Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-Fenton talk about the 10th anniversary of children's book Fatty Legs
The bestselling 2010 children's picture book Fatty Legs tells the tale of a young Inuk girl named Olemaun who is desperate to learn to read in English — even if it means leaving behind her friends and family in her Arctic village. Olemaun is ready for whatever she may face at her residential school, but the challenges are more than she ever imagined.
That little girl was Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Along with book co-creator and daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton, she spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the 10th anniversary of Fatty Legs and how it inspired a bestselling series of books about residential school and also a generation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children about the power of believing in yourself.
A desire to learn
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton: "I have an older half-sister and her mother died when she was little. So she was raised by an aunt who then put her in a residential school. When she was 13, she came home to us and she would read to me. I did not understand anything, but I was so fascinated. One day she got tired of reading to me. She said, 'You can go to school and learn how to read yourself.'
My father finally decided that when I turned eight he would send me off to school.
"My father finally decided that when I turned eight the would send me off to school. When I got to school, I never saw my parents for two years and I completely forgot my language and food. It was quite hard after because my mother couldn't understand English or speak English. I lived for a week just drinking coffee because I couldn't stand the smell of the food.
"Thinking back about that little girl, I'm glad she got through it all. It was a pain I used to put in the back of my mind and not think of it until Christy got interested and was receptive to my grandchildren learning about their history."
Christy Jordan-Fenton: "I was raised for part of my life by a Cree-Metis stepfather who had gone to residential school. I lived in a community where a lot of people were affected by residential school. It wasn't anything people talked about. It was like this big secret. So I'd always been curious to know more about residential school and as I got older, I'd heard stories. But they were all really scary, horrible, terrifying stories.
Margaret was so strong in telling her story and I thought it is a story that needs to be told.
"One day Margaret and I were driving to town and she just came out with the story. Margaret was so strong in telling her story and I thought it was a story that needs to be told.
"So this was about 2008, and less than one in four non-Indigenous Canadians had ever heard of residential school. I wanted my children to have no bigger hero than their grandmother. But also I had this passion that everybody should know that this happened."
The legacy of Fatty Legs
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton: "At times, I get overwhelmed and wonder if it's really me! When we do school visits, little children are so receptive to the book. It's because they have a clear mind and they don't have any clutter. It's so beautiful to see."
Christy Jordan-Fenton: "Margaret's traditional name, Olemaun, actually means the stone that you sharpen the knife with. So in a traditional way, your name is going to say what is strongest about your spirit or most special about you. So even though she couldn't use that name at the school, she knew who she was."
When we do school visits, little children are so receptive to the book.
"She really embodies that. I think for Indigenous children, we talk so much about their spirits being broken. But what we don't talk about is how being raised in a traditional way helped them be heroes for themselves. So every child that went to school with the traditional name knew what was special about them.
"Margaret, having been raised traditionally, was a lot stronger mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually than what we would think of like an average child going to school today."
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-Fenton's comments have been edited for length and clarity.