I’m An Indigenous Parent And Author Who Has Had My Books Pulled From School Shelves
By David A. Robertson
PHOTO © Russell_Robinson/Twenty20
Jun 8, 2022
My father used to say that he took jobs that enabled him to help people. I’ve tried to do the same thing during my career as an author. It’s a career that’s gone beyond writing books and now includes advocacy and activism.
I educate youth and adults about the Indian Residential School System and its ongoing impact. I raise awareness for the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) epidemic. Lately, I have spoken about the importance of accurately representing Indigenous people in literature. Representation might not seem like a big issue, but it’s just as important as anything else.
When I was a kid, books like The Barren Grounds or When We Were Alone or On the Trapline or any book by one of many incredible Indigenous authors available today never found their way into classrooms or on the shelves in bookstores. They weren’t even published. But it would’ve made a big difference, and not only for me — for many kids.
Read David Robertson's piece on talking to kids about the National Day For Truth And Reconciliation which recently received an Honourable Mention for Best Service Feature from the 2022 Digital Publishing Awards.
Growing Up Without Indigenous Representation
I graduated from high school not knowing that the Indian Residential School System existed, and I’m an intergenerational survivor. My grandmother attended Norway House Indian Residential School in the 1920s and '30s. There was a residential school building down the street from Kelvin High School, my alma mater, that I never knew existed. Assiniboia Residential School.
"I graduated from high school not knowing that the Indian Residential School System existed."
I would’ve known about these things, and I would’ve been better for it.
But the problem wasn’t just the absence of a significant piece of Canadian history. Indigenous people were ignored entirely in books and the classroom or grossly misrepresented. I remember reading comics in the '80s that had Indigenous characters that fell into pervasive stereotypical representations, creating a negative self-perception. I saw all of these awful depictions and thought: Is that me? Is that who I am? Many non-Indigenous people learned to perceive Indigenous people a certain way too.
All of it was damaging.
Kids Today Know More
Fast forward more than 30 years. Things have changed. If I ask any kid in school, across Turtle Island, about Indian Residential School History, they can tell me about it. That’s incredibly encouraging.
I visit with thousands of kids every year. They have learned so much, and our future as a country is in good hands. Kids are ready, and our job is to put truth into their hands. They are good leaders, and they will continue to be. They will undoubtedly make better decisions than have been made in the past.
I’ve been using a phrase lately: The more you know, the better you do.
Even Canadian Schools Pull Books
It seems we've taken steps backwards over the last few years, even as things have improved. In 2018, Alberta Education and Edmonton Public Schools had a “not recommended” list and a “books to weed out” list full of Indigenous literature, including several of my titles. Their reasoning? One of my books required pre- and post-conversations. Does any teacher introduce a book in the classroom and then not discuss it? It was an example of educational leaders and administration making unilateral decisions that affected teachers and, most importantly, kids.
"Recently, Durham District School Board pulled my book, The Great Bear, from their libraries and classrooms."
Recently, Durham District School Board pulled my book, The Great Bear, from their libraries and classrooms saying it was too cultural, has too much ceremony or somehow harms Indigenous students and families. Up until the time of this article, they haven't given a clear answer or elaborated. And so, even though The Great Bear has been put back on shelves, which was a good step, I’m still looking for answers. I have asked for transparency and applying a clear and consistent policy. And, you know, to not soft ban books.
As parents, community members, teachers and librarians, I don't want us standing for this behaviour. And in this case, I’m proud that we didn’t. As hurtful as it was to have my book pulled from libraries and classrooms while “under review,” it was amazing to have so many people standing with me to ensure that we don’t go in that direction. It’s happening in the United States, and I need us to have the courage to stand up and say, “Not here.”
I believe we’re better than that.
We all have the ability to recognize the value of truth. To have faith that kids can make this world a better place to live in when armed with knowledge if we just let them.
If we don’t let them, then why not? What is there to be afraid of?
A friend of mine, Tasha Spillett, an inspiring and talented afro-Indigenous author, was recently uninvited by a school in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. The principal reasoned that the kids weren’t ready for her book, Surviving the City. Here’s the thing. When an adult says that kids aren’t ready, I think it's usually because the adult is not ready. Kids have their minds open, and they’re ready to learn. I don't want to see truth ripped away from them just because we didn’t have access to today's essential and meaningful books, just because we aren’t comfortable.
The truth can be uncomfortable. But it’s also necessary.
Kids have the right to learn from a place of truth. They deserve it. And they will do great things if we let them. The way I see it, as a parent and a teacher, there is nothing more important than handing a kid a story and watching their eyes light up.
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