17 books to read for Orange Shirt Day
Orange Shirt Day, which takes place Sept. 30, is an annual event that honours the survivors of residential schools and their families. It is inspired by Phyllis Webstad who, at the age of six, was stripped of her new orange shirt on her first day at St. Joseph Mission residential school.
"The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn't matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing," Webstad told CBC News in 2016.
Below is a list of books by Indigenous writers about the residential school system and its traumatic impact on survivors, their families and the generations that follow.
This book is the culmination of a six-year investigation into the residential school system. It summarizes the history of the Canadian institutions and documents the horrors experienced by students forced to attend them. The book also lays out 94 recommendations from Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the legacy of these schools.
Drawing from family photographs and archival records, Lisa Bird-Wilson writes poetry to commemorate the generations of children traumatized by the residential school system. The project is a personal one as Bird-Wilson's own grandparents, aunts and uncles were among the 150,000 Indigenous students to attend residential schools. The title of the book comes from the federal government, who organized the residential school archives into "black files" and "red files."
Bird-Wilson is a Métis and nêhiyaw writer who lives in Saskatchewan. She is also the author of the short story collection Just Pretending and nonfiction book An Institute of Our Own.
In this poetry collection, Rosanna Deerchild calls attention to the traumatic impact of severing Indigenous children from their communities. Deerchild focuses on the survivors of the Canadian residential school system in the 1960s, who were forbidden to speak their languages and practice their culture. Calling Down the Sky illustrates how this cruelty reverberates across Indigenous communities and through generations of family.
In this dystopian narrative by Cherie Dimaline, residential schools have been reinstated in North America. Recruiters hunt and capture Indigenous people, bringing them to facilities to extract their bone marrow. It is believed the bone marrow of Indigenous people can bring back the widely lost ability to dream. The Marrow Thieves follows a young teenager named Frenchie who, along with his newfound family, has taken to the woods to escape from recruiters.
The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General's literary Award for children's literature — text and was defended by Jully Black on Canada Reads 2018. Dimaline's latest book is the novel Empire of Wild.
Elliott explores the systemic oppression faced by Indigenous peoples across Canada through the lens of her own experiences as a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River. Elliott examines how colonial violence, including the loss of language, seeps into the present day lives of Indigenous people, often in the form of mental illness.
Elliott, who lives in Brantford, Ont., won gold at the National Magazine Awards in 2017 for the essay this book is based on. The book is a finalist for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
- Why Alicia Elliott challenges us all to think critically about trauma, oppression and racism in Canada
In Speaking Our Truth, Cree, Lakota and Scottish author Monique Gray Smith makes the topic of reconciliation accessible to a young audience of Indigenous readers and aspiring allies alike. The innovative book helps young readers understand the history of the residential school system in Canada and its lasting effects on survivors today. Inspired by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the book includes questions and prompts to help young people think about these complicated issues, and how to move forward with understanding and empathy.
Gray Smith was shortlisted for the 2018 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award for this book. She recently published the novel Tilly and the Crazy Eights.
Celebrated Cree poet Louise Bernice Halfe was inspired to write the collection Burning in this Midnight Dream as the Truth and Reconciliation process unfolded. The book describes how survivors continue to be haunted by their experiences, and how that trauma has been passed down for generations. Halfe herself is a survivor of the residential school system.
Burning in this Midnight Dream won three Saskatchewan Book Awards, as well as the Raymond Souster Award. Her other books include Blue Marrow, Bear Bones & Feathers and The Crooked Good.
Helen Knott is a poet and writer of Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw and European descent. Her memoir, In My Own Moccasins, is a story of addiction, sexual violence and intergenerational trauma. It explores how colonization has impacted her family over generations. But it is also a story of hope and redemption, celebrating the resilience and history of her family.
Knott was chosen for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writers Program. In My Own Moccasins is her first book.
- Helen Knott explores the connection between violence against Indigenous women and violence against the land
Northern Wildflower is Catherine Lafferty's memoir of growing up as an intergenerational survivor of residential schools. Lafferty describes her powerful journey as a Dene woman in Yellowknife, contending with discrimination, poverty, addiction, love and loss.
Northern Wildflower is Lafferty's first book.
Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir Heart Berries sheds light on what it means to be a survivor of intergenerational trauma. Mailhot had a difficult childhood on Seabird Island reserve in British Columbia; her father was an abusive alcoholic and she spent time in the foster care system. Her story continues into adulthood as she comes to terms with her mental illness and commits herself to a psychiatric institution.
The book was a finalist for the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Mailhot received the U.S. Whiting Award for emerging writers in 2019. Heart Berries is her first book.
Darrel McLeod's Mamaskatch is a memoir of his upbringing in Smith, Alta., raised by his fierce Cree mother, Bertha. McLeod describes vivid memories of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, surrounded by siblings and cousins. From his mother, McLeod learned to be proud of his heritage and also shares her fractured stories from surviving the residential school system.
Mamaskatch won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. It is McLeod's first book.
- How writing about his difficult childhood helped Darrel J. McLeod heal — and help others in the process
Joseph Auguste Merasty was 86 when he approached David Carpenter about writing his memoirs. At the time Merasty was homeless, suffered from alcoholism and was prone to disappearing for long periods of time. But the pair persisted in creating a heart-rending record of Merasty's experience with abuse in St. Therese Residential School near Sturgeon Landing, Sask. He was five years old when he first enrolled at the institution in 1935.
When the book was published by the University of Regina Press in 2015, it became a national bestseller and was shortlisted for the CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Literature.
Merasty died at the age of 87 in 2017.
While working in the garden, a girl asks her grandmother about why she wears her hair in a long braid and why she speaks in another language. Her grandmother responds by describing her childhood, growing up in a residential school.
When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books. David Alexander Robertson is also the author of the YA Reckoner series and numerous graphic novels, including Will I See? and Sugar Falls. Julie Flett is an award-winning illustrator, whose books include Little You and Owls See Clearly At Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer).
Up Ghost River is a memoir of Edmund Metatawabin's experience in residential school. Metatawabin was taken from his family at the age of seven, physically and sexually abused by staff members, and stripped of his Indigenous identity in school. As an adult, Metatawabin suffered from PTSD and became addicted to alcohol. In seeking treatment with an Indigenous support group, Metatawabin was able to come to terms with what happened to him and has since become counsellor, championing Indigenous knowledge.
Xat'sull chief Bev Sellars tells the story of three generations of Indigenous women who survived the residential school system in Canada: her grandmother, her mother and herself. Sellars shares stories of enduring starvation, forced labour and physical abuse at St. Joseph's Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., a place that prided itself on "civilizing" Indigenous children.
Sellars is also the author of Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival.
When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! by Richard Van Camp and Lucy & Lola by Monique Gray Smith are two novellas about reconciliation, healing and a way forward in one beautifully packaged flip book. Van Camp and Gray Smith each take a side of the column and present different young Indigenous characters as they navigate a world made uneasy by colonialism and fracture.
Van Camp writes comics, picture books and novels, most recently publishing the short story collection Moccasin Square Gardens. He is a member of the Dogrib Nation from Fort Smith, N.W.T. Gray Smith is also the author of the nonfiction book Speaking Our Truth and picture book My Heart Fills With Happiness.
This seminal novel by Richard Wagamese tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibway boy who is ripped from his family and forcibly placed in residential school. Saul, a gifted hockey player, is both victim and witness to the dehumanizing abuse of students at the school. As an adult, Saul becomes dependent on alcohol to cope with the trauma of his childhood.