Bitter Embrace: White Society's Assault on the Woodland Cree


322 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7710-8060-3
DDC 971.24'100497323




Reviewed by J.R. Miller

J.R. (Jim) Miller is Canada Research Chair of History at the University
of Saskatchewan. His latest works are Reflections on Native-Newcomer
Relations: Selected Essays and Lethal Legacy: Current Native
Controversies in Canada.


In Bitter Embrace, journalist Maggie Siggins explores the relationship
between indigenous and immigrant peoples in Canada through an
examination of Pelican Narrows, a town in northeastern Saskatchewan. She
employs the journalistic device of using a specific story—in this case
that of the Ballantyne family—to carry the narrative and analysis of
the relationship along. Her successive chapters explore the fur-trade
era, the impact of Christian missionaries, schooling, health care, local
politics, and the criminal justice system. In some instances, as with
the fur trade, this approach works brilliantly. Siggins, a fine writer,
interweaves the personal and the general to produce a compelling,
credible account of relations in the commercial setting.

In spite of the excellence of the writing and the effectiveness in some
cases of the author’s approach, there are problems with the work. One
is that Siggins adopts a never-is-heard-a-discouraging-word stance in
relation to the Cree in her story. She romanticizes Cree society prior
to contact with Europeans, and passes lightly over more recent issues
such as problems in band politics. Her uncritical attitude toward the
Cree is best captured in the extraordinary statement in her prologue:
“I concluded that all my white society can do now is stand aside and
give what is asked.” Furthermore, she strangely takes the case of a
non-Native lawyer who betrayed his position of trust and engaged in sex
with clients in Pelican Narrows, and asserts that this miscreant’s
behaviour epitomizes Native–newcomer relations in general. Such
generalizing carries the journalistic device of telling a broad story
through an individual too far.

Although Bitter Embrace shows Maggie Siggins at her most effective as a
reporter telling a historical story well, her analysis of what she
reports is unfortunately marred by a tendency to ignore shades of grey
and to depict the scene in simplistic black-and-white terms.


Siggins, Maggie., “Bitter Embrace: White Society's Assault on the Woodland Cree,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,