Indigenous literature breaks down taboos at Gaspé high school

The third edition of the Turtle Island Reads initiative is bringing high school students in Quebec to engage in conversations about Indigenous stories and highlight the work of Indigenous authors.

Turtle Island Reads opens up tough conversations at New Richmond High

Back row from left, Grade 11 students Mariah Allen, Jacob Lagouffe and Britanny Bernard will be discussing the book Will I See?, with visual artist and musician Dayna Danger at this year’s Turtle Island Reads Book Club. (Julia Page/CBC)

Grade 11 student Mariah Allen had heard people in her community of Gesgapegiag, Que., talking about Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

But seeing those lives depicted in the graphic novel Will I See? brought her understanding to a whole other level.

"It was always talked about, but I'd never actually visually seen it," she said, sitting in a classroom at New Richmond High School.

Will I See?, written by David A. Robertson and illustrated by GMB Chomichuk, follows the footsteps of a teenager who finds keepsakes belonging to victims of violence.

Page after page, the reader understands how they were targeted, and how their lives shifted in that moment.

Five students from New Richmond High will be discussing the book at this year's Turtle Island Reads Book Club — an initiative that highlights the work of Indigenous literature for young adults.

They will travel to Montreal for the book club's final event on April 8, where they will be alongside students from two other schools.

Kahnawake Survival School students read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, and LaSalle Community Comprehensive High School students read Those Who Run in the Sky by Aviaq Johnston.

English teacher Jennifer Roy says she and her colleagues always try to go the extra mile to find Indigenous books for students. (Julia Page/CBC)

New Richmond High School English teacher, Jennifer Roy, says she and her colleagues are always trying to introduce Indigenous content into the curriculum. So when Roy heard about CBC's Turtle Island Reads Book Club, she applied for her class right away.

Roy says it's especially important to focus on Indigenous stories because 60 per cent of her students are of Mi'kmaq descent from the Baie-des-Chaleurs region, in the Gaspé.

Roy says that by bringing a book into the classroom that discusses violence against Indigenous women and girls, she can create an opportunity to raise awareness and make sure her own students stay safe.

"We speak quite frankly and openly with them," said Roy.

"When you start to talk statistics with them and you present some facts, it really opens their eyes. They need to understand that they have a higher potential to become a victim."

Gender identity

Turtle Island Reads has paired up Roy's class with Métis/Saulteaux/Polish visual artist and musician Dayna Danger, who will help the students discuss themes in the book.

Danger travelled from Montreal to New Richmond in March to get to know the students ahead of their trip.

"I feel like it would be such a disservice if I advocated for this book with these awesome young people and they didn't even know who I was," said Danger.

Danger, who identifies as two-spirit/queer, had conversations with students about gender identity and about how people who don't conform to typical gender roles can become isolated from their communities.

"They have a hard time getting employment, they have a hard time finding housing, especially if they are racialized."

Artist and musician Dayna Danger will join forces with students from New Richmond High School. On April 8, they will all be in Montreal to take part in the final event of the Turtle Island Reads Book Club. (Julia Page/CBC)

Losing that sense of place "where we migrate away from our land, our territories and away from our teachings" puts non-binary people at risk, Danger explained, using the book to illustrate her point to students.

Britanny Bernard, 18, said getting the chance to meet Danger was a highlight. Bernard said she'd never been asked, for example, which pronoun she used to identify herself.

"That stuck with me, and I was thinking people should think about those things.

"No judging, no posting on Facebook or Instagram, no hating. Just let people be who they want to be and it will be fine."

Danger said she was impressed by the interactions she had with students, but also by how open the school was to tackle tough topics — from gender identity, to drug abuse, to birth control.

The graphic novel Will I See? follows the steps of the main character, May, as she uncovers the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in her city. (Julia Page/CBC)

"I think that's really important because knowledge is the power to then have agency over your own decisions and choices."

Grade 11 student Jacob Lagouffe agreed that youth are often shielded from such discussions.

"But it's good to talk to a younger generation, because they're the future and they will be the ones who are making the change," said the 16-year-old.


WHAT: Turtle Island Reads: A live event in two parts

WHEN: Monday, April 8, 2019.

WHERE: John Abbott College's Casgrain Theatre (The Casgrain Theatre is located in the Casgrain Building. 21275 Lakeshore Dr, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, H9X 3L9)

TIME:  Panel Discussion from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., followed by the Book Club event with high schools and book advocates from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 

COST: Admission to both events is free. Click here for the Facebook event.

The Turtle Island Reads initiative is a partnership between CBC Montreal, LEARN, Quebec Writers' Federation, CODE NGO and McGill Faculty of Education as well as McGill University's Social Equity and Diversity Education Office.


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