The dark and troubled history of Canada’s residential school system, which forcefully uprooted thousands of Indigenous kids from their families in the 19th and 20th centuries, is finally being taught to children through a new illustrated book titled “When We Were Alone.”
The book, written by Winnipeg author David A. Robertson, is an ambitious project revisiting an immensely sensitive but important part of Canadian history which has historically been ignored by the education system. The book is one more attempt to fulfill one of the 94 recommendations that the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made in regards to education, aimed at restoring relations with the First Nations community in Canada.
"I feel like it's a history that everybody needs to know, and it's something that we're not doing enough of, even though teachers are doing a much better job now and are much more willing to do it now than they were before," Robertson told CBC News.
The book follows a conversation between a young Cree child and her grandmother, whose answers to the child’s several questions paint a grim reality of life under the residential school system.
"Nokom,” the child begins asking, using the Cree word for “my grandmother.”
“Why do you speak Cree?'"
"Well, Nosisim, when I was your age, at home in my community, my friends and I always spoke our language. But at the school I went to, far away from home, they wouldn't let us speak our words," the grandmother replies.
Nevertheless, the grandmother’s pride and strength are evident in her answers and serve to show the importance of reclaiming her Indigenous identity and, by extension, her life.
"A grandma who has come out of this experience hanging on to all the things that were tried to be taken away from her was really important for me, to frame it around empowerment," Robertson, of Cree, English, Irish and Scottish background, said.
The book is aimed at children from kindergarten to the third grade. Though it tackles a dark subject, Robertson, who’s written a novel and several graphic novels with an Indigenous focus in the past, stressed the importance of educating children as early and consistently as possible.
"We can't introduce it fully at that age, it's not appropriate. There's a lot of difficulties in that history," he told CBC News.
"But if we can teach them something very basic about it, to give them an introduction to it that doesn't bring up a lot of the difficulties that our kids experienced in those schools, then I think it becomes appropriate. I think it becomes necessary."
Many people ignore the history of residential schools in Canada, the last of which closed only in the 1990s. Robertson himself admitted to not having known that troubling past throughout his university career, but only more recently discovering the importance of that history.
"No one should be in university and not know the history of the residential school system. No one should be in high school or middle years, frankly, without knowing the history of the residential school system,” he told CBC News.