Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith. Orca, 2017. 159 pages. 978-1-4598-1583-4. Age 8 and older
How do we teach children about racism in the past, so essential to addressing racism that exists today?
One approach can be found in Speaking Our Truth, in which author Monique Gray Smith invites young readers along on a journey to learn about residential boarding schools, a painful dimension of Canadian (and United States) history.
“For some of you, this may be a time of significant change in your understanding of Canada’s history. It might be the first time you’ve thought about what reconciliation means and, more specifically, what it means to you and what your role in it is. Simply reading this book is an act of reconciliation. So good on you! Some of you may have started the journey well before picking this book up. I welcome you all to the journey. In my Nihiyaw (Cree) language, we say tawâw, which loosely means ‘there’s always room.’ For you, for me, for your friends, your family, your community. There’s always room.”
The reconciliation she refers to is “the restoration and healing of a relationship. In Canada, this refers to the process taken on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to revitalize the relationship between the citizens of Canada (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), as well as the Nation-to-Nation relationships with the government of Canada.”
As in the United States, residential schools in Canada brutalized Indigenous children and communities for well over a century. (In Canada, residential schools existed for 165 years--the last one closed in 1996.) Forcing Native children to leave their families to attend the schools was only the first act of violence of the residential schools. Once at the schools, children were forbidden from speaking their Native language and from other expressions of their Native identity and culture; they were often beaten and malnourished. Those who survived the physical trauma carried psychological scars. The impact on individuals, families, and entire Indigenous communities has been lasting.
In telling readers about this history and its continued effects on Indigenous people and communities today, Smith emphasizes that this is not just Indigenous history, it is Canadian history and important for all kids in Canada to know and understand. She talks honestly about the pain inflicted by the residential schools, and the racism that was the basis for the schools and many other government policies impacting Indigenous people in Canada.
Smith is honest, but she is gentle, too, repeatedly addressing readers directly and acknowledging that this information may make them uncomfortable, or sad. Perhaps they have family members who are survivors. Perhaps their ancestry is Anglo and they are feeling guilt. This is a difficult journey, she notes. Take care of yourself along the way.
A number of personal narratives from residential school survivors as well as insight from intergenerational survivors--children and grandchildren of survivors who are growing up in families where the trauma’s effects are apparent--are included. But the first story she shares is her own, discussing her struggle about whether or not she wanted to write this book. “You see, part of my inner turmoil was because my own ancestry is both colonizer and colonized. I am of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry.” (Smith is of Cree, Lakota and Scottish descent.)
She continues, “I hope this book will inspire you. Some of it might hurt you or make you angry. That’s okay. Use it as fuel to help make change in a positive way.” To help with this, she also shares the voices from a diverse group of contemporary children navigating their way through this history, and provides a number of resources at volume’s end.
Between the covers, Speaking Our Truth looks at first glance more like a 4th grade textbook than the trade book it is. There are bold-faced terms in the narrative defined in the margins, “Reflections” asking readers questions (e.g., “What parts of this history were new to you?” “How do you see this history continuing to unfold in Canada?” “How would you feel if you were told you could no longer speak your own language?”), and many other design elements typical of educational texts.
Don’t let the textbook-like appearance deter you from putting this on the nonfiction shelves in a public or school library. The remarkable tone is so UN-textbook-like, inviting readers in, guiding them along on the journey..
Don’t let the fact that it’s about Canadian history deter you either. Not only for the obvious reason that this is our history too: generations of Native children in the United States were also forced to attend boarding schools, with the same traumatic impact on individuals, families and communities. But also because the racism that made the boarding schools possible applies to so much of our collective history around race. And to our lives today.
Among the terms defined for young readers in the opening pages of this work are “racism,” “systemic racism” and “internalized racism.”
Name it. Define it. Teach it. Learn about it.
Monique Gray Smith also has a new picture book out from Orca:You Hold Me Up. Written “in the spirit of reconciliation” and “dedicated by the author to “children, families and staff of Aboriginal Head Start programs,” the repeated refrain “You hold me up” is followed by examples of ways in which we--adults, families, communities--nurture and affirm children in small, meaningful acts every day. “You hold me up ….when you play with me ... when you augh with me….when you listen to me. " Check out Debbie Reese’s review!