Residential schools whether we like it or not are part of our Canadian history. I am thankful that it is history but was surprised to know that the last residential school only closed in Canada in 1996. It is a difficult topic to discuss but one that is important to recognize and talk about with our children when the time comes.
If you are looking for ways to discuss the history of Canadian residential schools with your children or perhaps to gain more insight as a parent into this horrific period in Canadian history, I have put together a list of some books that might help.
Books that I have had the privilege’s of reading so far, are noted below with a short review.
I was gifted an advance copy of Sugar Falls (Highwater Press) to read recently and was really moved by it. The experiences as told by the survivors brought me to tears. In fact my eyes were opened and I learnt many things from reading this book.
The 10th Anniversary edition was just released on May 25th, 2021. It is a beautifully illustrated young adult graphic novel by celebrated Indigenous author David A. Robertson.
Sugar Falls tells the harrowing true story of Elder Betty Ross, who was taken from a loving family and placed in a residential school. The graphic novel depicts the violence and indignities she experienced, but also illuminates the source of her resilience.
In this special anniversary edition of the book, colour has been added to the interior artwork for the first time. As well, a moving foreword by Senator Murray Sinclair, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and a powerful afterword by Elder Betty Ross are also included.
When We Were Alone (Portage and Main/Highwater Press) is a National Bestseller, and another wonderful book written by David A. Robertson. This book appeals to the K-3 age range.
When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history, and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength.
Also available in a bilingual Swampy Cree/English edition.
When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award in the Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books) category, and was nominated for the TD Canadian’s Children’s Literature Award.
When they arrive at school, Shi-shi-etko reminds Shinchi, her six-year-old brother, that they can only use their English names and that they can’t speak to each other. For Shinchi, life becomes an endless cycle of church mass, school, and work, punctuated by skimpy meals. He finds solace at the river, clutching a tiny cedar canoe, a gift from his father, and dreaming of the day when the salmon return to the river — a sign that it’s almost time to return home. This poignant story about a devastating chapter in First Nations history is told at a child’s level of understanding.
Acclaimed Inuit storyteller Michael Kusugak weaves a tapestry of tales about ten-year-old Agatha and her accidental heroism in the high Arctic of 1958. The first of Agatha’s stories is based on one of Kusugak’s real life experiences, when an eerie, black airship flew over Chesterfield Inlet in 1958. A sleepy Agatha “saves” the community from the monstrous flying object.
In the second story, Agatha notices the playful antics of the winter ravens and takes an interest in the many migrating birds. As the seasons change, she begins to favor more beautiful and peaceful birds of spring, until the ravens return.
Kookum’s Red Shoes (4-8)
The legacy of the residential is conveyed with respect and imagination in this illustrated story for young readers. As the elderly Kookum remembers the experiences in her youth that changed her life forever, we see what was lost in her life, and how goodness persisted.
Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools.
At school Margaret soon encounters the Raven, a black-cloaked nun with a hooked nose and bony fingers that resemble claws. She immediately dislikes the strong-willed young Margaret. Intending to humiliate her, the heartless Raven gives gray stockings to all the girls — all except Margaret, who gets red ones. In an instant Margaret is the laughingstock of the entire school.
In the face of such cruelty, Margaret refuses to be intimidated and bravely gets rid of the stockings. Although a sympathetic nun stands up for Margaret, in the end it is this brave young girl who gives the Raven a lesson in the power of human dignity.
Complemented by archival photos from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s collection and striking artworks from Liz Amini-Holmes, this inspiring first-person account of a plucky girl’s determination to confront her tormentor will linger with young readers.
A Stranger at Home: A True Story (9-12) is the sequel to Fatty Legs.
No Time to Say Goodbye is a fictional account of five children sent to aboriginal boarding school, based on the recollections of a number of Tsartlip First Nations people. These unforgettable children are taken by government agents from Tsartlip Day School to live at Kuper Island Residential School. The five are isolated on the small island and life becomes regimented by the strict school routine. They experience the pain of homesickness and confusion while trying to adjust to a world completely different from their own. Their lives are no longer organized by fishing, hunting and family, but by bells, line-ups and chores. In spite of the harsh realities of the residential school, the children find adventure in escape, challenge in competition, and camaraderie with their fellow students. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, always engrossing, No Time to Say Goodbye is a story that readers of all ages won’t soon forget.
(release date Sept 21, 2021)
In this extraordinary memoir, best-selling author Nicola I. Campbell deftly weaves rich poetry and vivid prose into a story basket of memories orating what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of Indian Residential Schools.
If the hurt and grief we carry is a woven blanket, it is time to weave ourselves anew. We can’t quit. Instead, we must untangle ourselves from the negative forces that have impacted our existence as Indigenous people.
Similar to the “moccasin telegraph,” Spíləxm (Highwater Press/Portage & Main Press) are the remembered stories, also “events or news” in the Nłeʔkepmx language. These stories were often shared over tea, in the quiet hours between Elders. Rooted within the British Columbia landscape, and with an almost tactile representation of being on the land and water, Spíləxm explores resilience, reconnection, and narrative memory through stories.
Captivating and deeply moving, this exceptional memoir tells of one Indigenous woman’s journey of overcoming adversity and colonial trauma to find strength and resilience through creative works and traditional perspectives of healing, transformation, and resurgence.
Named the fourth most important “Book of the Year” by the National Post in 2015 and voted “One Book/One Province” in Saskatchewan for 2017, The Education of Augie Merasty launched on the front page of The Globe and Mail to become a national bestseller and an instant classic. Written by Joseph Auguste 9Augie) Merasty
A courageous and intimate memoir, The Education of Augie Merasty is the story of a child who faced the dark heart of humanity, let loose by the cruel policies of a bigoted nation.
A retired fisherman and trapper who sometimes lived rough on the streets, Augie Merasty was one of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children who were taken from their families and sent to government-funded, church-run schools, where they were subjected to a policy of aggressive assimilation.
As Augie recounts, these schools did more than attempt to mould children in the ways of white society. They were taught to be ashamed of their heritage and, as he experienced, often suffered physical and sexual abuse.
But even as he looks back on this painful part of his childhood, Merasty’s sense of humor and warm voice shine through.
Presenting herself as “Myrtle,” residential school survivor and Indigenous television personality Bevann Fox explores essential questions by recounting her life through fiction. She shares memories of an early childhood filled with love with her grandparents-until she is sent to residential school at the age of seven. Her horrific experiences of abuse there left her without a voice, timid and nervous, never sure, never trusting, affecting her romantic relationships and family bonds for years to come.
This is the story of Myrtle battling to recover her voice. Genocidal Love is a powerful confirmation of the long-lasting consequences of residential school violence -and a moving story of finding a path towards healing.
CBC also recently published a list of books as recommended by David A. Robertson.
If you are looking for other talented Indigenous authors and books about Indigenous cultures and people, Harper Collins Canada publishes a large list of Indigenous authors, including:
Borders (coming soon) by Thomas King
Jo Jo Makoons by Dawn Quigley (age 6-10)
A few months back, I published a blog post where I reviewed several childrens books. One of the books in the list was Stand Like A Cedar by Nicola A. Campbell. A beautifully articulated book about the changing seasons and the connection to nature, family and oneself. A book about being grateful for the simple things in life. We really enjoyed the imagery and the references to the native language. Click here for a more detailed review of this book.
Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I get commissions for purchases made through certain links in this post. I was gifted a copy of Sugar Falls and Stand Like a Cedar to review, all my opinions are my own.