest for you?

AS: The Queen’s Jubilee medal, I also got to meet the queen as well. I have a campaign to do more public art. In this area, we are almost invisible. Whereas if you go to B. C., indigenous art is everywhere. You do not see that here at all. To increase the visual profile of us. And, it’s working. I have a mural at the airport that is permanent, and I just put a piece in the Commons. I have a piece there and it’s up for Masterworks Arts Award as well. I should hear within a month about whether I’m on the shortlist or not for that. All kinds of things have sort of come up every day.

Pat Power and I have a meeting every day in the morning for two, sometimes three hours, just going through emails. Answering emails and everything. I have a sense that Pat’s good at filling out forms and taking care of the little details. He was a finance guy so that’s the kind of stuff he likes a lot which is a perfect partnership because details are not my area. It could take me an hour to write a paragraph, I’m almost illiterate that way. As far as a spell check and all that, they’re catching up to me. I’m starting to speed up because of that. On my own, my education was very poor that way.

Social media too was one of my major accomplishments. As Native and indigenous communities we are pretty isolated as a rule when I was young. Now, I have 5000 friends on Facebook. A great number of my friends are indigenous. It’s a daily thing. I like the intimate interactions. For us, community-wise, you have a living Mi’kmaw dictionary. If you ask a question, you’re gonna have a half a dozen people come to help you out. You feel like you’re talking to the whole community, even beyond Mi’kma’ki. Even out West, I used to do shows out there, so I know lots of people out there. I find that is the biggest. Like first when we started the Morning Drum featured on my Facebook. That was just a temporary one-off thing that we did, but people refused to let us quit that. They would not let us, they just demanded. That was by accident. It’s a thread that finds its way everywhere. I go to places and people tell me about the Morning Drum and a lot of them have been shown by their friends. I realized the power of that. You’re always in an age when you’re relying on a gallery to promote you to make you a star. But that couldn’t happen, you couldn’t get the critical mass on your own, or you’ll get it for a little while and it’ll fade. My approach is brick by brick and day by day. That’s how I’ve done everything. Sometimes you don’t look back and see what you’ve built, because you’re too busy in the middle of building the next brick. You have to come back, or somebody will remind you that you did things. A doctorate too is up there. Unexpected. A doctorate was one of the biggest. There’s a list but I don’t think about it very much. There’s a few on the top of the list for sure.

SB: How does art help you to express your own heritage?

AS: When I was young, just starting out, there was no indigenous art. Art was your view of yourself as what you saw on TV. I had to discover that I am a Mi’kmaw which is aside from other tribes, but no one teaches you that. When I was about to go to school, and I remember this clearly, we spoke Mi’kmaw all the time as kids. Then a letter came out from the church, it was catholic school, and they said, “You’re not allowed to speak Mi’kmaw anymore. If you go to school, it’s gonna hold you back so no more Mi’kmaw.” My parents bought into that because they were very, very fluent. Everything was fine up until that point. That’s why I stalled in school that much because it was not only emotional trauma of going to school. But, it was going to school and not understanding what they’re telling you. TV came on at the same time and the language went out fast. It was gone really fast. I never recovered. I never was a very good student. I excelled at making images under the table in whatever way I could make them. My art was sort of an underground movement. That’s what I did daily.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of the grammar rules or arithmetic. I was very poor at that. The nuns when they finally limped me into grade 7, there were 3 years of failure already in that time. I was diagnosed as “borderline retarded” by them. That was who they saw in their school. You couldn’t disagree with that because I had very little to say. I was actually afraid to talk. You go into the classroom, and you try to stay in the back to not cause any weight. You’d be singled out every now and then for entertainment purposes. They’d ask you a question they know darn well you don’t know the answer. Some of it was just for survival. I would say that school was residential-like. We’d head home every night. It wasn’t residential schools, but it was a version of it.

YG: Your artworks are often used in schools to teach principles of design such as balance, depth, and contrast. When students are introduced to art, they often ask “What’s art?” How do you respond to that question?

AS: I try to diagnose what level they are at artistically. For instance, I went to an inner-city school in Halifax which was primarily African. All of my classes before then were indigenous or rural, which is quite different. The first thing I saw was that the teacher had told them about me. They had got them prepared. They had already done artwork upon meeting. The first thing I did is I went place from place to place and individually looked at the work and gave them some critique and some advice. It was a one-on-one thing, and from then on it was just golden. I was in, we were pals. They were a generic group, killing time or something. Individually, you see where they are at. Some of them are quite advanced. You determine that and ask them what they want to know or how to do something. That connection is easily fixed with a one-on-one thing.

I do DAREarts, it’s an art program from Ontario originally. Look for DAREarts Atlantic. I started the program with them when they were down here, but they’re all over. I was impressed with them because they are like an art SWAT team. They come into schools and teach painting, music, theatre in one week. They have several teachers who have different strengths. Their program is free for schools. They finish a project and do a show at the end of the week.

I’ve heard a story that one group went out North. They were waiting for students to come and nobody came to their program. They decided to go knocking door to door and explaining what they’re doing. First thing we’ll do is feed your kids and then we’ll teach them art and take care of them. A handful came when it started. I think there was a dozen the first year. Next year there were almost three dozen. The year after was over a hundred and then on. Had they not knocked on doors, nothing would have happened. They might have said, “Well nobody wanted to come.” They didn’t take no for an answer. I like that because they’re aggressive. They work very hard. They select their people well.

I’m a painter, we’re doing The Thundermaker that is a vehicle for education in the arts. They also have people in the theatre, and somebody in music. All of these elements are touched at once and the fort of focus. We’re working with three schools, working on the same material. It’s all over Canada and it’s privately funded. I think McCain’s is one of our funders down here in the Atlantic Provinces. If you go onto DAREarts Atlantic, you’ll see all that information. That’s one of the ways I can be in the schools. I can focus in that way. I can go there for a whole week and affect quite a few students. I get asked almost every day by a class to come speak and it’s not possible. I’m a professional artist and that’s priority for me. I want to do work with students and do my part with students as much as I can.

There are exceptions for somethings like Québec. I’d never been there. I said I couldn’t get there because I needed to fly over. But, they were so determined to get me there. They covered travel expenses for me. They wouldn’t take no for answer. So I said, “I’ll go.” I feel that what I do is seen as important. This is not the political thing. I’m not talking about the band council or whatever. They are what they always were, they ignore everything. It’s business as usual for politics on reserves mostly. I wouldn’t say that as a whole. Very few politicians look at the arts that much. That’s changing, and you don’t wait around. That was one of my main things. If support wasn’t coming, you just worked around it. I always felt that way. I always felt that there’s a big world. When I went to the Art Project with Shirley Bear in the 70s, she made my world a big world from then on. We were being taught by world-class artists. We were going to the best universities and museums, and we were taught so well. The world was that, we never regressed. It was always looking ahead toward an extra horizon. I give thanks to Shirley Bear for changing everything for me that way. The main idea for Tribe Incorporated was that we did workshops on reserves. That was leading edge for indigenous people teaching indigenous people. Even now you don’t see that much. I did an art program in Wagmatcook. It was the first time they had an indigenous artist critiquing or judging their art.  That’s kind of amazing, but it shouldn’t be. The quality of work that was there was so astounding.

YG: What is the most valuable lesson Shirley Bear taught you?

AS: Shirley’s always been there all my life, and still is. I think she was very radical. She’d never ask any permission from anywhere. She was part of AIM and she knew Anna Mae Aquash. I met Anna through Shirley at a radical time. She was from Tobique which is sort of a radical place. I think that’s a sort of breeding ground for radical women. They take over the band hall every year few years and you hear of them all the time. That’s where she comes from and she was never afraid to speak up.

Indigenous people don’t like to rock the boat. It’s really hard for them to confront. It’s not easy to do. Shirley and Peter are the exception of that. And, that’s not always appreciated in the larger indigenous community. We’re taught by the Catholics very well to not say anything. However, that is changing more and more every day, things like Idle No More. Shirley and Peter J. Clair would do protests in the early 70s around here which is unheard of. When the Warrior’s Society took over, which was a bad approach, you’re in the red zone on the first day. You got a gun. Nothing got resolved over a long time. It was intimidation back and forth. No one wanted to support Warrior’s Society. That was a bit too radical too fast. It didn’t get the results that it had planned too. They were loosely structured and that didn’t help as well. Some of them had charges on them for domestic abuse and that didn’t help. When Idle No More came, that was completely revolutionary in the sense that their approach was superb. You know they’re working when the chief and band council are being asked questions they never been asked by anyone before. They’re not used to that, it never happened before. It’s in a better state than it was. I’m glad I’m around to see this.

YG: Nature comes alive in many of your pieces, especially in the cover artwork of Mi’kmaw Animals. Talk us through your creation process for your artwork.

AS: Shirley was giving me my first painting lessons, and I was doing landscapes, portraits and the typical kind of things. We decided we didn’t want to be just another landscape painter. Shirley is the one who discovered the petroglyphs book. That radically changed everything. We looked through that and decided that was what we wanted to do. We were teaching ourselves, but ultimately, we were teaching everyone. Mi’kmaw people didn’t know about petroglyphs at all. It’s way different now. We didn’t have anyone to follow at the time in the 70s.

The animal motifs, I learned about them. In the beginning, artists are very isolated in their studio. That’s changed for me. I have archaeologists, who are Mi’kmaw people now, and all kinds of support people that I can get better information. I can increase my knowledge and then convey that in art. Roger Lewis for instance, he was an RCMP and became an archaeologist. Now, he’s head of the Archaeology Museum in Nova Scotia. We’re the same age, we grew up together. He’s one of my best sources for information. I’ve asked him about anything and he’ll come up with some research and give me something. I prefer to do that. I prefer to base it on factual knowledge, but I’m bringing an artistic element to it too. It feeds a couple of things. It has the beauty.

Art can be beautiful. For instance, I’m doing a burial show now. It’ll be out in a couple of years. It’s not burial rights, it’s on burial practices and it’s never been done before. It’s been a few years since I’ve been researching this at Saint Mary’s University. Robin Metcalfe is my curator. It’s gonna happen there and I’ve got a grant for it too, it’s being supported by the province. All of this is coming together. Now I have animation that I use, we’re gonna have some hologram effects. We’re going to have some music that I do. All of these things that I’ve incorporated, we’ve flipped them for another use. This should be interesting. No one ever done a burial show.

One thing that bothered me when I was young was that it was a Christian burial. It was like one size fits all motif. That’s the way it was, they didn’t really speak about who was being buried. It was the word of God only and that kind of thing. To me, that was disrespectful in my opinion. I started looking around because you go to a lot of funerals when you’re an indigenous person. Going to funerals is a regular thing. Some of them start to change over time. You can see very subtle changes. Some of it like being buried with tobacco and sweetgrass. When my grandmother was buried, I was part of a sweat lodge group. We did a song in the graveyard which has never been done like that. We didn’t ask anybody to do it, we just did it. My grandmother supported us. She always told me all her life, “You should go back to the church.” She lived to be in the eighties. She saw what the ceremony was doing for me and then she said, “as long as you believe in something.” She stopped the "church" thing. She was supporting us. She was a forward thinker. She was always open-minded. I give a lot of credit to her for making me because we had a good relationship. We could talk about anything at anytime. She was radical in her own way too. She made some people nervous. Especially the priests. If she would disapprove of them, she would say something. They all had to pass the test to go see her, of course they had to go see Rachel Marshall.  

From left to right: Salome Barker, Alan Syliboy and Yanik Gallie

From left to right: Salome Barker, Alan Syliboy and Yanik Gallie

SB: How did you select the 9 animals represented in the baby board book?

AS: I compiled a list of animals, but I was never thinking about a list when I made them. See the petroglyphs to me, there were so many varieties of them. 10 years ago, I started doing caribou. I never did one before. I had never done one before, so I started doing them from then on. Then, I started to draw eels. It’s just like I took turns finding them. Each one has a turn. The turtles have been there a long time. Whales are fairly recent. They’re already part of who we are, and petroglyphs give us that. That’s what I’m using as my source. These are the images that were available right now. None of them are new for this book, they already existed. The butterfly’s been around for a while, it took me about ten minutes to make the first one.

SB: I found myself really connecting to your “Qalipu” painting.  Interestingly enough, I come from the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nations band in Newfoundland and Labrador.  I was wondering if you intended for aboriginal people from different nations to connect to your artwork?

AS: I know that it would, the caribou were all over the place. Over half of Canada at least. It was in the petroglyphs book. The reason I picked that at that time was that I did some research and found out that in Truro was where one of the last place they were shot and extinct. The last groups were shot here, so I said, “this was very close physically to where I was”. To me, it evokes the memory of what they meant. It’s also a teaching tool. Like Debert for instance, it’s an 11 000 or 12 000-year-old campsite there. You can imagine how long we’ve been here. There are two sites there that are really old. I’m talking to the new people who are working there and they’re telling me new things that they are finding, I’m up on that currently.

YG: Mi’kmaw Animals is an excellent educational resource for children to develop literacy skills. What is the connection between polylingualism at a young age and literacy?

AS: We were told that Mi’kmaw was gonna hold us back. People in the community, like our neighbor, believed that it was gonna hold us back. I said, “Well if that’s the case, why do Europeans speak six languages? It doesn’t hold them back” He didn’t have an answer to that, but that’s how I thought. To me, the more information that is brought forth the better. Now you have Mi’kmaw aritsts who are going to NSCAD, and their working on their own too. It’s opening up much faster intensity to different points of view and different ways to do things. To me, I feel that it’s a really great time.

Also, artists have never been considered important. I think if you’re learning about yourself, artists can bring you more than anyone else because it’s emotional too. It’s not just the text or the hard-raw information. It’s more than that. There’s an attachment that they can bring to make you feel something. Artists can do that. When I’m on Facebook, I see lots of excellent artists doing excellent things. I’m feeling pretty good about where we are right now.

SB: Can you share your vision of indigenous art for upcoming generations?

AS: Mark Sark. He’s in his fifties. He was in the Marines. He used to be in our sweat lodge. He was always connected to us all the time. He’s decided to go to NSCAD and become an artist. It’s amazing because of everything he’s done. All of that raw energy and knowledge with other things he did, he’s putting it into making art now. He’s popping out all over the place. He does animals, but he’ll cut them out and put them together and paint them. Like a 3D thing. Everything I’ve done, he’s made into 3D. That’s pretty cool.  I said, “That’s alright.” Next year, he’s going to carve. It’s not like he started when he was seventeen. He’s fifty-seven and doing this. There’s more and more people like Natalie Sappier-Samaqani Cocahqup in Tobique. I met her a few years ago. She’s doing terrific. There’s lots of new ones.

I went to Caraquet too. I’m working with the French in Caraquet. There is the biggest French community there. They really support their festival, it’s sophisticated. They all have careers as artists. It’s good for our artists because they can see what it’s like to be an everyday artist because we don’t have that facility. We don’t have that support. They were very welcoming, so it’s a good place and it’s mutual. We’re doing a show in Montreal at the Peoples' festival. I’m going to Montreal with Caraquet’s group in mid-August so I’m pretty happy about that. I’ve also got a new gallery of world-wide fine art in Toronto, we sold a painting yesterday. The gallery’s been around for twenty-five years. I think they are originally from Cape Breton so there’s a home attachment.

SB: The conversation of reconciliation has been happening for years now. It’s been three years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. How do you see reconciliation moving forward?

AS: I’ve been approached by people to do events. The events were stirred by this reconciliation. It’s almost like they wanted to do something and now they have a blueprint to go by and I’ve seen that lots of times. That’s a step forward definitely. We have a lot more connection. I’ve also joined boards, and so on, because they just didn’t have indigenous representation. Like the ECMAs, I went there on the board of directors. A very daunting work to that position, however I did the best I could. Now they’re not going backwards. They are having visions and they’re moving forward. If they were sleeping, they would have stayed asleep. You have to go there and say, “here I am” so they can’t go to sleep again like I’ve done that in several boards. I’m more concerned about the next one.

Like the Coady Chair in 2017, Dorine Bernard was just amazing. I know her, but I didn’t know how much she did. How much effort she puts in everything. She is like steel, it’s amazing. She told me too about things, that is was real hard for her to do it, but she got it done. The focus once it happens, there’s a good chance it’ll be another indigenous person again. I see that as breaking a few trails. I see my role as a senior artist as something that will live on and contribute in a long-term and meaningful way.

YG: I’d love to get your interpretation of this quote by Black Elk, a medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, he said “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”

AS: I totally agree with Black Elk. There was an indigenous Akwesasne Notes from New York, we got it every month. It had all sorts of indigenous ads, like tobacco and wild rice. We ordered all the posters, my brother and I, with the sayings of chief Joseph. We had them all. We got music from there too for years. It eventually stopped but it was a nice ride for a while to have that coming out. I miss it.

It’s been a long time, since the 70s, that I read the quote. Absolutely, his words are tremendous. I see that more and more. Years ago, there wasn’t much going on. People are appearing and doing things. You can feel the energy and see it. I’ve been here long enough to see it happening and I’m grateful for that. I see that the younger are the ones who are more dedicated. Their motives are better. That’s why you see people who go to sweat lodges and do things like that. Their motives are much more clear and pure. Some people just say words. It’s not just saying words, it’s actions. That’s always been my scale. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. If you’re not doing anything, then it doesn’t matter what you say.

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