Sharing the story of Indian residential schools with my 5-year-old son

Journalist and mother Martha Troian explores this dark chapter in Canadian history with her son, with a help of a children's book.
Martha Troian reads Amik Loves School to her 5-year-old son. (CBC/Tim Fontaine)

The history of the Indian Residential Schools system is a dark one. Thousands of indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced to attend schools, often hundreds of kilometres from their communities. 

Journalist and mother Martha Troian explores this dark chapter in Canadian history with her son, with a help of a children's book.

I read to my 5-year-old son every day. We have our favourites such as Pete the Cat, Winnie the Pooh, or Dr. Seuss.

But recently, we've read a book called Amik Loves School. It tells the story of a young boy named Amik who learns about residential schools from his Moshum — the Anishinaabemowin word for grandfather.

'Amik tells Moshoom about his wonderful school. Then his grandfather tells him about the residential school he went to, so different from Amik's school, so Amik has an idea...' (Portage & Main Press)
It's something my son and I have talked about in the last few months.

He knows that for many kids, residential school meant being pulled away from their families for months at a time.

He also knows the language that he is learning now, Anishinaabemowin, is something these kids were not allowed to speak. Kids also had to have their hair cut off.

My son, who wears a long braid today, knows he doesn't have to have his hair cut off to go to school.

His grandmother, my mother, attended the Pelican Lake Indian Residential School, which once stood in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario.

She was from Obishikokaang, also called Lac Seul First Nation, which is approximately 37 kilometres away from there.

Every time that I go home now to my traditional territory, I learn more about my mother. For instance, this past summer, I learned my mom ran away from the school with several other girls. They were caught and immediately brought back.

The elderly lady who told me the story, who knew I was my mom's daughter, laughed when she shared the story with me. It's a story I will never forget.

The grandfather character in Amik Loves School explains his own history with the schools and it helps my son to understand that what happened to his own grandmother, happened to many indigenous families.

Amik Loves School was written by Winnipeg-based Métis author and educator, Katherena Vermette.

The book came from a time when she was working as an educator at an urban indigenous program where she introduced the seven teachings to kids. The seven teachings are traditional Anishinaabe concepts used to teach things such as respect, love, and wisdom.

"There's a lot of different stories out there about residential schools and each one has a different approach to the topic," says Vermette.

Vermette says this material is a good way to teach indigenous history to everyone — and not just to indigenous kids, because the message in the book is one that is universal.

My family's history with the schools is marked by tragedy. After my mom left residential school, she never returned home and ended up further and further away. Sadly, it was a downward spiral that only ended with her death.

For now, as a parent, I'll keep it simple when it comes to teaching my son about residential schools. 

But I know that time will come, when my son will ask increasingly complex questions about the impact of residential schools in his own family.

It's good to know that there are books available to help me and others deepen the conversation.

Martha Troian is a multi-media journalist interested in politics, investigative, and long-form storytelling. @ozhibiiige