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Albert Dumont reading at the Indigenous Awareness Week Ceremony. From his website.

Ottawa’s new English Poet Laureate: Albert Dumont

By Jasmine van Schouwen on May 19, 2021

Every two years, VERSe Ottawa, a non-profit organization that aims to sustain and promote poetry in all its forms in the Ottawa region, announces the nomination of two Ottawa Poets Laureate: one Anglophone and one Francophone, each appointed for a two-year term. Their mandate is to act as Ottawa’s artistic ambassadors, to promote the literary arts, and to advance Ottawa’s unique voice in the world. In addition to an annual honorarium of $5,000, each Poet Laureate has an additional budget of $5,000 to fund various poetry-related programs and events.

VERSe Ottawa recently announced the city’s two poets laureate for 2021–2022: Gilles Latour, French-language laureate, and Albert Dumont, English-language laureate.

The winners took the time to chat with Apartment613 to share their stories, dreams, and ambitions for the next two years. You can read our profile of the French-speaking winner, Gilles Latour, here.

Albert Dumont: Tales of healing from the Red Road

Albert Dumont, English Poet Laureate of Ottawa. Photo provided.

Albert Dumont, “South Wind,” is a poet, storyteller, speaker, and an Algonquin traditional teacher. He was born in traditional Algonquin Territory (Kitigan Zibi), and has been walking the Red Road since commencing his sobriety in 1988. He has published five books of poetry and short stories and two children’s books, written in three languages. Most recently, he published Grandpa’s Wisdom – An Algonquin Reflection on West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease, an Ottawa Public Health initiative, written in English, French, and Algonquin.

Dumont’s poetry speaks directly to the soul, urging its readers through timeless imagery and thoughtful prose to revel with grace at all the facets of life, from birth and bliss to pain and death. His work explores Indigenous experiences with a view to following in the footsteps of his ancestors. Their poetry, he says, “spilled effortlessly from their lips because the spirit of the land guided their words.”

He finds inspiration and guidance from his ancestors’ teachings. Although he didn’t start writing until much later, Dumont recalls that as a teenager, he was deeply touched by the writings of Indigenous leaders and chiefs of bygone days. “One of the chiefs said, ‘The sap coursing through the trees of the forest carries the memories of my ancestors’. That really reached me. These leaders weren’t poets, so to speak, but just the way they communicated, that was normal talk to them. It was very poetic. I think Indigenous people, it’s something that’s in our blood.”

Dumont can clearly recall the moment that inspired him to write. Three years into his sobriety, while working in construction, Dumont fell from a scaffolding 43 feet to the ground. “I thought it was the end of my life,” he says. “I just accepted that that was going to be the last breath.” But in a flash, everything changed. “It’s like I heard a voice that said, ‘Land on your feet and you will not die’.” Dumont managed to land on his feet and survived. He sustained a number of serious injuries, including crushed and cracked vertebrae that left him riddled with chronic pain. Unable to continue working in construction, he found himself on the brink of poverty. Dumont took up pen and ink work and designed four T-shirts. The sales of the shirts allowed him to pay his bills, and against the odds, he managed to continue on the path of sobriety.

It was to celebrate this journey, and a successful five years of sobriety, that Dumont decided to write a poem for his daughters in 1993: The Path My Children Would Travel. “It has to do with a human being who is vowing to [live] a sober lifestyle, so his children won’t experience the same kind of life. That was my first poem.” Dumont wrote the poem as a one-off, a celebratory act of creation, that he had no intention of repeating. But his two daughters, aged six and nine at the time, were so impressed by the poem that they brought it to school. Their principal submitted it to the Glebe Report community newspaper, where it was published. The poem touched hearts across the world and even inspired others to seek healing. “Ten or 12 years after I wrote [The Path My Children Would Travel], I was at the Chippewas of Nawash powwow. A man came up to me there and asked if I was Albert Dumont, so I said yes. He said, ‘I want you to know that you wrote a poem that inspired me to dedicate my life to sobriety’.” By then, Dumont’s first poem had been published in a book of poetry, and the cover was tattooed on the man’s arm.

Ever since, poetry has been a form of healing for Dumont, inspiring and supporting him through times of pain and hardship. Dumont does not shy away from difficult subjects. Death, for instance, is a topic that he explores audaciously. Growing up, Dumont passed a funeral home on his paper route. He began visiting regularly to say prayers to the deceased, whether or not he knew them. For Dumont, it followed naturally that he would explore this issue in his work: “I’ve written a lot of poetry about comforting the next of kin who are mourning their dearly departed.”

Above all, however, Dumont uses poetry to express his worldview as an Algonquin man. “If you want to know about Indigenous people and if you live in Ottawa, if you want to know something about the Algonquins on whose territory the city of Ottawa is built, then read my poetry.”

He hopes his poetry can inspire all of those living on Turtle Island to show compassion towards each other and the land. “All I ask as an Indigenous person is that people love the trees here as much as they love the trees on their own lands that they left. And that they ask questions: is there any lore or traditional teaching stories connected to that bird or that animal or that fish or that tree?”

As a VERSe poet laureate, Dumont intends to continue exploring challenging topics, including homelessness, mental illness, activism, and migration. More importantly, he hopes to use his status as poet laureate to promote poetry as a form of healing. “After two years, I don’t know how many poems I’ll have … but the more people I can connect with poetry in the next two years, the happier I’m going to be. I really believe that poetry is medicine, poetry is a healer. It can get somebody to be a better human being.”