David Alexander Robertson calls graphic novels the perfect teaching tool

Graphic novelist David Alexander Robertson says he was compelled to write Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story after the murder of Tina Fontaine.

David Alexander Robertson says Osborne '...the wrong gender and the wrong culture at the wrong time.'

David Alexander Robertson, winner of the Governor General's Award for young people's literature, illustrated books, says it was important for him 'to try and educate kids about residential school history.' (Provided by David Robertson)

For David Alexander Robertson, who has authored several graphic novels and comics, the visual nature of the graphic novel makes it a great teaching tool.

"It brings people to a place where they can experience it in a real way, more than any other type of literature I think, it makes them feel there," he said.

Robertson said the graphic novel format is an important historical document to bring to schools because it roots the stories in a visual reality.  

"In a text perspective, we're asking students to just imagine things. When we're presenting them with images, it forces them to be there and see it, rather than imagine it," he explained. 

"And I think that is a far more important way to experience things that happened in history." 

Compelled by Tina Fontaine murder

Robertson, who is Cree, Scottish, Irish and English has written about the life and death of Helen Betty Osborne in two graphic novels. His second book, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story was released in June.

David Alexander Robertson's book Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
The Cree student, from Norway House Cree Nation, Manitoba, was attending school in The Pas with the goal of becoming a teacher. Her dream was to return home to teach, so other kids wouldn't have to leave home to get an education.

But her dream and her life were tragically cut short in the winter of 1971. While walking home after socializing with friends, Osborne was abducted off the street by four non-native men and brutally murdered.

"She was in the wrong place and she was the wrong gender and the wrong culture at the wrong time," said Robertson.

It would be 16 years before anyone was charged and convicted in her death.

He said he was compelled to portray her story again after the murder of Tina Fontaine. The petite teen was pulled out of Winnipeg's Red River last August, 2014 — another life added to a list of missing and murdered indigenous women already 1200 names long. 

"We share ignorance, it turns into something negative. We share knowledge, it turns into something positive," Robertson said. 

'It was such a tragedy and another face, another face of all these indigenous sisters of ours that have gone missing or have been murdered.' - David Alexander Robertson

Robertson said it wasn't just Fontaine's murder that affected him, it was also the public's response. A memorial march and call-to-action was held, with more than 1000 people taking part.

"For the first time I noticed a tangible difference where there was a coming together and it wasn't just Indigenous Peoples, it was everybody, all ages, genders, cultures and there was a lot of hope there," Robertson said. 

Lead to change

Roberston said he is telling Osborne's story again in hopes it will lead to change.

"I wanted to tell [it] again to recontextualize it against today's epidemic in hopes of doing my part to raise awareness of what is going on in our country."