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The Journey Forward, A Novella on Reconciliation: When We Play Our Drums, They Sing!

by Richard Van Camp

The Journey Forward, A Novella on Reconciliation: Lucy & Lola

by Monique Gray Smith

The two stories that comprise this flipbook from B.C. publisher McKellar & Martin take a measured approach to teaching readers about the history of residential schools and the ongoing legacy of pain they caused, but employ very different tones in their telling.

Monique Gray Smith’s Lucy & Lola is about 11-year-old twins who spend the summer on Gabriola Island with their kookum so their mom, Mary, can have peace and quiet to study for the bar exam. Though Mary and her mother’s experiences at residential schools run as a current through the story, Smith incorporates everyday details (Kookum’s barky dog, trips to the beach, savoured bowls of ice cream) to create a gentle yet effective narrative.

The girls are proud of their Indigenous identity and culture. They smudge to make themselves feel better when they are upset or to feel close to one another and their ancestors. They learn new words in Island Hul’q’umin’um’, the language of the Snuneymuxw people, whose traditional territory includes Gabriola Island; they take guidance from Lola’s prophetic dreams.

Smith doesn’t shy away from the realities of deeply entrenched racism and the legacy of residential schools. The girls encounter a woman on the beach who reveals unintentional racism assuming when they say their mom is getting ready for the bar that they mean a tavern, not a law exam. She is aghast at her mistake and shows up on their doorstep the next day shedding tears of shame and apology. Lucy and Lola forgive her; Kookum praises the woman for her courage and the girls for their strength and self-respect. The message here is about healing and understanding.

When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! by Richard Van Camp is a much more focused read. Narrated by 12-year-old Dene Cho and set in the fictional town of Fort Simmer, the story roils with suppressed anger, frustration, and, above all, questions.

Dene is an unhappy boy who feels he doesn’t fit in with the other kids in his small Northwest Territories community. His mom, a residential school survivor, obsessively cleans their house, to the point that everything smells like bleach. His father died following an illness (the story doesn’t make clear exactly when), and Dene is at constant loggerheads with his school principal, who despite living in the community for almost 30 years has made no effort to learn about the local Indigenous culture or language.

When Dene gets hauled into the school office for defiant behaviour he is granted a four-day excused absence (rather than a suspension) to learn as much about his culture as he can and report back. Dene is most angry about the fact that the elders in his community are dying and their history is not being passed down to the next generation. They start learning French in kindergarten, but their own languages are disappearing; they spend hours studying colonial history but not their own traditional ways of hunting, fishing, and celebrating. The shadow of residential schools looms over their daily existence, but they are not taught about the atrocity in class or, in many cases, at home.

Dene spends most of his time away from school with a blind Elder named Snowbird, who teaches him many of the things he wants to know, including words in their Tlicho (or Dogrib) language, what it was like during the time when Indian agents were taking children away to residential schools, and even a traditional drum song that Dene’s father used to sing. By the end of his time with Snowbird, Dene is less angry but no less adamant in his belief that things need to change.

Readers will come away from The Journey Forward with a better understanding of the challenges of reconciliation, not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people but within Indigenous communities themselves.