I wanted to make a western that does challenge its racist tropes, that does challenge its masculinist tropes. I wanted to write a western that my grandfather would have loved and that my grandfather should have been able to read when he was alive.
With great patience, Blair Palmer Yoxall (BA ‘18) holds his metal fly fishing pole behind him, mindful of his footing. Quickly, he moves the pole forward, and it snaps at the end, flicking the wire across the gently bubbling water. The wire brushes over the surface, making beautiful patterns, and just for a moment, Blair wonders if he sees a fish moving to bite. But no, just a trick of the light. This peaceful moment is one that Blair looks forward to after he finishes his novel.
Blair is writing a feminist Métis ‘western,’ centred on Métis women and children in 1885 during the North-West Resistance. When a young boy’s cousin vanishes, his mother, aunty and great grandmother work to protect the narrator and find his missing cousin. As a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Blair’s inspiration for his novel came from his family history and identity. “Growing up in southern Alberta, there isn’t a large Métis presence. But there’s a large cowboy presence, and my family are all cowboys. Growing up, I was always very confused by westerns because it’s always cowboys versus Indians. And in my family, the Indians are cowboys. I was always really confused by this.” Watching and reading westerns growing up, Blair was always excited to see Indigenous or female representation but remembers feeling like he had to have lower standards for this representation to embrace or enjoy it. Many of the representations he saw were quite offensive, and Blair felt a pull to change that narrative.
He says, “I wanted to make a western that does challenge its racist tropes, that does challenge its masculinist tropes. I wanted to write a western that my grandfather would have loved and that my grandfather should have been able to read when he was alive.” Blair adds that a novel like this might have had the power to influence his grandfather’s relationship with his mother and one of his goals in this novel was to recreate a parental relationship with Indigenous children, a relationship that is suffering from post-colonial scars.
Blair is the first in his large family to receive a university education. “The thing that made graduation exciting for me is that I was completing university while my grandfather was a residential school runaway. For me, it was breaking that cycle of miseducation and fear of education.” He is about to walk the stage to receive his degree at the University of Lethbridge. He wears his culture quite literally on his back, its reassuring weight pressing on his shoulders. A few months prior, Blair had emailed the Registrar’s Office, asking if Indigenous students could wear traditional regalia and was excited to receive an email back, forwarded to all Indigenous students, that the policy was radically changed.
“As an Indigenous person, I was part of the first class who got to wear regalia,” he explains. He wears a capote, a very large jacket made out of a Hudson’s Bay blanket, along with his engraved stole. As Blair steps out onto the stage, he can see his pride and joy reflected on the faces of older Indigenous men and women, come to see their grandkids and nieces and nephews graduate. Seeing Indigenous peoples wearing regalia like leathers, headdresses and beading at such a formal ceremony for the first time was a deeply impactful experience for Blair. While he might not see it, Blair helped pave the way for more Indigenous students to follow in his footsteps.
Following graduation, Blair was accepted to the University of Alberta and completed his master’s in English in 2020. Blair’s novel began as his creative master’s thesis. It blossomed into something he hopes to have published within the next few years with the help of his agent. “I’ve been grinding a lot on my book since I graduated from the U of A, it’s been pretty ambitious, and it takes a lot of editing,” he explains. “With all honesty, I targeted my entire education to writing this one book.” Taking courses that would help him inform the themes he wanted to write about, he used uLethbridge’s liberal education requirements to take courses exploring racism, anthropology, women and gender studies. “I did my best to take advantage of the breadth of knowledge I could get. I wanted to write the best book that I could. I knew that because my book was theoretically dense and deals with a lot of history, that I needed a lot of training.”
Blair describes that while writing a novel is very collaborative during the research stages and just before publication, the writing itself is extremely isolating. That, compounded with the pandemic and isolated lifestyle of an artist and author, made Blair’s last year in Edmonton difficult. Despite the challenges, Blair persevered with purpose and took advantage of the moment, not wanting the year to be wasted. “It’s been a tough year for everyone, and I want to learn from this experience. I want to take meaning from it. I wish I could say it’s been a beautiful romantic dream, but I can’t. It has been hard, but I’m grateful for the time to write, and something that’s bled into my work is that perseverance. I need it for my characters. They go through things that I have a hard time even imagining, so writing it was very difficult. Being able to study perseverance, seeing what other people were doing to persevere during the pandemic, and just listening to stories about people who have been affected more personally than I have, has engendered my work with a lot more honesty and authenticity.” While this perspective was beneficial, and he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to write full-time, it came at a cost. “I never want to write in a pandemic ever again!” he jokes. “I’ve had to give up a lot to make this happen. I look forward to it being finished so I can get back to some normality. It’s definitely a passion project. I’m exhausted, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Blair had the opportunity to have extended family members with whom his grandad was quite close to read the book and give their seal of approval. Others gave their seal of approval as well, including his supervisors, instructors, friends and editors. “It was the kind of validation I didn’t see coming. It’s a lot of fun to write, I wanted to write my favourite book, and I did that, so I’m really proud. But I still have a ways to go, still more edits to do. I look forward to its future. I didn’t expect it to go this far. I didn’t expect it to have the kind of reaction it did from my supervisors and other readers. I’m quite excited to see where it’s heading!”
Blair will continue to write and hopes to take his writing into whatever career he chooses. “I really like writing. I feel like I bleed ink,” he smiles. As for the topic of his writing, Blair hopes to bring light to Alberta, a place he feels is misunderstood, even by those who live here. “I’ve been working for a very long time on short stories about Alberta and its people and unique situations. I think Alberta is a really neat place and it’s not very well understood, even by people who live in Alberta. So I’m really excited to write about Alberta, understand it better and share these goofy stories about it.” That and fly fishing, hiking and spending time with loved ones. Blair declares, “Southern Alberta needs to be represented! I love the place!” Thank you, Blair, for bringing light to dusty tropes and writing the stories that need to be told.