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Truth and Reconciliation: Learning about Canadian Residential Schools

On September 30, Canada will observe the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities.   

As a country, it is essential that we learn about and acknowledge the truth of what happened to Indigenous children and their families, as well as the ongoing impacts of the residential school system, if we want to move towards reconciliation and healing. While a national day of recognition is an important first step, it’s vital that we continue our commitment to ongoing learning beyond this one day. 

As a White settler, a Canadian, and a community member in a helping profession, I acknowledge my position of power and privilege. I want to play an active role in reconciliation.

It can be difficult to know where to begin or what to do when considering such an immense and important endeavor. I believe that opening our hearts to another’s experience is the first step towards reconciliation. We have to know the truth before we can acknowledge and honour it. We have to understand what went wrong in the past before we can move towards creating a better future.

I believe that parents and caregivers play an essential role in modelling for children how to listen to others with openness and empathy.

True change starts at home, in our daily conversations, interactions, choices, disagreements, discussions, and reconnections. As caring adults, we have an opportunity to teach children about the truth of what happened in Canada’s past. We also have an opportunity to invite and empower children to help us create a future based on respect, understanding, empathy, and reconciliation. 

In my experience, reading stories is one of the most powerful ways we can listen to someone else’s experience and begin to grow empathy. So, over the past several months, I have been seeking out Indigenous stories about residential schools, written by Indigenous authors.

Today I am sharing a few books that have been helpful in my learning journey, with the hopes that they may also be helpful for you and your family. I have divided the books by age categories, sharing one book that I found helpful for a child audience, one for a tween/ young adult audience, and one for an adult audience. You can read these stories on your own or with your children (if appropriate). You can use them as starting points for discussion. I hope that this may be one practical answer to the question of where to begin. 

As a content warning, please note that all of the stories talk about how Indigenous children and their families were negatively impacted by the residential school system. Based on my experience, I feel that each book shares a developmentally appropriate amount of detail for the intended audience. The adult novel includes descriptions of violence and abuse that are only suitable for an adult audience. While I typically share content for children and their parents, I have included this novel here because I think it’s important for us as caring adults to continue to do our own learning. The medium of a novel allowed me to engage with the content about residential schools in a way that felt safe and approachable for me. I appreciate that it will not be the learning modality for everyone, but I’m sharing it in case the idea resonates for you. If it doesn’t, no worries.

Please take care of yourself and listen to what you need as you consider exploring these stories. Crisis support resources are linked at the bottom of this post.

A Picture Book about Residential Schools for Children:

Stolen Words. Written by Melanie Florence and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard.

Photo of the children's book "Stolen Words" by Melanie Florence

Stolen Words tells a story of truth and reconciliation within the relationship of a grandfather and his granddaughter.

When the granddaughter discovers that her grandfather does not know the Cree word for “grandfather,” she wonders how this can be. The grandfather shares his sadness and pain as he tells her how his words were stolen and locked away at the residential school. Hearing his story with empathy and love, the granddaughter resolves to help her grandfather to find his words again.

Cree/Scottish author Melanie Florence shares that she never had the chance to speak to her beloved grandfather about his Cree heritage. She wrote this book in his honour, to tell the healing story she wishes she had been able to have with him.

Gabrielle Grimard’s illustrations bring warmth, tenderness, and emotion to the story, and help young readers to understand the more abstract concept by using a raven to represent the Cree language.

I love how this book demonstrates the power of a loving relationship as a vehicle for sharing truth, experiencing meaningful acknowledgement, and learning and growing together towards a hopeful future.

A Novella about Reconciliation for Tweens and Young Adults:

The Journey Forward: A Novella on Reconciliation.

This novella is actually two stories in one! On one side is Lucy & Lola, written by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Julie Flett. If you flip the book over, on the other side you will find When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! written by Richard Van Camp. Both stories in the novella include a reader’s guide with discussion and activity ideas, so that we can turn learning into action. I discovered this book from @cbcbooks’ list of 48 books by Indigenous Authors to Read to Understand Residential Schools, curated by Indigenous author David A. Robertson.

Photo of the cover of the novella "Lucy and Lola" by Monique Gray Smith

Lucy & Lola shares the story of twin 11-year-old sisters who spend the summer on Gabriola Island with their Kookum (Cree for Grandma) while their mom studies to write the bar law exam. The story follows Lucy and Lola’s journey as they learn how their Kookum and their mother were impacted by residential schools, and how as intergenerational survivors, they are impacted too.

Together, the three generations of women share stories and help each other on their individual and collective healing journeys. Part of their healing is to visit “The Witness Blanket,” a (real!) Canadian art project that was created as a reminder of the truth of what happened in residential schools, and to invite each viewer to share the truth and take an active role in reconciliation.

To me, this story turns “reconciliation” into an embodied word filled with love and hope. It demonstrates how art and creativity can be so central to reconciliation and healing. And it lovingly invites settlers to continue to challenge their assumptions, even and especially if they consider themselves “allies.”

Monique Gray Smith is an award-winning author, international speaker, and sought after consultant of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent. Illustrator Julie Flett is an award-winning Cree-Métis author, illustrator, and artist.

Photo of the cover of the novella "When We Play Our Drums, They Sing!" by Richard Van Camp

Written by Richard Van Camp, When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! tells the story of 12-year-old Dene Cho. Dene Cho is angry about the way that things are for himself, his peers, and his family. He is angry about what has happened in the past, and what it means for the future. He is angry about how the world is dying. Through a sacred encounter with an elder in his community, Dene Cho learns more about how the past is connected with the present and the future, and how he can play a role in finding a better way forward.

Many things stood out to me about this story. One was the importance of a child’s anger. I think that as adults we can be quick to dismiss or deflect anger when we encounter it in children. But anger ignites for a reason. It tells us when something isn’t right. It can be the necessary spark to light a fire for positive change. When children express anger, can we listen with curiosity? Can we try to understand what they are seeing? Can we create space for safe expressions of anger so that it can work its transforming power?

We grow through connection and disconnection. Through disagreeing and then finding common ground. Through arguing and making up after arguments. Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book: “Sometimes people who love each other can disagree. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t love one another.” This feels more important than ever.

A Novel about Residential Schools for Adults:

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good.

Photo of the cover of the novel "Five Little Indians" by Michelle Good

Five Little Indians tells the story of five residential school survivors as they try to find their way forward after their time at the Mission. While this novel powerfully depicts the reality and impact of intergenerational trauma, it is also an incredible interwoven story of love and healing.

Michelle Good is a Cree writer and lawyer, and a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. In an interview with CBC, she shared that her mother, grandmother, and cousins attended residential schools. She began writing this story in the 1990s, as she was practicing law and representing residential schools survivors. Through that experience, she realized that Canadians do not understand the impact that residential schools had on the children who attended them. She wanted to share information about the impact of residential schools in the form of a story, rather than a presentation of facts, so that readers could engage with the information more easily and personally.

In my experience, Michelle Good has accomplished her mission. Her words made me cry as she acknowledges the horror, but also as she paints the resiliency and tenderness of finding a way forward. I found this book to be incredibly helpful in shaping my adult understanding of the meaning and impact of intergenerational trauma. I hope that many Canadians open their hearts to this story.

Five Little Indians won the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. 

Photo of the Elora Gorge in Ontario Canada

Emotional and Crisis Support:

Learning about residential schools may be difficult or triggering. 

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected by residential schools. Emotional and crisis referral services can be accessed by calling the 24-hour crisis line at 1-866-925-4419.

Anyone can access crisis support at any time by calling a local helpline. For individuals in Waterloo-Wellington, Ontario, you can talk to someone by calling Here 24/7 at 1-877-437-3247.

aerial photo of green plants in a garden, with overlaid text in a thought bubble that says "ready to learn more?"

To learn more about residential schools and what you can do to offer support, check out: 

Indian Residential School Survivor Society 

Orange Shirt Society 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Reports 

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT