One of the biggest dark spots on Canadian history is the implementation of the residential school system for the First Nations children. With the intention of helping Indian children from savage to civilized, they were torn away from their families and forced to live in schools where they were stripped of everything of their culture, abused, and scarred for life.
It is vital importance that we open the lines of communication and reconciliation with our children about this experience. The impact of the residential schools has affected the First Nations community so deeply. But how can we start the conversations needed with our little ones with scaring them, and yet without belittling the trauma that occurred.
Canadian author, David Alexander Robertson, has written a picture book for young children all about the experience of one woman’s time in a residential school. Written from the point of view of a grandchild questioning their grandmother with the typical question of why – the grandmother (Kokum), explains that she chooses to do things like wear bright colours, talk in Cree, and spend time with her family because they had all been taken away from her… except when the native children managed to be alone for a while and pretend that they were still allowed to dress in colourful clothes, wear their braids long, etc. so they would never forget.
When We Were Alone is intended for children in the K to 3 age range, and features beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett, a Cree-Metis artist. The contrast between the beauty of today and the starkness of then is so clearly evident. Combined with the simple yet rich language of remembrance, I think the book is a golden key helping young children have a first experience in learning about the residential schools.
Although this book was written for children, and designed as a picture book, I found it moving, yet full of hope and pride. I love that it clearly contrasts the life of Kokum before, during, and after her time in the residential school, but that it focuses mostly on how she kept her cultural identity and how she kept true to herself through it all. It’s beautiful and extremely well done.
This book is a safe, gentle, but still a great conversation starter for young kids about the history of the residential schools and how they affected the children who lived in them.
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