Early Life and Education

Katherena Vermette was born on Treaty 1 territory, in the heart of the Métis Nation in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is the daughter of a Mennonite mother and Métis father and grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, a heavily Indigenous neighbourhood known for its high levels of crime and poverty, but also for its thriving culture and community. Vermette’s first book of poetry, North End Love Songs, reflected her intense and conflicted experience of life in this neighbourhood. “I spent years trying to run away, get away, and be any place else before I realized there was no other place I wanted to be, or could be, really,” she said of her life in the North End, in a 2013 interview with The Walrus. “It’s like family, isn’t it? They annoy…us, but no one loves or knows us more.”

Vermette began writing poetry as a child, a passion that has continued throughout her life. To support herself, she has worked many jobs, such as teaching kindergarten. She has also led writing workshops, facilitated early literacy training, and run an Indigenous artist-training and employment program. From 2010 to 2011, she was the blogger-in-residence for the website of the Aboriginal Writers Collective of Manitoba.

With growing success as a poet, Vermette enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s master of creative writing program. At the age of 35, she published her first book of poetry, North End Love Songs (2012, The Muses’ Company).

Poetry

Katherena Vermette has published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Canada and Beyond and Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. Fascinated with the birds and birdsong she heard every morning, her series “Two Poems” describes young sex workers on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, using the fragility and beauty of birds to express the workers’ extreme physical and emotional vulnerability while providing an image of the hardships of life on the streets:

robin
girl stands on
selkirk avenue
head down
her body cries
like a baby alone
paces
a round circle way
too young body squeezed
into too tight clothing
breathes out
with her whole chest
puffed out bright
and red
as if she’s
beautiful
as if she’s
proud

Vermette’s first collection of poetry, North End Love Songs (2012), is at once sad and inspiring, beautiful and picturesque. “Lost,” for instance, captures a desperate time for the poet and her family. When Vermette turned 14, her older brother, Donovan, aged 18, visited a bar with friends. It was the last time he was seen alive. The Vermette family had little support or help in finding Donovan, police apathy being grounded in assumptions based on stereotypes of young Métis men. “Her brother is missing / like a glove / or a sock / or a set of keys,” she writes. Vermette describes how the official response was a generic one, and then, in the last lines of “Indians,” turns that into bitter irony:

they said
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
or broke […]
this land floods
with dead indians
this river swells
freezes
breaks open
cold arms of ice
welcomes indians

North End Love Songs also contains great beauty. “Family” is an ode to elm trees, and the power of family. American elms, not native to Canada, line the streets of north Winnipeg. But it is the Canadian elms by the river that have captured the heart and soul of the young girl in the poem. Vermette’s imagery and use of metaphor lifts the ordinary elm from the mundane to the memorable:

elms around us
like aunties
uncles
cousins
all different
but with the same skin […]
her favourites
are the ones by the river
they spread low
and stay close
to the earth
those ones she can
climb into
lean against
the strong dark bark
rest her small body
within their round arms
their sharp leaves
reach out over the river
she watches how
the waves fold
into each other
like family

North End Love Songs went on to win the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Poetry, propelling Vermette into the public eye. “This collection is an intensely personal story, but it is also nothing new,” she said in a 2013 interview with The Walrus. “It’s about a young girl or woman struggling with identity and place. That pretty much describes the whole ‘Canadian experience’ right there. More than that, it is a deeply Indigenous story, and I think Canada is hungry for stories about its first people.”

Books

Katherena Vermette’s first career as a kindergarten teacher in Winnipeg fostered her deep belief in family literacy. This is seen in her collection The Seven Teaching Stories (2014–15), a series of seven books for young children and their parents that tell the story of the seven lessons of the Anishinaabe, including love, respect, courage and honesty. In The Just Right Gift: A Story of Love, a boy searches for just the right gift for his grandmother: “he wants to find something as sweet as her kisses and as warm as her smiles.”

In 2016, Vermette published her first novel, The Break (House of Anansi). It opens as a young Métis mother witnesses a crime outside her window. The narrative expands from this event into an intricate web of perspectives, growing into an intergenerational family saga about life in Winnipeg’s North End. The Break was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Roger’s Trust Fiction Prize, and was a finalist on Canada Reads. (See also Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada).

Film

The year 2016 saw the premier of Katherena Vermette’s first documentary film, this river. Co-directed by Erika MacPherson and featuring activist Kyle Kematch, this river explores the horrifying experience of searching for a loved one who has gone missing. In the film, Vermette speaks about the experience of losing her older brother. this river won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Short Documentary in 2017.

Awards and Honours

Governor General’s Award for North End Love Songs (2013)

Canadian Screen Award for Best Short Documentary for this river (2017)

Published Works

North End Love Songs (The Muses’ Company, 2012)

The Seven Teaching Stories (Portage and Main Press, 2014–15)

The Break (House of Anansi Press, 2016)

Significance

Katherena Vermette is a powerful young female Indigenous voice and a rising star of Canadian literature. In her poetry, prose and film, she explores some of the most vital issues facing Canada today: the search for identity and the ongoing effects of historical and institutional prejudice.