As an immigrant to Canada, I was shocked to learn about the Canadian legacy of residential schools. I had no idea growing up in the U.S. that such things were happened and had happened just north of the border. The indigenous residential schools operated in Canada starting in the 1870s with the last one not closing until1996. Children as young as four were taken—often against the will of their families or with coercive techniques such as threatening jail time—and it is estimated that over 150,000 Indian, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential school. I was reminded that it is a  legacy that continues to shade aspects of Canadian culture and identity for all Canadians this year when I became a citizen. At the ceremony, the judge encouraged all of us new Canadians to make the act of reconciliation personal and spoke about how she was doing that in her life. 

Can We Understand?

How does one take on such an enormous task of try to make better—or even understand—a system like residential school? It feels like an enormous task but one as an immigrant and as a mother that I want to take seriously. “Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts. This lack of knowledge has serious consequences for First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and for Canada,” counsels the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in their Final Report.  History is important because it allows us as a people to look at the dark aspects of our history to make our way toward a lighter future. But where to begin?

One of the ways I chose to begin the process this year was to read about it. And I wanted to include my children in this reading and this learning so I started with youth fiction. It made it easier for me to commit to a topic that I knew would be emotionally difficult. 

The four books that I read with my children (ages 8 and 12) this year on the topic were Fatty Legs and it’s sequel A Stranger at Home both by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. They are gorgeously illustrated, stock full of real photographs of Margaret and her family, and tell a compelling story of the young Margaret’s true story of her time during and after residential school. I’d consider them a must read for all ages, and easily accessible and appropriate for most children 8 and older. For younger children, they have also made a shorter illustrated introduction called When I was Eight. 

These Are My Words

The other book I read was part of the fictional Dear Canada series that creates fictional diary accounts of historical figures or times. In These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of the Violet Pesheens, the actual residential school survivor Ruby Slipperjack tells the story of 13 year old Violet Pesheens who must leave first her reservation and then her beloved grandma to go to school. Violet is lucky enough to figure out a way out after less than a year and is able to reflect on the ways she has had it easier than her mother and others. Interlaced with hope and numerous historical facts, this is an interesting and relatively easy introduction for ages 9 or 10 through adulthood. 

Listen to learn more. 

Visit FolkU.ca for more book club information and schedule.