School book from 1800s, used to assimilate indigenous children, now used as teaching tool

Crystal Sinclair is taking an old family 'heirloom' — a book used to assimilate and colonize native children — to help teach others about the history of residential schools and its impacts on survivors like her.

Important part of Canada's hidden history, says book's owner

A page from an 1800s book used to assimilate First Nations children. (Supplied)

For Crystal Sinclair, it was painful to grow up feeling like an outcast in her own land, separated from her family into foster care and then be sent to a residential school — while seeing non-natives get treated better.

Crystal Sinclair holds the book, which her mother had sent as a way for her to learn Cree. (Muskrat Magazine)
Sinclair is from Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. She is a survivor of the Poplar Hill Residential School in northern Ontario, which she attended from 1977 to '78.

With the momentum of the last Truth and Reconciliation gathering in Ottawa last month, Sinclair pulled out an old family "heirloom" — a book used to assimilate and colonize native children — and brought it to Ottawa in hopes of sharing it with others, closing that negative chapter of family history forever.

The book dated from the 1800s and is small in size and delicate in nature. The pages are yellowed from over a century of existence and, at times, the text is overtly racist as it "transmits" western "lessons" and way of life.

Ironically, Sinclair's mother mailed her the book so she could learn Cree, but she quickly realized its significance.

Sinclair says she wanted to share this book with the world because it is an important part of hidden Canadian history. 

"The government must be exposed for what happened to First Nations children when they were trying to colonize us and break families apart," she said.

Sinclair contacted Muskrat Magazine to tell the story of the book and to help digitize its pages to preserve and share them before making the journey to Ottawa.

Impacts of colonization

Sinclair's family was one of the many families that were torn apart by the negative impacts of colonization. She grew up with her grandparents in Winnipeg. Their life was hard. They faced poverty, racism, violence in their community and dehumanization as native people.

At six years old, she was sent to live with a Mennonite foster family in northern Ontario because her grandfather was too sick and elderly and her mother had already moved away for work in another province.
A page from the 'Indian Child's Primer' that shows both the Cree and English language. (Supplied)

The foster family was extremely religious, praying and reading the Bible three times a day while she was forced to attend school wearing awkward Mennonite dresses. It was here where she learned to speak English in school and German at her foster home.

When she was in Grade 9, she started being physically abused and molested. Once her guidance counsellor found out and began an investigation, she was sent off to Poplar Hill Residential School.

It all happened so fast, she says, "One day I woke up to all of my things packed and I was shipped off with no contact to my mother." Not being able to connect with the other children, she spent a year there lonely and isolated.

After her time at Poplar Hill, Sinclair was sent to live with another Mennonite family in Dryden, Ont., that ran a Bible camp for aboriginal people before reuniting with her grandmother. By that time, her grandfather had already passed away.

Overcoming adversity

Once again living in poverty in Winnipeg's inner city, Sinclair started using drugs and alcohol while struggling to deal with her issues of pain. Eventually she overcame her adversity and went on to complete her degree in social work at Ryerson University in 1999.

Sinclair is now the mental health addictions co-ordinator at Old City Hall Court in Toronto. As an activist and community leader, she helped start the Idle No More movement in Toronto.

She describes the experience as a spiritual movement that mobilized youth and united communities.

"It was a powerful thing. We're not going to stand for the government taking over and taking our land and leaving us impoverished. That is done; no more of that," she said.

Reclaiming culture

For everyone, reconciliation means something different.

For Sinclair, reconciliation means that "action must happen in the political, economic and sociological context to empower Native Peoples to flourish in society as equal partners which was was agreed upon in the treaties. A new narrative can begin to happen when both sides work together with respect, dignity and equality for all."

She believes that "to begin this process of reconciliation, the government should agree to implement the recommendation to accept the UN on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. First Nations people will continue to insist that our rights will not be ignored or diminished."

One of the 94 calls to action from the TRC findings states that students must learn about indigenous cultures, the history of residential schools and their impacts on survivors.

Currently, Sinclair uses the book and her story for teachings with whomever would like to hear them.

"I'm on a journey of reclamation of culture, teachings and healing," she said. "I just want to share any way I can to foster help and hope in people."

This story was republished from Muskrat Magazine with permission.

About the Author

Erica Commanda

Freelance writer

Born to an Algonquin mother and Ojibwe father, Erica Commanda grew up on the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan reserve located in Golden Lake, Ont. Erica spent the last 8 years mastering the art of listening to stories while slinging drinks as a bartender. Erica is enrolled in Journalism at George Brown College and continues to perfect her craft as staff writer trainee at Muskrat Magazine.