Learning about Residential Schools for every level (ft. Benjamin on Booktube)

Many Canadians are disappointed in our slow progress towards the 94 calls to action set out in the Truth and Reconciliation Report. See Ian Mosby’s Twitter feed for updates (and a nonsensical reply from Joseph Boyden, if you dig for it):

However, I am pleased to find that my kids, in grades one and two, are learning about residential schools. Most of the learning happened on Orange Shirt Day, but hopefully this will become a regular part of the curriculum.

It can’t just end at school, though. I could tell from the questions they asked me that they didn’t quite understand what happened, and why. So I got them some books. I also happened to read a short story collection touching on residential schools at the same time. Here are three ways to learn more about residential schools in Canada, for whatever level you are at.

BeginnerFatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes

This is a great introductory book, whether you are completely new to the concept of Indian Residential Schools, or, you are reading to or with a young child (or anyone) who’s not ready for graphic depictions of abuse. It’s good for those new to the concept because the book is full of photographs and details from Margaret Pokiak-Fention’s real-life experience, and unfamiliar terms and phrases are defined. It’s a compelling story about a little girl who wants to read, so young children can relate. There is abuse depicted in this book, it’s just not as graphic, detailed, or disturbing as the other books listed.

I read this to my seven-year-old, and he begged me to finish it in one sitting, and demanded that I read every photo caption and every definition. He even made a video review for his blog, which I swear was his idea!

Intermediate: I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer and Illustrated by Gillian Newland

I Am Not a Number is more intense. It depicts physical abuse, and, unlike Margaret in Fatty Legs, who wants to go to school, the young heroine is ripped away from her family in the introductory scene. My kids had a harder time getting into the story. This book is probably more appropriate for older children or those who already know a bit about residential schools.

Advanced: Annie Muktuk and Other Stories by Norma Dunning

Annie Muktuk was the October selection for RISE Book Club, which you should check out if you’re in Edmonton. This book isn’t for kids. The stories that are set in residential school are are brutal in their depiction of violence and abuse. Not all the stories are set there, but all, in some way,, are about the fall out of the schools and other colonial policies. Annie Mukluk is the heroine of a set of linked short stories that depict young, contemporary Inuk people. She’s the kind of woman you can’t keep your eyes off of, and the reader is enthralled too. And there’s lots of sex (did I mention this one isn’t for kids?). When I met Norma Dunning at the book club meeting, I had to ask if the scene in which a young man seduces several women by borrowing a hairdressers sink, installing it in his living room, and offering free scalp massages was based on a true story. (Indeed it was.) This may be the best collection I read this year.

Do you use books to talk to your kids about difficult subjects? Any more residential schools recommendations for me?



  1. Karen

    Hooray for Fatty Legs! That author also has a picture book based on fatty legs and middle reader called something like A Stranger at Home about how difficult it was for students to fit into their communities when they returned home.

  2. roughghosts

    For younger children, there is a picture book called When We Were Alone by Winnipeg writer David A Robertson that just won a GG. When he was here for Wordfest, I drove him out to a school and watched (handled the slideshow even) as he read to the grade two and three classes. It was wonderful. No young children in my life any more, but I would recommend it.

  3. annelogan17

    Oh this is such a great post. I’m familiar with fatty legs, and i’m so happy to hear that kids are finally learning about this stuff in school.

    Have you read Black Apple by Joan Crate? She’s a Calgary author, and it’s a wonderful book for adults 🙂

  4. Naomi

    I miss the days of being able to influence my kids at readng time. I still get them books, but they don’t necessarily read them anymore. They start NOT wanting to read the books you bring home. Right now my son is reading Dog Man by Dav Pilkey – I’m sure there’s an important message in there somewhere! 🙂
    Thanks for the Norma Dunning recommendation!

  5. spreadingawareness421740957

    I would suggest The Inconvenient Indian Indian by Thomas King and The Education of Augie Merasty both of which I have read. I would also suggest looking up the Secret Path by Gord Downie on youtube, which is a album about Chanie Wenjack, who is a residential school survivor. The video has amazing graphics, it also made me cry the first time I watched it.

  6. Ceri

    This is fantastic, Laura. Not too many people would educate their kids about the true history of their country. They’d say kids are too young to learn about such horrific things. I truly admire you for opening your children’s eyes.

    • lauratfrey

      Thanks, but they learned about it in school before I sought out books. I was trying to supplement and answer their questions. It’s so great that this is part of the curriculum now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s