Why David A. Robertson wanted When We Were Alone to celebrate the Cree language

David A. Robertson's picture book When We Were Alone includes a variety of Swampy Cree words in its tender account of Canada's residential school history.
CBC Winnipeg Weekend Morning Show host, Nadia Kidwai, introduced author David A. Robertson to 125 students at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on Oct. 18, 2017. (CBC Books)

Written by Swampy Cree graphic novelist and author David A. Robertson, with drawings by Cree-Métis author and illustrator Julie Flett, When We Were Alone is a picture book that tells the story of Canada's residential school history. One of five books nominated for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, it's also a deeply personal project for Robertson. 

Speaking with a group of students at a recent TD Kids Book Club in Winnipeg, Robertson told the story of how his own father endured many of the same things as the grandmother whose residential school experience is depicted in When We Were Alone. Among other things, Robertson says his father was prevented from speaking his native Cree language while at school. 

In a video on his YouTube channel, Robertson talks about some of the Cree words his father wasn't allowed to use — words he worked to incorporate into his book.

Here are a few of the reasons those words are so significant for him. 

1. They help us learn from our elders 

Nókom is the Swampy Cree word for "my grandmother" and is one of the words that appears in When We Were Alone. (David A. Robertson)

In When We Were Alone, a granddaughter joins her grandmother in the garden. Over the course of the day, she asks her grandmother — or nókom — a variety of questions.

"That's what kids do; they ask questions," Robertson said in a recent interview. "And the grandmother relates all these questions back to her experience at residential school, and how the things that she does now are things that were taken away from her when she was a child." 

2. They help us empathize with each other

Nósisim is the Swampy Cree word for "grandchild" and one of the words used by David A. Robertson in When We Were Alone. (David A. Robertson)

Another word in When We Were Alone is nósisim, the Swampy Cree word for grandchild. The grandchild in Robertson's book learns from her grandmother's own experiences as a child, in a way Robertson says he hopes will be productive.

"This is a gentle introduction to residential school history. And the power in it, I think, is that it generates empathy in children. So they see what other children went though. They empathize with that experience. And that empathy leads to an engagement that — I think down the road — is what's going to take us all down this path [of reconciliation]." 

3. They help to reclaim what was lost

This Swampy Cree phrase from When We Were Alone translates as "Here little bird, eat, so you will get big and strong." (David A. Robertson)

Including Swampy Cree words and phrases in When We Were Alone has led to a resurgence of Indigenous language in Robertson's own home. 

"The response from my youngest daughter [to the book] is what sticks out to me the most. After we were done reading, she wanted to call her grandpa — my dad. So I got her on the phone with grandpa and she said, 'Grandpa, will you teach me Cree?' And so that moment was one of the most powerful moments. I still tear up talking about it." 

David A. Robertson's comments have been edited and condensed.