"The Outside Circle" by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

Pete and Joey are brothers, young Aboriginal men who are surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence brought on by the centuries of historic trauma inflicted upon the Aboriginal people of Canada.  

Pete has fallen in with a gang, is dealing drugs, and is committing violence in order to provide for his younger brother and his heroin addict mother.  One night, Pete gets into a fight with his mother’s boyfriend, Dennis, which ends with Dennis being taken away in a body bag.  In jail, Pete maintains his gang ties but when he finds out that Joey has fallen in with them and then Pete is attacked by a rival gang member, he realizes that he needs to break the cycle.

Pete is offered the opportunity to participate in a program that helps incarcerated Aboriginal men begin the process of rehabilitation through traditional Aboriginal healing circles and ceremonies.  It will be a difficult struggle, one that Pete will initially try to fight but he knows that though his own healing, he will be able to help others with theirs.

The Outside Circle is a moving and powerful graphic novel written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and illustrated by Kelly Mellings.  Drawn from LaBoucane-Benson’s research and work in the field of healing and reconciliation of gang-affiliated or incarcerated Aboriginal men, it tells the story of brave men who face their demons head on through traditional healing methods.

I learned so much from this book, I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it.  There is so much more for non-Aboriginal Canadians to learn regarding the plight of the Aboriginal people in Canada.  When you think on what we have learned, we know about the treatment they suffered through colonial policies such as stripping them of their rights, forcing them on to reserves, the horrors of residential schools, and the laws that allowed all of this.  But what we don’t really understand is the lasting effects its has had on people.  We know about the prevalence of poverty, drug abuse, and violence in the community but we don’t truly understand the emotional tolls.  We see the faces, but we don’t see what is behind them.  And that is what this book brings to us.

In the book, Pete participates in the In Search of Your Warrior Program, a program that LaBoucane-Benson oversees in her role as Director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta.  This book is so well-written.  The powerlessness and hopelessness that Pete feels jumps off the page and into your heart.  Readers will find inspiration and hope in Pete’s journey.  I also appreciated very much the way statistics and historical documents are presented in the book.  The page where Pete’s mother signs the Permanent Guardianship Order is especially poignant.

The artwork by Kelly Mellings is absolutely beautiful. There is rich detail in each and every panel and you can spend a lot of time in the intricacies of the art.  So much of the story is told through those intricacies.  More and more I am becoming a fan of graphic novels that teach us about history and social justice issues.  This is book should be on every Canadian must-read list.


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