Confronting Our Difficult Past:
Three new books use the power of research, story and the law to consider residential schools and the paths to healing, reconciliation and cultural renewal
Muinji’j Asks Why
Muinji’j and Shanika MacEachern
Nimbus Publishing and Vagrant Press
Books can help us have the conversations that we don’t always know how to have. This spring, there are three books about residential schools that invite readers of all kinds to have necessary and healing conversations. These books offer the words many of us struggle with sometimes—especially when we’re talking with children.
Told by a Mi’kmaq mother, Shanika MacEachern, and her third-grade daughter Muininji’j, Muinji’j Asks Why: The Story of the Mi’kmaq and the Shubenacadie Residential School is a beautiful picture book that will begin a conversation with the children in your life. Muinji’j returns home from school with questions about residential schools and her grandparents tell her about the Mi’kmaq community in Nova Scotia. What’s important about this book is that it begins with the story of the Mi’kmaq community before the residential schools, and lets the story continue into the present, where there is healing, reconciliation and cultural renewal.
This book brings a large traumatic story and tells it through one family in one place. Muinji’j’s grandparents are strong, comforting figures who makes sure their granddaughter—and the readers—know that the people survived and remain strong. Each difficult part of the story is paired with parallel descriptions of present healing.
This is a book that teaches compassion. It is what reconciliation looks like for our elementary school-aged children.
The illustrations by Zeta Paul are done in colours that offer a sense of solid comfort and bring the sense of healing and renewal that is important to this gentle, loving story. The book ends with descriptions of two-eyed seeing, of living within two cultures. Muinji’j then asks how they will make sure others know the true story of residential schools.
“We will tell them,” said Papa.
“We just did.”
Lorimer & Company
Residential Schools is a reprint of a book that walks a good path as it unfolds the story of the schools for young adults and adults. It is part of the Righting Canada’s Wrongs series. Like the children’s book, this book brings the reader the Indigenous story before, during and after residential schools. For me as a reader, the overall impact is to see the residential schools set within a broad perspective of time and cultures.
Visually, it’s a wonderful book, organized by topic and time with pictures and blurbs, and it feels almost like a scrapbook, or a new travelling museum exhibit. Written by Melanie Florence, who is of Plains Cree and Scottish descent, this book does not allow the residential schools to be the first or the final word on Indigenous culture and life. It takes us into the vibrant life and culture before the schools, the horror and grief during, and it takes us to the other side.
Its storytelling method uses blurbs and short, focused texts. It is remarkably effective. The author includes a range of Indigenous voices and stories, including the origins of the Métis people (my people).
In a future edition, I would like to see an updated map of residential schools in Canada. The map used does not recognize the residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and for this reason the reader would assume there had been none. The history is different, but Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador have fought to have their history of residential schools be part of the documented story, and I think this is an important omission in a book that reaches as widely as this one does.
Andrea Procter’s A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland examines the history of residential schools in Labrador and St. Anthony, Newfoundland.
Maps with locations of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are available online, such as the one from The Canadian Encyclopedia at thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.
Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice
Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice by David Milward tells us what reconciliation can look like in action when applied to a focused area. For Milward, reconciliation is clear: “The understanding of reconciliation that will be advanced here is that Canada must accept responsibility for the social problems left behind by residential school, with concrete actions and policies that go far beyond any verbal apologies.”
Milward is a is an associate professor of law with the University of Victoria and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He is concerned with the over-incarceration of Indigenous people as a direct consequence of intergenerational trauma that began with the residential schools.
He writes, “It is likely that for almost every Indigenous person who ends up incarcerated, residential schools will form an important part of their background.” The book is an extended argument for a guided transition to a justice system that is administered by Indigenous Peoples themselves.
Acknowledging that there is much to work out, Milward nevertheless offers a path forward for Indigenous justice, one that includes procedural protections and restorative justice initiatives. For the average reader, the book will read a bit too much like an academic argument, but that won’t deter most readers because Milward’s book is an entry into a debate about the justice system that many of us don’t have the words for.
On this topic, many of us are like the parents and children who will read Muinji’j’s story—we need a strong and compassionate guide. Milward’s concern with how to do reconciliation in the justice system is inspiring at a time when the details of reconciliation feel unclear to too many. Milward’s vision is both practical and idealistic and I’ll be using his book as a resource in my own work.
These books are part of the path we all need to walk right now. We’ve seen a rise in awareness about residential schools across this land we call Canada over the past few decades. Most people know that more than 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children attended residential schools. Most of us have been following the ongoing news stories, about discovery of the remains of bodies of Indigenous children who died while at the schools, and were buried in unmarked graves.
Most of us have also heard and read the calls for reconciliation. Yet, there remains a gap in understanding what reconciliation means—and each of these three books offers up a step along the path to reconciliation for its reader.