“Reconciliation begins with you,” says Chief Dr. Robert Joseph of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in Monique Gray Smith’s formidably executed new book, Speaking Our Truth. This simple maxim reinforces the purpose of the titular journey – one that is comprehensive in scope, interactive, and decidedly inclusive.
The book, which is divided into four sizeable chapters, explores the painful history of residential schools, investigates what reconciliation means, and identifies specific actions individuals can take. The first chapter, “Welcome to the Journey,” introduces key terms and concepts (such as systemic racism, Indian agents, colonizer, elders) and emphasizes the importance of the Seven Sacred Teachings: honesty, respect, love, courage/bravery, truth, humility, and wisdom.
As a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish ancestry living in Victoria, Smith brings authenticity and passion to her role as author. Her previous books include Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, which won the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature, and the board book My Heart Fills with Happiness, illustrated by Julie Flett, which won the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize. She is also an international speaker who advocates for the well-being of Indigenous children. Acting as “one voice” that incorporates and acknowledges multiple perspectives, she tells readers what to pack for the journey and what attitudes and ideas to leave behind. She infuses her conversational writing with encouraging expressions and thoughtfully instructs readers how to take care of themselves while reading some of the more upsetting stories. This advice is especially important during the passages about abuse, which include references to sterilization and the use of electric chairs.
Smith takes care to explain the manner in which she interviewed various people. This transparent glimpse into the writing process underscores her humble, gracious tone. The author supports all her assertions with documentation; the cumulative effect is unquestionably authentic and respectful.
Smith encourages readers to delve into issues, reflect on what they’ve read, and think critically, asking: “What do you know about the history of the territory where you live?” She deftly debunks myths about Indigenous history and informs readers about Indigenous worldviews. Readers learn that First Nations people had their own systems of governing, and that some Nations were matrilineal long before women had the vote in Canada. The author also describes the incredible resilience Indigenous peoples have shown since the Royal Proclamation in 1763. Smith explains that in residential schools, the “overall message was that traditional Indigenous ways of being were inferior to non-Indigenous ways,” and that “this contributed to shame and the loss of language, culture, and pride.”
Non-Indigenous readers, who empathize with this reframing of Canada’s history and are eager to take on a role in the reconciliation process, will embrace Smith’s use of the positive term “ally.” This role is explained via the words of one of Smith’s interview subjects, Chastity Davis (of the Tla’amin Nation), who says that an ally is someone who feels “internally pulled, who wants to create a better future for all Canadians, not just Indigenous people.” Indeed, the anchor word in chapter three is love – “one of the best ways to heal the wounds from those schools is to focus on love.” An interactive feature called Reflections – illustrated with a line drawing of a hand drum – lists probing questions, none of which have simple answers.
The exemplary main text is further augmented with historical and contemporary photos, documents, and proclamations; pull quotes, sidebars, maps, infographics, notable quotations, bulleted lists, interviews, and short profiles. Along with a glossary, the endpages feature a curated list of helpful online resources (reports, websites, and videos), a reading list of titles by Indigenous authors, and a list of residential schools that operated in Canada. As a package, the book offers a perfect framework for readers actively exploring Indigenous history and current issues. Welcoming, honest, and down to earth, Speaking Our Truth is the tool many Canadians have been waiting for.