Mi’kmaq writers Shanika MacEachern and her daughter, third-grader Breighlynn MacEachern (Muinji’j), explain the traumatic impact of residential schools on the Mi’kmaq community in Muinji’j Asks Why: The Story of the Mi’kmaq and the Shubenacadie Residential School. Muinji’j returns home from school upset after her teacher spoke with the class about residential schools and the children who died there. Although Muinji’j knows more about residential schools than most of the children in her class, she doesn’t understand why children her age died attending them. Her grandparents, Nana and Papa, sit her down and tell her the story of residential schools from the very beginning – outlining the progression from initial colonial contact to the mandatory enrolment of Indigenous children in the schools.
Muinji’j Asks Why tackles this difficult subject matter head-on, aiming to make clear the purpose of residential schools – that is, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures through assimilation – by directly linking the schools to the prohibition of Indigenous spiritual and cultural practices by the Canadian government. Although the book’s prose sometimes suffers in service of this exposition, the authors break down complex issues and make them accessible to a young audience. The expositive storytelling fits within the conceit of the story – that Nana and Papa are telling Muinji’j about residential schools – although this can be too didactic at times, as in the story’s conclusion, which breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience.
The book’s illustrations, contributed by Mi’kmaq artist Zeta Paul, effectively evoke comparisons between Muinji’j, her family, and the Mi’kmaq people depicted in Nana and Papa’s stories. Muinji’j’s close resemblance to the children in residential schools highlights the fact that it was children – just like the children reading this book – who experienced the worst of these schools.
Although Muinji’j Asks Why falls short in its lack of back matter or information about other reference materials, the book addresses the loss of language and cultural practices faced by the Mi’kmaq, along with many other Indigenous communities, while emphasizing the resilience of those who were forced to attend the schools. On balance, the book is a solid introduction to the history of residential schools and their ongoing impact.