One of the challenges confronting Canadian youth is the legacy of their country’s horrific treatment of its First Nations. The deliberate, determined attempts to annihilate aboriginal ways of life culminated in the creation of the residential school system, the horrors of which many Canadians are only now becoming aware.
In order to wrestle with this part of their history, Canadians of all ages need first to understand what happened. And while the philosophy that promoted the creation of these schools – cultural assimilation – is simple, its execution spans hundreds of years. The challenge is how to condense this tragic and gut-wrenching history to make it both comprehensible and interesting. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides six volumes of information; it is hard to know where to start.
Enter the latest title in Lorimer’s Righting Canada’s Wrongs series, which sets itself the admirably limited goals of trying to make the topics discussed in the TRC’s reports “more accessible” while “sparking some long overdue discussions.” In these goals, the book is mostly successful.
Written by Melanie Florence, who is of Plains Cree and Scottish descent, Residential Schools is an education on various aspects of aboriginal life. It unfolds chronologically, moving through the experiences of aboriginals before, during, and after the schools, and ending with official apologies and plans for healing and change. The different time periods are subtly but effectively woven together. For example, the first chapter’s focus on the importance of community and family in aboriginal culture becomes especially poignant after reaching the chapter on the isolated nature of life at the schools. The text is succinct, providing background that informs the photographs or illustrations that dominate almost every page.
One of the most powerful messages running through the book involves the need for respect: for what came before, for those who lived through the horrors, and for the survivors who are working to rebuild. The important work of the TRC is also made accessible through meaningful pull quotes. A concluding chapter on its mandate and results should inspire readers to want to know more.
A lost opportunity is the underuse of a feature meant to direct the reader to other sources. The “Watch the Video” and “Read More” icons are disappointingly sparse, with only five in total, all of which appear in the last two chapters. With the wealth of resources available, it is baffling why this feature is not leveraged to greater effect.
A more serious flaw is the glossary. The question of language is critical when broaching a new topic, especially with young readers. And yet, despite Florence’s interchangeable use of “aboriginal” and “indigenous,” neither term is defined, nor is there an explanation of the difference between them. If, as the author states, “Language is a vital link to a person’s culture,” this is another missed opportunity compromising the book’s stated goals.
Despite these flaws, Residential Schools could be useful in a classroom setting or as reference material. Whether read cover-to-cover or flipped through, the many arresting visuals make it difficult for readers not to be pulled in. Engaging people is exactly what this country needs if we are ever to come to terms with, and make amends for, this tragic part of our past.