From dealing in casinos to working in oil field camps in northern Alberta, drug addiction consultant Justin Buffalo turns grief into a tale full of comedy and urban legend.
Buffalo, 34, was raised by his grandmother on the Samson Kerry First Nation south of Edmonton. He said he lived a quiet childhood in a remote part of the reserve, spending most of his time reading books given to him by his two grandmothers.
“I always read,” Buffalo said. “It’s free, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t require batteries.”
Buffalois is in her second year at Audible’s Aboriginal Writers Circle, a six-month workshop and mentoring program for Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis writers. The audiobook subscription service launched the program to support emerging Aboriginal writers and provide mentoring and learning opportunities to help participants tell their own stories.
There are 19 writers this year. They are eligible for a $1,500 grant to support their participation in the program. Audible says the program helps writers improve and enhance their work, as well as possible publishing opportunities.
One of Buffalo’s biggest inspirations was the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes by Irish author Frank McCourt. Buffalo was given to him by a teacher who said the book had similarities to his own experiences.
“I saw him growing up as a poor Irish boy and then moving to the big city, and there were a lot of parallels,” Buffalo said. “This completely different identity, completely different perspective, is so suitable for me.”
Buffalo grew up on the Samson Kerry Native, but he has lived in Edmonton for many years. He also wrote grassroots environmental reports for First Nations while working in casinos and camp kitchens.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Buffalo began documenting and writing stories that reflected their experiences. He also used the opportunity to go back to school and become an addict.
His time at casinos and camps paved the way for addiction counseling. While Buffalo doesn’t write about his clients, he does use their experiences to express his views on the work.
“It does give me another perspective on certain things.”
Indigenous author Clayton Thomas-Mueller has been mentoring Buffalo for the past few months. Thomas-Muller is best known for his memoir, “Life in a Dirty Water City,” a national bestseller and a finalist for CBC’s Canadian Reads.
He is a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in the Treaty 6 territory in northern Manitoba, but grew up mostly in Winnipeg, where he currently lives.
“Justin is a very deep and creative soul,” Thomas Müller said.
“Has moccasins on the left foot and one of the true representatives of Adidas on the right. Living between rez and the big city, he has a rich perspective on that dichotomy.”
Thomas-Muller said he chose Buffalo from applicants for the program “because his story and potential really resonated with me.”
He said he and other mentors on the program would shape it based on the writer’s needs and interests.
“This type of program didn’t exist when I started,” Thomas-Muller said. “I’m grateful that Writers Circle is a place where we can support those who are on the rise.”
Buffalo is currently writing a pseudo-memoir called “The Eagle Whistle and the Elder Echo,” about a man who doesn’t know he’s a bear and tries to go home to wake his brother. Buffalo says the book is dark, but offers a light balance through humor.
“It’s about dealing with losses and trying to get through the day’s unique ordeal,” Buffalo said. “I wanted to write something with a modern mythological vibe.”
Buffalo said the use of the bear was primarily for comic effect, and he was inspired by the Duck Man in British author Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series.
“I use this as an excuse to disrupt the conversation and change the pace.”
Buffalo said he values learning how to perfect his writing, as well as learning more about the industry, through the program, which “really won me ‘native’ in the circle of native writers.”
“I’m really proud of what I’m doing now,” Buffalo said, “no matter which direction it goes.”
This story was produced with funding from Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Angela Amato, Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Audible would not publish stories in the authoring program.
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