Influential Indigenous Authors in Canada

There are many Indigenous writers whose books have brought us closer together by urging us to think differently and understand Indigenous people, communities and experiences more deeply.

There are many Indigenous writers whose books have brought us closer together by urging us to think differently and understand Indigenous people, communities and experiences more deeply.

1. Basil H. Johnston (born on 13 July 1929; died 8 September 2015; Anishinaabe)

As a child, Johnston was forced into a residential school where he suffered many of the abuses that were far too common for far too long. Unlike most residential school children, however, he continued his education and became a high school teacher. In 1970 he began a long career at the Royal Ontario Museum. He wrote 25 books in English and five in Anishinaabemowin, all urging readers to better understand Indigenous issues and culture.

Key Book: Indian School Days (1988)

For many Canadians, this autobiography was their introduction to residential schools, many of which, at the time of publication, were still in existence. While there are moments of levity, the book portrays his school as typical of them all in that it was “penitentiary, reformatory, exile, dungeon, whippings, kicks, slaps, all rolled into one.”

2. Richard Wagamese (born 14 October 1944; died 10 March 2017; Anishinaabe)

Wagamese and his siblings were abandoned by their parents and he was raised with white foster care families until, as a teenager, he ran, ending up homeless and alone. His fiction and non-fiction work reflect his story and the many problems facing Indigenous peoples as a result of residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop, homelessness, and alcoholism, and the importance of embracing traditional Indigenous ways as a way forward.

Key Book: Indian Horse (2012)

The book’s protagonist is brought up in a residential school but his prodigious hockey talent offers him a way out. Memories of childhood horrors of abandonment and abuse at the school haunt him, however, and sabotage his potential. The book invites readers to grapple with the multi-generational cost Indigenous people continue to pay for systemic racism and residential schools.

3. Thomas King (born 24 April 1943; Greek-Cherokee)

King travelled the world and worked at a range of jobs before earning his PhD in 1986 at the University of Utah. He moved to Canada to teach Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge and later at the University of Guelph. He wrote his well-received first novel, Medicine River, in 1990. It was followed by more novels, children’s books, short story collections, films, and works of non-fiction.

Key Book: The Inconvenient Indian (2012)

In exploring the evolution of the relationship between North American Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from contact to the 21st century, the non-fiction work examines the changing meaning of what it is to be “Indian.” The new perspective forces a re-evaluation of laws, historic events, and pop-culture. The book is by turns angry, enlightening, and funny, and ends on a note of determined hope.

4. Katherena Vermette (born 29 January 1977; Mennonite-Métis)

Vermette grew up in Winnipeg’s hardscrabble North End. She wrote poetry as a child and when working as a kindergarten teacher. Her first book of poetry, North End Love Songs, won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Poetry. She has since published more poetry, short stories, and made films. Her first novel, The Break, was nominated for a 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was a Canada Reads finalist. In 2021, Vermette received the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for her novel, The Strangers.

Key Book: North End Love Songs (2012)

The poems contrast the beauty of the birds and trees in Winnipeg’s North End with the challenges of holding families and friendships together when surrounded by crime and drugs. Systemic racism is revealed when a brother goes missing and, because he is Indigenous, neither the media nor police seem to care. Vermette’s use of spare language to relay deep emotion and celebrate unwavering resilience is moving and effective.

5. Drew Hayden Taylor (born 1 July 1962; Anishinaabe)

Taylor has been a storyteller and playwright, artistic director of the Native Earth Performing Art company, and even a stand-up comedian. He has written television scripts and plays that have been performed around the world, while also writing, directing, and appearing in films. Taylor has also written over 30 fiction and non-fiction books that have questioned, informed, and challenged readers regarding what it means to be Indigenous. Additionally, Taylor contributes to various publications as a freelance columnist looking at issues through an Indigenous lens.

Key Book: Motorcycles and Sweetgrass (2010)

The novel follows Maggie’s struggle to be a responsible mother and Chief of her community while falling in love with a suspicious white stranger who arrived on an old Indian Chief motorcycle. Political, religious, cultural, and historical themes are interwoven as characters address personal challenges and their desire for better lives. As is typical for Taylor’s work, however, humour is never far away.

6. John Borrows (born 1963; Anishinaabe)

Borrows is an internationally respected University of Victoria law professor and storyteller. His books address constitutional law and Indigenous traditions and legal rights. Borrows has contributed to a better understanding of land claims, treaty rights, and environmental law. Among his many awards is an Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire) in Law and Justice and he was named a Fellow of the Academy of Arts, Humanities, and Sciences of Canada. In 2020 he was made an officer in the Order of Canada and won the 2020 Best Book award from Native American and Indigenous Studies Association for “Law’s Indigenous Ethics”.

Key Book: Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (2010)

The book argues that Canada’s system of common and civil law does not respect its constitutional foundations and so does not guarantee Indigenous legal equality. To remedy this situation and move toward reconciliation, he writes, Indigenous legal traditions have to be recognized as the third arm of Canadian law along with common and civil law. In this way, western and Indigenous legal traditions and practices can co-exist within revamped public institutions.

7. Lee Maracle (born 2 July 1950; died 2 November 2021; Métis and Stó:lō)

Maracle grew up in North Vancouver and became a stand-up comedian and film maker before becoming one of Canada’s most prolific writers. Her poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, and collaborative anthologies address a range of Indigenous issues but focus on the liberation of Indigenous women as a key to decolonization and fundamental progress. Maracle was also a passionate activist and educator. In the fall of 2021, she joined the faculty of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C. as a teacher in Indigenous Studies.

Key Book: Ravensong (1993)

The novel is set in the 1950s, where the colonizer arrives as a flu epidemic and shifts traditional power in an urban Pacific Northwest Indigenous community. As traditions are attacked, women are robbed of their dignity and agency. A teenage girl and her sister fight back by seeking solace in and direction from their cultural heritage while Raven warns of impending doom caused by the clash of the two cultures.

8. Cherie Dimaline (born 1975; Métis)

Dimaline grew up in a family within a Georgian Bay Métis community that celebrated storytelling. Her novels and short story collections for young adults engage readers while respecting their ability to wrestle with complex and difficult issues. Her books have won numerous awards and international attention. Dimaline has also promoted a better understanding of Indigenous issues as a magazine editor and as an editor at Theytus Books, Canada's oldest Indigenous publishing house.

Key Book: The Marrow Thieves (2017)

The novel explores government actions that have been perpetrated on Indigenous peoples by presenting a dystopian future in which people have lost their ability to dream. The only solution is to hunt Indigenous people to harvest their bone marrow. Frenchie and his friends return to the land to survive. The novel won the Governor General's Literary Award for Young People's Literature and was a finalist on CBC’s Canada Reads.

9. Tomson Highway (born 6 Decemebr 1951; Cree)

After graduating university, Tomson became a social worker in Indigenous communities. His writing career began as a playwright and he went on to create novels, children’s books, and songs. All speak bluntly of tragedies endured by Indigenous peoples and of the resilience found in humour and stubborn optimism. Maclean's magazine once listed Tomson as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history.

Key Book: Permanent Astonishment (2021)

The memoir traces Highway’s life from growing up in rural Manitoba, suffering residential school, and finding solace in traditional ways in the wilderness and with his caribou-hunting family. It sparkles with the indominable spirit of adolescence that blends confidence, fear, and daring. The best-selling book won the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.