The powerful and groundbreaking book, “The Search for April Raintree” by Beatrice Culleton, has been part of of the curriculum in many Social Justice and Indigenous studies classes. It tells the story of two sisters, April and Cheryl, who navigate the reality of living in neo-colonial Canadian society as Indigenous women.  It is a text that continues, twenty-five years after its initial publication, to call its readers to reflect on racism in Canada (Hanson, 2012). 

Culleton (1983) masterfully captures the complex systems, attitudes and perceptions operating in the sisters’ individual worlds and broader society.  The two girls are removed from the home of their parents at a young age due to their parent’s alcohol abuse.  The girls   experience living in a number of foster homes throughout their childhood years and while they are treated well enough in some fosters homes, in one particular they are abused.  Their attempt to run away results in their social worker giving the following speech about what she called the ‘native girl’ syndrome:

It starts out with the fighting, the running away, the lies. Next come the accusations that everyone in the world is against you. There are the sullen, uncooperative silences, the feeling sorry for yourselves. And when you go on your own, you get pregnant right away, or you can’t find or keep jobs.  So you’ll start with alcohol and drugs.  From there, you get into shoplifting and prostitution, and in and out of jails. You’ll live with men who abuse you. And on it goes.  You’ll end up like your parents, living off society. . . . Now, you’re going the same route as many other native girls.  If you don’t smarten up, you’ll end up in the same place they did.  Skid row! (Culleton 1983, p.62)

Throughout the book Culleton (1983) used the main character, April, to portray mainstream white perceptions of Indigenous people while simultaneously challenging those perceptions through the voice of her sister Cheryl.   Culleton’s (1983) depiction of April embodies the negative attitudes and dominant mentalities that exist towards Indigenous people in Canada.  Although April is part Métis, she deeply rejects that part of herself as she tries to assimilate and disappear into the world of white people.  She discovers early in her life that her pale skin will allow her to “pass” as white. Culleton expresses some of her views of white privilege, self-denial, invisibility, and the “risk of self-annihilation” through April’s attempts at passing. Hudson explains how April does this to “the extent to which the phenomenon of passing itself exposes the valorization of whiteness as treasured property in a society structured on racial caste” (Hudson 2012, p.18).  April conceptualizes Métis identity as a “degenerate space” and she begins to internalize the oppression targeted at Métis and other Indigenous people (Hudson 2012).

Cheryl’s voice “disrupts the linearity of April’s retrospective narrative, correcting its bias, enlarging its awareness and disputing its conclusions” (Hudson 2012, p.17).  While April loves Cheryl she also sees herself as separate from her racialized sister, whois unable to hide her Métis identity because of her dark skin.  Cheryl’s obvious skin colour exposes April as a Métis which leads April to desire distance from her sister.  Their paths diverge as April moves into her “promising future in white society” while Cheryl volunteers at the Native Friendship Centre and embraces her identity.  Cheryl challenges April on her views of Aboriginal people, and on the “shame” she exhibits, and seeks to explain the conditions of life for Indigenous people in a way that accounts for colonialism and dislocation. Unfortunately, Cheryl loses her self-respect and abandons herself fully to the degeneracy of the social space around her; quitting university, becoming an alcoholic, moving in with an abusive man and taking up work as a prostitute. Concurrent with April’s discovery that Cheryl has been pushed into “degenerate space,” April is raped—an event that constitutes her own forcible confinement in that space (Hanson 2012, p.18)

This story also provides a platform for a narrative of resistance and decolonization. Culleton has used literature as a tool for challenging Eurocentrism and racism (Hudson 2012).  She describes relations between race, space, and the law, in order to enable the denaturalization of Indigenous women occupying violent spaces. Culleton (1983) particularly challenges the construction of the concepts of “degeneracy” and “civility” as they are used to characterize racialized spaces where whiteness is characterized by civility and Aboriginality by degeneracy.