Art by Kelly Mellings
“One of the most devastating outcomes of colonial policy in Canada is the over representation of Aborginal people in the criminal justice system and of Aborginal children in government care.”
Pete is a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in the gang life, struggling to support his younger brother Joey, and his mother Bernice, who is addicted to heroin. When a fight with his mother’s boyfriend sends Pete to jail, he discovers how illusive his crew’s loyalty really is. Promises to pay for a lawyer go unfulfilled, even after he carries out a Tribal Warriors vendetta against an inmate who is a member of another crew. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. There Pete must face the many ways he has failed his family and himself in order to begin to make changes in his life.
Though Pete is a fictional character, the program to which he is admitted is a real Native Counseling Services of Alberta facility located in Edmonton, called the Stan Daniels Healing Centre. Author Patti LaBoucane-Benson is a Métis woman who has worked for two decades as a counsellor and researcher for NCSA. Pete is a composite of people she met and experiences she has had during this career. Artist Kelly Mellings visited residential school sites, Aboriginal communities, and conducted extensive research in order to help him understand the world he would be depicting. The result is a powerful story about the impact of alternative justice programs.
Despite its grounding in research and educational intent, The Outside Circle does not feel didactic or forced, and much of that is down to Mellings’ exceptional and detailed artwork. The book makes a strong first impression with an extremely striking cover and end pages that employ a limited black, white, red, and gray colour palette. Mellings describes this as evoking a noir feel, but I was also reminded of traditional west coast Aboriginal art that tends to primarily employ red and black. The interior illustration style is primarily realistic and detail-oriented, although many visual elements are symbolic or spiritual in nature. For instance, a mask tends to appear over Pete’s face when he is angry, whereas the appearance of a bear represents reconnecting with his heritage. The deep connection between spirituality and healing in the program depicted here did leave me wondering about how we can best support healing for Aboriginal people who are not religious, but this is not a weakness of the book so much as an area for further inquiry.
In addition to being well illustrated, The Outside Circle makes good use of text, and even photos. A full page is dedicated to showing Bernice signing away her parental rights, but instead of the actual legal document, the text on the contract describes Canada’s long history of forcibly separating Aboriginal children from their parents, first with residential schools, then the 60s Scoop, and finally the modern foster care system. Although the book is largely digitally drawn, there is a multimedia aspect as well. When depicting the history of residential schools, some of the illustrated panels are replaced with historical photographs. Together with Mellings’ illustrations, they powerfully evoke pain and a history of abuse and neglect.
Beautifully illustrated, and grounded in real life, The Outside Circle is a powerful story of one man’s struggle to reconnect with a culture that has only fragmentarily survived repeated and deliberate efforts to stamp it out.
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