The Next Chapter

Joan Crate on breaking the silence around residential schools

The author discusses her new novel about a Blackfoot girl who spends 12 years at a residential school in Alberta.
Author Joan Crate says she tried to explore the perspective of residential school teachers in her book, but doesn't think she could have done so if her father, who is half Cree, had been in the schools. (David Chittick)

In Joan Crate's new novel, Black Apple, she tells the story of a young Blackfoot girl who goes to a Catholic residential school in Alberta. The school is run by a powerful nun who's determined to make her students devout Christians.

Joan Crate tells The Next Chapter why she felt the book needed to be written, and why she struggled with the weight of responsibility when she wrote about a residential school.

When it came to writing about the residential school, I definitely felt a real responsibility. We're talking about 10 years back when I first started thinking about this story. I would have run from the responsibility if I could, but I didn't want to be part of the conspiracy of silence that was going on about residential schools at that time. I did feel very responsible, because people's lives are being implicated. This is a novel, but the experience has to be authentic. I had to be respectful of what happened to people at the schools.

When I started looking into it and talking to people, I realized that a lot of people outside indigenous communities didn't really know anything about the schools and many of them didn't even know that they existed. There was this silence, this great ignorance — kids weren't taught about residential schools or given much indigenous history at all. But then a few people started speaking about it and then more people came out, and since then we've had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So I do think that's changed to a degree, but I think that many people would just as soon tuck it away and forget it as well, and it really is a part of Canadian history that happened, that has to be acknowledged and it isn't something that can be tucked away because it affected the entire country.

Joan Crate's comments have been edited and condensed.