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Monique Gray Smith: To explain reconciliation to children, we must be truthful and face our own fears

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(Centric Photography)

Sometimes life requires us to be braver and bolder than we think we can be. We’re presented with opportunities to see ourselves in a new way – not better or less than before, simply changed. Or perhaps, we evolve to more profoundly use the gifts we’ve been blessed with. This was my experience in writing three new books that are entering the world this fall. I have no idea how they will be received by young readers, but I hope they are met with the spirit in which they were written: with love, courage, and knowledge of how the truth has the ability to change us.

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation

I received an email from Andrew Wooldridge, publisher at Orca Book Publishers, with the subject line, “An idea.” I like ideas, I like possibility, I admire those who have an idea and act on it. Andrew had just heard Marie Wilson, a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speak at a conference and it gave him the idea for a book that would explain reconciliation to middle-grade readers. Andrew wanted to know if I was interested in writing it.

My initial thought was a great big “No!” – and am I ever grateful I didn’t listen to myself. That response was rooted in fear: “Who am I to write a book like this?” And that fear was rooted in my own internalized racism of not being “Indian enough.” I come from a family who has been greatly impacted by Canadian legislation, which literally tore my mom from her family, community, culture, and language at birth. She lived her first three years in an orphanage, and was then adopted into a non-Indigenous home. My mom always knew she was Cree, but didn’t know from which family or community. In 1991, as part of my sobriety, I began a journey of reconnection to my culture. It would be almost 18 years later that we would finally find my mom’s brothers. It was through a long discussion with my wife and a reminder that I have been doing the work of sharing our history and being a bridge in relationships for more than 20 years that I decided to take on this book project.

Two things were necessary for me in the writing of Speaking Our Truth, which explores Canadian history (including but not limited to residential schools), what reconciliation means and its possibilities, and action steps that can be taken in the journey of reconciliation. The first thing that was critical to me was that the truth be told – we must always speak of and remember the truth. It is why we require reconciliation. The second critical thing was that I didn’t want to be the only voice in the book. Woven throughout are the words of residential school survivors and their children, as well as the voices of youth, elders, TRC commissioners, honorary witnesses, and allies. Considering my family history and my own life experiences, Speaking our Truth became an extremely personal and emotional journey of reconciliation for me.

You Hold Me Up 

This picture book, also published by Orca, is rooted in what I think are some of the values that nurture healthy, vibrant, and respectful relationships. For me, relationships with each other, with the land, and with the water are at the heart of reconciliation. If we are to truly see change, we must engage our littlest citizens and root them in values such as kindness, respect, sharing, and listening.

You Hold Me Up has been richly illustrated by Danielle Daniel and the vibrant, joyous colours bring the words to life. The book, in which people of all ages share moments of affection, was inspired by a gathering to celebrate 20 years of Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities.

As the gathering came to a close, we went around the circle and shared names of those who had worked for Aboriginal Head Start and had changed the trajectory of children’s lives. Something special happened: the room became warmer, the buzz of the lights grew quiet, eyes became misty and people reached for each other’s hands. In that moment, I realized someone doesn’t have to be present for us to honour them. Simply by acknowledging the person, their contributions, and the gifts they bring, we hold them up.

The Journey Forward

In this flip book, published by McKellar & Martin, the reader gets two full stories in one title. I’ve written a story where the characters are all female and Richard Van Camp has written a most gorgeous story, primarily with male characters. Richard and I didn’t see each other’s work until the first drafts were completed. Interestingly, we wrote about common themes, some obvious and others more subtle. Both stories involve reciprocal learning and healing between the young characters and an elder.

My contribution, The Journey Forward: Lucy and Lola, is about twin girls spending the summer with their kokum (“grandma” in Cree) on Gabriola Island as their mom studies and prepares to write the bar exam. It is a story that reminds us of the incredible resilience of Indigenous women and that residential schools weren’t that long ago, the last one closing in Canada in 1996. Ultimately, Lucy and Lola is about three generations of women and their unique journeys of healing and reconciliation.

This book holds a special place in my heart as my daughter, Sadie, was instrumental in helping me with character development, ensuring I portrayed the twin 11-year-old girls accurately, and that the dog, Sam, had a key role – he’s integral to the love and humour woven into the story. Sadie was also an early reader, identifying incongruences and missing pieces in the story. It was such a gift to work with her on this and to learn from her.