'To call it history is simply wrong': Michelle Good on how residential schools fit into our national story

Five Little Indians author Michelle Good talks about winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction, and why we must continue telling stories about residential school survivors.

Award-winning novelist Michelle Good on the importance of telling stories about residential school survivors

Five Little Indians is a novel by Michelle Good. (Harper Perennial, Candice Camille)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Michelle Good said it was "a beautiful ambush" when she found out she had won the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction.

Her debut novel, Five Little Indians, follows a group of friends as they establish adult lives in Metro Vancouver. The characters are grappling with their childhood, spent in the same church-run residential school.

The Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, a $25,000 prize, is Good's second big win this month alone. She also took home the Amazon First Novel Award, a $60,000 prize.

But the accolades come with a heaviness that is hard to put into words, as news of her win coincided with the discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

"I was basically catatonic over the weekend," said Good, a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, who has been an advocate for residential school survivors in her law practice.

Her mother, grandmother and cousins are among the generations of Indigenous children who were forcibly taken from their families and endured the abusive school system.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey conducted by a specialist in ground-penetrating radar uncovered the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the school.

"To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths," Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said in a statement.

Good has struggled to process the discovery of these children, but noted this had always been known anecdotally. 

"Members of the community would talk about how when they were at the [Kamloops] school, there would be a child there one day, and the next day, they would be just gone. Nobody would ever say anything about what had happened." 

'The impacts continue today'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) documented the deaths of more than 6,000 children as a result of the residential school system that ran from the 1830s to 1996, but suggested the figure is likely higher.

The Canadian flag at the Peace Tower in Ottawa was lowered to half-mast on Sunday in honour of the 215 children. But Good believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to go further.

"I don't care about half-masts. That doesn't do anything for those children, their little spirits, or for their parents, grandparents and living relations," she said.

"What I care about is the concept that [Prime Minister Trudeau] is continuing in that speech that this is historical, that this is something in the past. It's not. The impacts continue today and they will continue for many, many years to come." 

Good said there's a question she keeps hearing from non-Indigenous people — and she's tired of it.

"'Why can't you just get over it? It's history.' Nobody on Earth would make a similar comment about the Holocaust or 9-11. The book was in response to that, in many ways."

"It means that they do not understand that survivors left the schools with this tremendous psychological injury. They left with PTSD, with anger issues, with addiction issues arising from trauma, an inability to have meaningful functional relationships."

"In my view, even if a child was not sexually or physically abused, they were traumatized before they even got to the school. The moment that the RCMP and the church showed up and took them away from their parents, the lesson that child learned in that moment is that nobody can take care of them, nobody can protect them from harm."

'Trauma is like osmosis'

Writing Five Little Indians began in the 1990s and took decades to complete. Good spent time thinking about stories her mother had shared of growing up at St. Barnabas Indian Residential School in Onion Lake, which is located on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

A black and whit book cover featuring purple text with the silhouettes of people young people walking in the woods.

The first memory Good remembers hearing — when she was about 11 or 12 — was about her mother's friend Lily, who had contracted tuberculosis.

"She hemorrhaged to death on the playground and my mother watched her friend die."

Good wrote a tribute to Lily in the novel. 

"I felt that I had to honour Lily herself, the actual little girl that died far from home without her parents."

The trauma of her mother's experience has resonated through Good's own life.

"Part of me really believes that my mother got a very clear message: Your Indigeneity is an invitation to brutality and punishment."

"I did an interview with someone and they asked me, 'So how do you think survivors are receiving the book?' And I said, 'Well, I'm a survivor.' Trauma is almost like osmosis. When you're living with people that have trauma responses, you learn those. To not acknowledge intergenerational harm is to not acknowledge harm, period."

Rewriting colonial history

Good is now at work on her next book, inspired by the life of her great-grandmother, who was born in 1856. A member of Chief Big Bear's clan, Good's great-grandmother didn't meet a non-Indigenous person until she was a teenager.

"She lived in a world unaffected by colonialism for a significant part of her early life. I'm trying to write about the impact of colonialism on her in terms of all of the terrible things that happened during the process of clearing the plains," she said.

"Winston Churchill said, 'Gentlemen, history will be kind to us because I intend to write it.' And that's what's happened with Canadian history. It's not been Indigenous people that are writing the history and so I want to provide our own look on history."

Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

This interview was produced by Vanessa Greco. The article was written by Jane van Koeverden, with files from CBC News and CBC Books. Editing by Vanessa Greco.