“You Will Wear A White Shirt: From the Northern Bushes to the Halls of Power” is a biography written by Senator Nick Sibbeston. Sibbeston grew up in Fort Simpson-a remote northern community in a home with his mother and grandmother. He recalls how life with his mother and grandmother were idyllic- “a young boy could not have had a better upbringing.” He learned valuable hunting and trapping lessons from his grandma, spoke his language, learned the value of community and practised the traditions of his people- the Dene. The one blemish in his life he did recall was the abuse of alcohol by his mother which would touch him later in life also.
At five years old, the idyllic lifestyle he had learned from being raised with his mom and grandma was snatched from him when he was taken to Fort Providence to attend residential school. Like many other children who were stolen from their parents and taken to residential school, Sibbeston experienced loneliness, brutal treatment at the hands of the those who ran the school but also experienced sexual assault by an older boy attending the same school.
In the fall of 1964, Sibbeston believed that he had no particular aspirations for any particular profession and kept going to school because he didn’t want to be a labourer and work hard physically, but throughout high school, teachers served as his main influence and inspiration to become something more. He went onto university, despite some difficulties in his personal life and received a degree in political science. Though it was a struggle for any student making the transition from high school to university or college, he notes that “for northerners it presented additional cultural shocks.”
Sibbeston’s biography is not so much about his personal life, but about his rise in politics. He played an integral role in Northwest Territories politics and advocated to support the economic and political development of First Nations people in the North. Some examples of his work included raising issues surrounding economic matters that ranged from support for hunters and trappers working on the land, through the provisions of radios, to the training and development of Native wildlife officers to the success and failure of the education system and how the government needed to acknowledge that education, “mostly in residential schools, had often been a painful experience for parents,” and that parents needed to be involved in their children’s education.
Sibbeston’s career took off like a rocket, and he made huge advances, first as a Member of the Legislature Assembly (MLA), then as one of Canada’s first Aboriginal lawyers, then as a cabinet minister and eventually as premier of the Northwest Territories. Lastly, he was appointed to the Senate of Canada.
This book is inspirational in many ways. It tells you the story of a man who despite the odds of attending residential school and the troubles he encountered with alcoholism and mental health issues, that success is possible. It resonated with me in the sense that Sibbeston never gave up despite the personal issues he encountered throughout his life. Often we hear of our people facing difficulties and we do not hear success stories.
“You Will Wear A White Shirt: From the Northern Bush to the Halls of Power” is published by Douglas & McIntyre and is 327 pages.