Truth-telling critical part of teaching residential schools, says author of I Am Not a Number

The author of I Am Not a Number says she wants her book to spark conversations about Canada’s residential school system, but understands why a N.W.T. parent was upset it was sent home without any supporting materials or guidelines.

Jenny Kay Dupuis based the book on her grandmother's experiences in residential school

Jenny Kay Dupuis wrote the book I Am Not a Number based on her grandmother's experience in residential school.

One of the authors of I Am Not a Number says she wants her book to spark conversations about Canada's residential school system, but understands why a N.W.T. parent was upset it was sent home without any supporting materials or guidelines. 

Jenny Kay Dupuis, the author of I Am Not a Number, says the book has resonated with young people who've been introduced to it in a classroom setting. (Submitted)

Jenny Kay Dupuis is an author, educator and member of the Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario. Her book tells the story of her grandmother, who attended residential school.

The book describes what happened to her grandmother at the school: having her hair cut, and having her arms burned for speaking her language.

But the book was sent home to students in the South Slave Divisional Education Council without supporting materials or guidelines for families. One mother in Hay River, N.W.T., was upset about the content, saying it forced her to talk to her eight-year-old child about residential schools before they were ready.

Officials with the school board have since apologized.  

Dupuis says her book was her way of telling her family's story and to start conversations about the history and legacy of Canada's residential schools. But she can understand how the mother felt.

"We have to be mindful when sharing books that talk about lived experiences," Dupuis said.

"I completely understand [her feelings], especially if she wasn't at the point where she could share the histories or current impacts with her own family," she said. "I understand and I recognize that."

'She wanted people to hear it from her' 

Dupuis had questions about residential schools herself when she was young, but found little information available from her community. The books she did find were full of stereotypes and misinformation, she said.

"I was as young as seven, six years old, but I was hearing people talk about little bits and pieces of things that happened," Dupuis said. "I didn't have the proper resources or supports, but I was ready … I was wondering, but I didn't have a place to turn."

Dupuis said she first heard her grandmother's story when she was about 14 or 15.

"I remember her sitting on the couch and she started sharing her story. She wanted people to hear it from her," Dupuis said. 

Dupuis wrote her book for younger readers and said she was careful about reflecting the truth of what happened to her grandmother, while staying age appropriate. She says that's why the book has resonated with young people who've been introduced to the book in a classroom setting.

"They're saying it's so important to hear a true story," she said. "They can connect it with a community. They can find the Nipissing First Nation on a map. They can explore the history of the community. This is a real family they can connect with."

Ultimately, Dupuis says she wants her book to become the start of a larger conversation about issues facing Indigenous people today.

"We need these stories to exist," she said. "At one time we had no place as Indigenous writers. Other people were writing for us, non-Indigenous authors, and the material that was there was really inaccurate." 

"Finally the publishing industry has opened the doors and given us the space to tell these stories, people need to realize that and find an age-appropriate way to share them."  

With files from Loren McGinnis