By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,

Four years after having his first book of poetry shortlisted for a publisher’s award, Joshua Jordan Heath, 21, has taken to the written word once more to express the hardships and heartbreaks of his young life.

“It helps a lot. It heals me a lot. It feels great just writing and getting those memories off my mind. It’s a good way just to feel better,” said Heath.

Heath read from his newest book of poetry, Soul Rape Soul Rage last month as part of an Indigenous program sponsored by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Group.

He addressed his audience from the passenger seat of a vehicle parked at the side of the road with his “other” mother and mentor Sheila Webster behind the wheel.

It was a fitting setting for Heath as that was how he began writing poetry.

On the way to a funeral five years ago, Heath passed the crash site of the Humboldt Broncos bus. A memorial had arisen at the site to mark the tragic loss of lives at the Saskatchewan intersection.

At around the same time, recalled Webster, a bus crash had occurred in India. While the money flooded in to support the Broncos’ families and survivors, barely any money was raised for the families in India.

“It impacted him beyond what he was able to express. He asked why everyone didn’t matter like the hockey players did,” said Webster.

“He felt like he was just a kid from no where and that his life didn’t matter. I said it did.”

It was at that moment that Heath started writing poetry. It was his way of telling others that their lives mattered and their voices counted.

His first poetry chapbook, Shopping Cart Boy: Poems of My Life, is dedicated “to all the kids who have been taken from their mothers.”

Heath lived with his mother in Regina until he was five years old and then he cycled in and out of her life. She would push him in a shopping cart, and he would be “chatting with my sober mom,” as he wrote, as they looked for bottles.

“He has happy memories of what was a sad time,” said Webster. “She’s collecting these bottles, as he says in the poem, ‘for a cure that never works.’ And anyone that’s had anything to do with alcoholism knows that ‘a cure,’ if someone’s going to get ‘a cure,’ it’s usually another drink.”

Wrote Heath in the title poem of the book, “Any day in foster care I would have traded for my shopping cart prison and watching the stars and the moon as my mother snored safely by my side.”

Webster had Heath as a foster child for about 18 months starting when he was eight years old. She helped his mother regain custody of him. When Heath’s mother died in 2014, he was 12 years old and went to live with his much older brother. However, his brother was in and out of jail and Webster, no longer part of the foster system, eventually became Heath’s legal guardian.

The pages for Shopping Cart Boy were printed at an office-supply store and then handstitched together. The small book was sold for $5 at Indigenous events. The proceeds went to pay restitution for a crime Heath had committed. An editor with Siretona Creative from Calgary picked up the book and shortly after approached Heath about publishing his work.

“It’s his visual memory…I think that’s one of the things that caught (the) first publisher off guard,” said Webster.

In 2019, Shopping Cart Boy was shortlisted in the Children and Young Adult category of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta’s Book of the Year Award.

Around the same time, Heath became interested in filming a documentary to accompany the book. It wasn’t anything Webster knew much about, but together the two used an iPhone and filmed the 10-minute piece.

Entitled Joshua: The Story of a Young First Nation Boy, it was shortlisted for the 2018 Regina International Film Festival and Awards in the Saskatchewan short documentary category.

Now, Heath has a second book of poetry and it continues to unravel the difficulties of his life.

At nine years of age, Heath was sexually abused in his foster home almost daily. Soul Rape Soul Rage is raw in the telling of those experiences and the “help” that followed after.

“It’s a relief to get it off my chest so when I write it down, it feels much easier to explain it that way,” said Heath.

Soul Rape Soul Rage is published by Stark Words Press and is available on Amazon.