David Robertson speaks to a group of children


I Think All Canadians Have A Responsibility To Talk To Their Kids About MMIWG — Here’s How

Jul 31, 2019

David Robertson speaks to children at the Jack River School in Norway House Cree Nation.

I have five kids. Three girls, two boys. As you might guess, my wife and I have a busy life. When I’m not working, we chauffeur our children around the city to their many activities. It’s been this way for years.

"Any parent would’ve been worried. But the reality is, my Indigenous daughters will grow up facing danger that non-Indigenous children will not."

When my oldest daughter was 13, she was a competitive swimmer. One day, Emily had swim practice, Anna had dance and Cole had hockey. All at the same time. I drove Cole to hockey, my wife, Jill, drove Anna to dance and Emily took the bus to the civic centre for swim.

Emily received explicit instructions to call us as soon as she got to the pool. I was standing by the boards in the hockey rink when my phone started buzzing. Jill wanted to know if Emily had called me. She hadn’t. I drove across the city to check if she was OK. When I saw her in the pool, I let out a breath that I’d been holding since I left the rink.

She’d forgotten to call. That was it. 

Talking To Your Kids:

Any parent would’ve been worried. But the reality is, my Indigenous daughters will grow up facing danger that non-Indigenous children will not. What I have known for years, since I wrote a graphic novel about Helen Betty Osborne, and what the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) recently outlined, is that this country is not safe for my daughters, for my wife and for 2SLGBTQQIA people.

Here are some questions I ask myself about this epidemic:

  • How can I protect my daughters?
  • How can I prepare them to protect themselves?
  • How do I raise my sons to protect their sisters and other Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people?
  • What can I do to create meaningful change?

You might have questions too, like asking yourself how you can talk to your kids about the epidemic, the final report and its "Calls For Justice." Children will set the direction for the future, and since we have the responsibility of raising them, what we teach them and how we prepare them will give them the tools they need to lead and make good decisions.

But it’s a difficult subject. I want you to know that it’s OK to feel unsure, and it’s OK to feel intimidated.

The history is hard; a lot of terrible things happened to thousands of children. How can you talk about it and not traumatize young readers? One of my nephews learned about residential schools a couple of years ago, and came home in tears. He thought he was going to be taken. We’ve asked teachers and parents to address these important issues, but haven’t prepared them to do the job they’ve been given. The calls for justice has a section for all Canadians. That’s you. That’s your children.

An Indigenous Mother's POV: This Simple Approach To Parenting Helped Raise A Daughter With A Strong Voice

How Are We Going To Do It?

In high school, kids face calculus. However, they're ready for it by then. They’ve been learning mathematics for years. We don’t introduce calculus to kindergarteners. That would be another way to send kids home crying. Children start by learning simple addition.

That’s how I approached When We Were Alone, a children's book about the residential school system. I didn’t have to address everything. I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, address everything for young readers. What I had to do was build a foundation. Simple addition.

"The calls for justice has a section for all Canadians. That’s you. That’s your children."

So, the book is about identity. How empowering it is to be who you are, to wear your hair the way you want, to wear the clothes you like, to speak your language, to be with your family. And what it feels like when you’re not able to do or have those things. What it feels like to have those things taken away. The book has been able to teach children basic concepts about the residential school system and, most importantly, generate empathy.

I want you to approach this in the same way. In the section of the calls for justice that speaks to all Canadians, it says every person has a role to play to combat violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This is a step in the path that leads toward reconciliation. We’re all in this together. We cannot get there if we don’t go together. I have my role, you have yours. If we don’t perform our roles in concert, this country will continue to be a dangerous place for people like my daughters.

Related Reading: Sharing The Message Of Truth And Reconciliation With Your Kids

Where Do We Start?

Learn: The first thing to do is learn as much as you can about the epidemic before talking about it with your children. This includes reading the final report, and its calls for justice. We cannot educate others if we don’t educate ourselves. This way, we can talk to our children more effectively. But we will also be able to answer the calls made to Canadians just as we want our children to: to speak out against violence, to speak out against racism, sexism, ignorance, homophobia, transphobia. To become an ally. To hold our government accountable.

Learn about the colonial history of this country, because it has contributed to where we are today. The easiest way to do this is to read books by Indigenous authors who have lived, or passed down, experiences. I am Cree on my father’s side and a third-generation survivor of the residential school system, so my writing would be considered an "own voices" story.

Be vocal: I’ve always told my children they need to speak out for those who cannot or should not do so alone. Or when they cannot speak out at all. There is a progression here. We are able to speak out when we have a place of knowledge from which to speak. I was proud to hear that when my son, Cole, graduated from Grade 8 this year, his teacher talked about how he’s protective of others. Always. Any child is capable of acting similarly, when given the tools to act.

Listen: Finally, as much our children need to be taught to speak out and up, they also need to learn when to listen. This is the spirit of reconciliation, in particular, for non-Indigenous Canadians — children and adults. I have things to say to you, that you need to hear. You have things to say, that I, in turn, need to hear.

When We Were Alone And More: 10 Beautiful Indigenous Children’s Books To Add To Your Library

Moving Forward

We need to be able to sit across from each other, to talk to each other, to push away stereotypes by arming ourselves with knowledge. We need to see each other through a human lens. We need to be able to love and respect each other for who we are, indiscriminately. That is one place where we can learn from children, not the other way around. They see each other as human beings. It’s inherent. Then we teach them how to see one another differently.

We cannot afford to do that any longer.

Because I want my daughters to be safe walking the two blocks from school to home. Because I don’t want to feel like I have to get into my car and drive down the block to find her, if she’s a minute late. Because I want to be able to find her, and for my worries to be unfounded.

Dad told me once, that if we do things properly, the change we want to see won’t happen in our lifetime, that all we can do is put the future in the hands of the children and trust them to change things in a good way for future generations. It may take seven generations to get there, but it will take longer if we don’t start today. It will take longer if we don’t start together.


Are you a writer? Are you a parent? Do you feel differently about this subject? Feel free to reach out to us with a pitch at cbcparents@cbc.ca.

Article Author David Robertson
David Robertson

Read more from David here.

David A. Robertson (he, him, his) is an award-winning writer. His books include When We Were Alone (Governor General’s Literary Award), Will I See? (Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration Award), Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story (listed In The Margins), and the YA trilogy The Reckoner (Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction, McNally Robinson Best Book for Young People). David educates as well as entertains through his writings about Indigenous Peoples in Canada, reflecting their cultures, histories, communities, as well as illuminating many contemporary issues. David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife and five children.

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