Books

Why David A. Robertson curated a reading list of books about residential schools

The bestselling writer curated a list of 48 books by Indigenous writers to understand residential schools. He spoke to CBC Manitoba about why books are an important tool in this conversation.

The bestselling writer curated a list of 48 books by Indigenous writers for CBC Books

David A. Robertson poses with his picture book When We Were Alone, which was illustrated by Julie Flett. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

David A. Robertson is an author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg. The multi-talented writer of Swampy Cree heritage has published 28 books across a variety of genres, including picture books On the Trapline and When We Were Alone, graphic novel Breakdown, and his memoir Black Water, which won two 2021 Manitoba Book Awards.

Robertson is the winner of the 2021 Freedom to Read Award. He was also the host of the CBC Edmonton podcast Kiwew.

Robertson curated a reading list about residential schools on Twitter, then adapted the list for CBC Books.

Robertson spoke to Leonard Monkman for CBC Manitoba's special programming in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 about the list.

Cree author and host of CBC Manitoba podcast Kiwew David A Robertson has put together a list of 48 books by Indigenous writers to provide readers a better understanding of the residential school experience. He joined guest host Leonard Monkman to talk about why he curated the list, and shared some of the titles that he included. This interview was produced for CBC Manitoba's special programming in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day. 7:26

Why did you curate the reading list for people to learn about residential schools?

There's no excuse not to know that history. 

There are so many books being written right now. All you have to do is go out there and look. I wanted to cut out the looking part and put a list together so that people would have more time to reflect on what they've learned and what kind of role they can play in this pathway toward reconciliation. 

Stories have this incredible ability to reach people in a whole other way — beyond what a textbook can do.

Stories are powerful. Stories have this incredible ability to reach people in a whole other way — beyond what a textbook can do. They have the ability to engage with people. They have the ability to generate empathy, and I feel like that's what we really need. 

To me, that's the power of story and that's what books are able to do.

The path to healing and reconciliation in Canada

3 months ago
2:21
A visual essay by award-winning Cree author David A. Robertson and Anishinaabe filmmaker Jordan Molaro reflecting on the path toward healing and reconciliation in Canada. 2:21

What are some of your book recommendations?

There are so many of them. There are picture books like Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi's Canoe, middle-grade books like Fatty Legs and The Marrow Thieves

I want to point out one in particular by an elder who was a dear friend of mine, Theodore Fontaine, who was a residential school survivor and recently passed away. His book, Broken Circle, is this unflinching, really difficult read — but it's also full of the kind of heart that man had. It's one of those books that every Canadian should have on a bookshelf.

I have my memoir Black Water, which deals with residential school history as well. There are a lot of graphic novels that are for older readers, like 7 Generations. These sorts of books are important because they educate adults. 

If we expect to educate kids, we also have to educate ourselves so that we're able to answer those tough questions from a place of knowledge and with articulate, truthful responses.

We need to focus on the youth. If we expect to educate kids, we also have to educate ourselves so that we're able to answer those tough questions from a place of knowledge and with articulate, truthful responses.

Are you optimistic that the younger generation has a better grasp of it than in our educational days?

Oh yeah, there's no comparison. 

My grandmother went to the Norway House Residential School. I didn't learn about it at any point in high school, junior high or elementary school. We had a residential school down the street from us, and we had no idea. 

Now kids are growing up with teachers who are incorporating literature into the curriculum, preparing kids by laying this foundation of knowledge so that they can move forward from a place of truth and really be changemakers. They'll have the knowledge that we didn't have. That's why I say we need to focus on the youth. 

It's been close to a month since the community in Kamloops revealed their findings, how would you describe this moment?

I think that this is one of the most important times in Canadian history. I really do. 

We may have been aware of residential school history before as Canadians, but now we really know what it was. From what I've heard, in talking with Canadians and seeing the interactions on social media, we have an idea of what this system really was — so now we have a choice.

What are we going to do with that knowledge? How are we going to work to create the kind of change that we need to have in order to truly work toward reconciliation? This is a time in history where we can go one way or the other. 

If we're going to honour those kids and not forget them, then we owe it to them to move forward together, and change this country for the better.

I think about those babies that were found in Kamloops, the ones that are in Brandon, the ones that are in Saskatchewan. If we're going to honour those kids and not forget them, then we owe it to them to move forward together, and change this country for the better.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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