PhD student wins trio of awards for first poetry collection

Dene and Métis poet Matthew James Weigel recognized for Whitemud Walking, a genre-defying journey through Edmonton’s history of colonization.

Matthew Weigel

Matthew James Weigel has won national, provincial and local literary awards for Whitemud Walking, a collection of poetry, photos and archival documents exploring his place in Edmonton’s colonial history and telling “stories that tend to get very easily erased.” (Photo: Hueandsun Photography)

A University of Alberta doctoral student has won national, provincial and local literary awards for his first published volume of poetry — all within a single month.

Matthew James Weigel received the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award from the League of Canadian Poets in May for Whitemud Walking, a collection of poetry, photographs and documents exploring the Dene and Métis poet’s place in Edmonton’s history of colonization and erasure.

According to the publisher’s description, the collection examines how “the state and archival institutions work together to sequester documents and knowledge in ways that resonate violently in people's lives, including the dispossession and extinguishment of Indigenous title to land.”

The book also won the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize in May and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta in June. His chapbook, It Was Treaty/It Was Me, won the 2020 Vallum Chapbook Award.

The structure of Whitemud Walking — also entirely designed by Weigel — is based on his walks through Whitemud Creek at the University of Alberta’s Mactaggart Sanctuary. Similarly, his current doctoral project is built around his 20-minute walk from the Humanities Centre on the northeast corner of the university’s North Campus to his apartment in Old Strathcona. It’s a short jaunt “absolutely full of history, life and stories,” he says, many of which lie beneath what first hits the eye.

“There are a lot of stories that tend to get very easily erased,” says Weigel, who was born and raised in Edmonton. “You'll see the beautiful tree-lined streets and the Edmonton Heritage Board plaques that say, ‘So and so lived in this house in such and such a year.’

“It gives the impression that those are the stories of this place, on a very superficial level. But who controls that narrative?”

He points to the Garneau Tree — a 143-year-old Manitoba maple and well-known local landmark of Métis heritage planted by the Garneau family in 1874 at what is now 110th Street and 90th Avenue — as a symbol of erasure. “It's not there anymore, but the roots are still there underground.

“What is this place? How did these things come to be here? A lot of those answers come back to concepts like treaty and treaty relationality, and the way that colonial governance both extinguished title and allowed these institutions like the University of Alberta to thrive and grow.”

As an undergraduate, Weigel studied a mix of linguistics, philosophy, creative writing and ecology — even studying marine science while working at West Edmonton Mall’s aquarium.

While upgrading his GPA to continue studying science in graduate school, he took a couple of courses in the Department of English and Film Studies, including one on Canadian literature and colonization, setting him up for the epiphany that changed his life.

“I ended up seeing the Treaty 6 parchment (one of a number of copies meant to be distributed to signatories) at the University of Alberta in the Bruce Peel Special Collections,” he says. “It really sparked a lot of questions.”

In 2019, Weigel switched course and began investigating the relationship between treaties and colonial violence, earning his master's degree in English while embarking on Whitemud Walking, which he describes as a “set of guiding principles of how you interact with archival material in a personal and ethical way.”

As a visual artist specializing in ink and line work, Weigel was also recently commissioned to create the symbol for the river valley trail between Devon and Fort Saskatchewan, the largest river valley trail in North America.

He is now finishing the second year of his doctorate examining the consequences of sequestered archives, colonization and erasure, producing a dissertation that “resists the archive, and being co-opted and subsumed within the academy.”

Weigel credits fellow poet and English professor Jordan Abel, winner of the 2017 national Griffin Poetry Prize, with inspiring his interest in writing poetry.

“He is totally responsible for my career as a poet — I don't think that's an exaggeration,” he says. “Not only has he been an incredible artistic influence, but a professional one as well.”

The Gerald Lampert jury describes Whitemud Walking as a remarkable work of resistance historiography” and a “masterclass in experimental form … re-visioning of family stories and the poet’s loving and attentive relationship with a particular place.

“You do not just read this book but experience it with your mind, heart and spirit.”