Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When Michael Redhead Champagne was a child, he was told he talked too much, and because he was young, people didn’t listen to him.
The mother of the “really beautiful family” who adopted him told him to keep talking.
“And so I did. And it really changed the trajectory, I think, of my life. Instead of being silenced, I was somebody who spoke up. And instead of looking at something that people told me I had that was too much, I ended up turning that into my career,” said Champagne, who is Swampy Cree from Shamattawa First Nation but who grew up in Winnipeg’s North End.
Champagne has been a public speaker for more than a decade, addressing youth and educators across Canada and the United States.
Now he’s a published author of a lower elementary children’s book entitled We Need Everyone.
And, he admits, writing a book was a lot harder than he had anticipated.
“When I was writing the book and planning it out, I was very long winded to the point that it was not a children's book that I was writing. It was a policy document to change legislation,” he laughed as he spoke to Windspeaker.com.
But as a speaker constantly adjusting his message to suit his audience, Champagne decided to record himself speaking to an audience of kindergarten children. His partner typed out the transcript from his video and he worked with the team at HighWater Press publishers to determine “what the actual book was going to be.”
He began writing the 30-page book in 2019 and completed it in 2020.
For an illustrator, he asked that the team be primarily women-led and preferably Indigenous women or women of colour. Champagne was presented with a number of illustrators and selected Tiff Bartell, who “was an easy pick because the way that she draws is very energetic. She draws in a way that looks like the way I speak, and so that's why it felt like such a natural fit when we were working together.”
Bartell was also pregnant, which, says Champagne, resulted in “a lot of maternal love in these drawings and I think you can feel it.”
We Need Everyone is an important book for Champagne.
“I want the kids that are told that they're ‘too much’ to feel like they could take that gift that is being described as ‘too much’ and look at it in a different way to say, ‘This gift could actually guide me into a good life,’” said Champagne.
“Everyone has a gift,” begins the picture book. “Gifts are skills and talents we share with others. Every gift is different, and every gift is special.”
Take, for instance, gaming.
“I want to make sure all the kids out there feel seen and a lot of folks, a lot of kids that I know today, are really interested and invested in gaming. And I can really see pretty clearly how the skill set involved in gaming is going to be essential as we move into the future,” said Champagne.
In the book, he lists gamers as strategizers who “respond to challenges with determination and endurance.”
Including gamers in the book, he points out, is also a way of shaking up conventional thinking. Once thought of as “unengaged with the world,” gamers should be seen as understanding computers, technology and algorithms, things that are important in moving into the future.
“I really think that we can just reposition the way we look at our gifts and reposition the way we look at our kids to really lift them up,” he said.
Appropriately, gifts are represented by Bartell as stars. Champagne points out that for the Swampy Cree, their Creation Story says they are star people and come from the stars.
“And that's the reason why I wanted to, and that's why I'm so excited that the gifts are visualized as stars. I feel like it's a connection to that Indigenous knowledge and the Creation Story, but in a very subtle way,” he said.
Champagne urges kids who can’t figure out what their gifts are to ask a friend. As his book says, “They probably see talents in you that you haven’t yet realized.”
But more than that, he says, children need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.
“I wanted to emphasize that it's okay if you don't know something,” he said.
The book also emphasizes that no gift is too small and no gift should be dismissed.
“Maybe they're gifted cooks, right? Or they cook but it's exclusive for their family. And so these are things that maybe the rest of the world wouldn't necessarily acknowledge and say, ‘This is a really important thing that we want you to focus on’,” said Champagne. “But I really want children to know that everybody has something inside of them that is a skill that's better than everybody else and they can choose to use that to help themselves or they can choose to use that to help the community.”
Activism is another concept Champagne emphasizes in his book but he talks about it as “helping community.”
Champagne is an activist, a title that often times brings with it a negative connotation.
“Sometimes activism can be perceived as tearing things down. I wanted to really define my understanding of activism as strength-based building of something as opposed to a deficit-based calling out of a bad thing,” he said.
In keeping with his role as an activist, Champagne is promoting a buy one/gift one campaign for We Need Everyone. His hope is to see free books sent to isolated and northern First Nations communities as a means to rectify historical wrongs.
Last year, Shamattawa First Nation was one of 11 northern First Nations in Manitoba to declare a state of emergency relating to youth suicide and youth harm and lack of health infrastructure.
Champagne wants the children and the families living in those communities to “start looking at the leadership and the skills and the abilities of those young people in a different way so that we can hopefully curb the suicide epidemic amongst children in Indigenous communities.”
He would like to see We Need Everyone be a tool used to change the “negative narratives that are out there for diverse children.”
The children’s book is only the first for Champagne, who anticipates writing more books for different ages, which could include graphic novels.
In fact, Champagne is the subject of a graphic novel, Little by Little: You Can Change the World, by Swampy Cree writer Sonya Ballantyne, illustrated by Rhael McGregor and Toben Racicot. It will be published by HighWater Press in August and depicts “how Michael became Michael, the community leader.”
As for Michael, the writer, Champagne says he recently found an “All about me” book he had written when he was six years old. His favourite food was pizza and, when he grew up, he wanted to be a writer.
“It was just a real full circle moment for me, knowing that six-year-old Michael wanted to be a writer and now, after all of the many adventures I've had in my life, I finally get to check that one off the list,” he said.
We Need Everyone will be available as of Jan. 30 and can be pre-ordered at https://www.portageandmainpress.com/Books/W/We-Need-Everyone.
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