Cree author questions why Durham District School Board removed his book from shelves

David A. Robertson, author of The Great Bear, says he still does not know why his book was temporarily removed by the Durham District School Board. The board is returning the Cree author's novel to its shelves after what it calls an "accelerated review process."

Indigenous families complained about 'stereotypes' and other issues, board's website says

Cree author David A. Robertson is seen here talking to schoolchildren. His book, The Great Bear, will be returned to library shelves and classrooms in the Durham District School Board this week. The board says it was temporarily removed pending a review temporarily following complaints from Indigenous families. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

An award-winning Cree author says he feels vindicated after learning his novel is going back on library shelves and into classrooms in the Durham District School Board this week. 

But David A. Robertson says it's still a mystery to him why the DDSB temporarily removed The Great Bear last month and initiated a review in the first place. He says he wants answers and a better process put in place to prevent it from happening to other writers.

"I'm not going to change what I do. I'm not going to change my approach. I'm not going to change the stories I write. I'm not going to change the fact that I address difficult subjects because the truth can be uncomfortable," Robertson told CBC News.

Robertson says there are no racial slurs or offensive content that he can think of in his book, noting it's about standing up against bullying and creating representation for Indigenous youth. He knows of no other school board or library system that's considering pulling the novel, the second in an Indigenous fantasy series aimed at middle-grade readers.

The school board has not yet replied to a request from CBC News for an interview or a written statement. But it did publicly state on its website that it temporarily removed the book and initiated a review after receiving an unspecified number of complaints from members of the Indigenous community. The website says some who complained were concerned the book contained "Indigenous stereotypes and terminology that could perpetuate discrimination."

'Too much culture'

Robertson obtained a leaked email, which he shared with CBC News, that indicates the board's Indigenous Education Department thought the book contains too much "culture and ceremony." There is also a section that is "particularly harmful to Indigenous youth and families," the email reads. But it does not elaborate.

"As I understood it, we're in the business of reconciliation," said Robertson, "And that requires us to put books in the hands of kids that teach them about other cultures, other experiences, lived experiences. That helps us to learn about one another."

Robertson says he remains confused as to what "too much culture" entails, calling the notion "bizarre."

Robertson says exposing young people to books by Indigenous authors with Indigenous characters is important for reconciliation. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

He says he learned his book was under review by the board only because a third party told him during a literary event he was attending.

Robertson says the board did not initially reach out to him directly to discuss the situation, nor did it immediately reply to emails from his publisher, Penguin Random House, something the board later publicly attributed to an IT issue.

Book bans rare in Canada

The case reveals that Durham District School Board has a problematic review process, says Heather Hill, a professor of informational and media studies at the University of Western Ontario.

She says some public libraries use a better procedure in which people can fill out a form if they have an issue with a book's content. The library then tells the author the book is being challenged and specifically why someone feels it is problematic. 

"Ideally, there would be an investigation before something is pulled," she said, and the reasons for removing the book would be made public.

To have something actually pulled from a shelf in Canada is very rare, and it's generally done more readily in parts of the United States, often for reasons Hill calls "atrocious," such as homophobia.

"Middle-grade books are actually something that's highly challenged," she said, but more often a book is moved to a shelf for more mature readers rather than banned.

"It just blows my mind that this book was challenged in this way," said Hill, who has read some of Robertson's work.

Board has 'things to answer for,' author says

The school board posted a statement on its website Wednesday indicating that "an accelerated review process" allowed it to engage with members of the local Indigenous community who emphasized it was important to make books by Indigenous authors available as choices to all readers, leading to the return of the book to shelves.

The board said it would engage with more Indigenous groups and individuals to "best manage different responses to literature and ensure that we serve the needs of Indigenous families."

Heather Hill, a professor of informational and media studies at Western University, says the case reveals that Durham District School Board has a problematic book review process. (Submitted by Heather Hill)

Robertson says he has offered to work with the Durham board to ensure this doesn't happen to another BIPOC author.

"It's worth fighting for because kids deserve to read stories like that. It's going to make us a stronger country," he said.

"But they still have some things to answer for. And I think that's fair to ask for those things" 


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.