Seven Residential School Reads for Canadian Classrooms

I made a promise to myself after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out last year: to educate myself about Canada’s shameful history of broken treaties and residential schools. Since then I’ve been reading everything I can find on the subject–including fiction, because that’s my favourite way to learn. For me, history comes to life when I experience it through the eyes and heart of a true-to-life character.

If you are searching for classroom material on residential schools or on Canada’s history of injustice towards First Nations peoples, here are my top picks.

Primary Grades

HIDDEN BUFFALO by Rudy Wiebe, illustrated by Michael Lonechild

Stunning illustrations and a strong literary voice bring to life the story of Sky Running, a young Cree boy searching for 0889953341the buffalo his family needs in order to survive the coming winter. This deceptively simple prose is rich with lessons on both native life and story structure. The vivid artwork illustrates many aspects of Cree culture. Though not about residential schools, I had to include it because of the brilliant artwork and the story it tells of a tradition that is dying because of colonization. Wiebe is an award-winning Alberta writer. Michael Lonechild is a celebrated artist from White Bear Reserve, Saskatchewan.

WHEN I WAS EIGHT by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiac-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Olemaun, an eight-year-old girl who lives in the Arctic, knows many things, but she doesn’t know how to read. She convinces her father to let her leave home to attend the “outsiders’ school,” but when she arrives she is treated cruelly. Her long braids are cut off, her warm clothing is replaced by thin, scratchy cloth, and she is forced to perform menial chores. Illustrator Grimard’s paintings stretch across the pages showing a child’s perspective, and the first-person writing brings Olemaun, renamed Margaret, to life. Based on the true experiences of ┬áMargaret Pokiac-Fenton.

Junior Grades

AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden, illustrated by Heather Holmlund

Based on personal experience, Loyie tells the story of his last summer near Slave Lake, Alberta, before being forced to attend a residential school hundreds of miles away. We see the world through Lawrence’s eyes, from the humorous antics of Ooh-hoo, an adopted orphaned owl, to his face-to-face experience with an enormous grizzly bear. These incidents, and Heather Holmlund’s detailed watercolours, show us the beauty and freedom of a way of life and make the eventual separation all the more heart-wrenching.

RED WOLF by Jennifer Dance

By the late 1800’s, white settlers have penetrated deep into Algonquin territory, forcing both Native people and 943074afd388b66cf6a3cf44159c6473wolves from the land. When Red Wolf, a young Anishnaabek boy, finds Crooked Ear, an orphaned wolf, ┬áhe wants to adopt it. But his father says no. Under the Indian Act, Red Wolf must go to a residential school and his family must live on a reservation far away. The story alternates between the POV of the wolf and the boy, giving it an added appeal. But this isn’t a feel-good story about a boy and his pet. It refuses to minimize the violence of the residential school experience, and the opening scene portrays an act of cruelty that will make you squirm. Teachers will want to address these issues before students read this novel.

Intermediate Grades

SUGAR FALLS by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson

This graphic novel tells the true story of Betty Ross, an elder the Cross Lake First Nation. Betsy is from a loving family, but she must attend residential school according to the law. Before she leaves her father takes her to Sugar Falls, to listen to the drumbeat of the land and water and feel its strength inside her. He makes her promise to remember that strength no matter what happens at the school. This promise sustains Betsy through acts of cruelty, the suicide of a friend, and sexual abuse. Though the sexual abuse is not retold in detail, several acts of violence are depicted in vivid illustrations. Discussions about abuse and suicide are recommended as prerequisites to using this book in the classroom.

BLOOD UPON OUR LAND, the North-West Resistance Diary of Josephine Bouvier, 1885, by Maxine Trottier

The New Year of 1885 begins as it always does, with a party of dancing and fiddle music and food. It was the most exciting thing that ever happened in Batoche, according to Josephine Bouvier, a young Metis girl. But changes come quickly. Papa, a widower, marries the widow Louise Pepin, and Louis Riel arrives in Batoche. The Metis demand compensation for lands taken from them, and when the government refuses, violence erupts. Soldiers are sent in and soon Josephine’s father and brother are off to fight. Though the violence is less explicit in this story, we feel the injustice of the way the Metis people are treated.

THE LYNCHING OF LOUIE SAM, by Elizabeth Stewart

thWhen fifteen-year-old George Gillies finds the body of a murdered man in a cabin in Noosack Valley, Washington Territory, rumours begin to swirl. Soon the uneasy relations between settlers and Native people are enflamed. Caught in the frenzy, George and his friend Pete follow the lynch mob north into Canada, on the trail of Louie Sam, a 14-year-old Sto:lo boy suspected of the murder. Told from the point of view of George, we feel his shock as he witnesses an act of unspeakable violence and injustice. Though George Gillies and his family are fictional, this novel is based on the true story of Louie Sam. Depicting the brutality of racism and the dangers of mob rule, it makes a good vehicle for discussion on how to stand up for what you believe, even when it means losing your friends.






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