Books that educate kids about Indian residential schools

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission shares stories of the impact of natives having their children taken from them by the Canadian government and put in schools to try to assimilate them

Illustration from Shin-chi’s Canoe

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched 13 years ago as part of a settlement to residential school survivors. The aim was to gather information and listen to the stories of survivors and their families. More than 150,000 children were taken from their homes and forced to attend these schools, which were established by the Canadian government to assimilate First Nations children. The horrible truth about how these kids were treated was released five years ago and it ripped a band-aid off Canada’s history, exposing a deep wound that will take a long time to heal. Below are some books that will teach your kids about this part of Canadian history.


Shin-chi’s Canoe (Groundwood Books, $18.95)
by Nicola Campbell – Ages 4 -7

In this sequel to the touching book Shi-shi-etko, which was about a young girl in the days before her departure to a residential school, we meet her brother Shin-chi. It is now his turn to leave for school, but thankfully, he has Shi-shi-etko to guide him. She helps him prepare for the experience by asking their mother to cut their hair before they arrive at school so they don’t have to suffer the humiliation of having it done there. She also tells Shin-chi that he must remember all the beauty of their homeland, from the mountains to the trees to the river, in the same way that their family members  did when they left for school. Once at school, she gives Shin-chi a small wooden canoe made by their father; this emblem keeps him connected to his culture and conjures up memories of home, which in turn gives him the strength to survive the hard work and long days until summer, when he will be able to return to his family. By having Shi-shi-etko describe her first year at residential school in an age-appropriate fashion for young kids, readers can learn about the conditions of the schools and feel the heartache experienced by families as they were pulled apart.


Not My Girl (Annick Press, $9.95)
by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton – Ages 7 to 10

This mother and daughter-in-law duo has penned several children’s books that expose different facets of the impact residential schools had on children. In this book, they look at how children were often marginalized by their communities once they returned from these “outsider” schools. Margaret is returning to her Inuit community after two years. She has a new name, her hair has been cut short and she speaks a new language that has replaced her mother tongue. When she steps off the boat and meets her mother on the dock, her mother greets her with some of the few words she knows in English: “Not my girl.”  The tension between Margaret and her mother is eventually broken when her father welcomes her back into the family. However, the challenges for Margaret do not end there. Not only does she struggle with re-assimilating back into her culture – from the food to the way of life – she is rejected by the other members of the community, who will not come near her. This is a picture book with illustrations that capture the subtle beauty and harsh landscape of Canada’s North, but some of the themes may be difficult for younger children to grasp. The heartbreak of a child experiencing rejection is palpable and it becomes increasingly clear that for many residential school children, the experience left them in a no man’s land, straddling two worlds where they weren’t accepted.


Sugar Falls (Portage & Main Press, $16)
by David Alexander Robertson – Ages 15 and up

In this devastatingly honest graphic novel, a student has an assignment to interview a residential school survivor. His friend’s grandmother, Betsy, agrees to tell her story, which begins when her mother abandoned her (she was also a residential school survivor) at the age of 5.

This event portrays how First Nations children began to be victimized by this system even before arriving at the schools; their parents were already damaged by their experience and, having been separated from their own parents at such a young age, did not learn how to parent.

Thankfully, a loving family took Betsy in and her adoptive father teaches her the beauty of the traditions and beliefs of their culture. He could not prevent her, however, from being taken away to a residential school. The stark black and white illustrations convey the lifelessness of the schools. The girls are emaciated and wear loose, non-descript garments that remove any sense of self. The book doesn’t shy away from the horrors endured by the children, such as incidents of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, or the death of one of the students when she attempts to escape by swimming across a river. Betsy’s resilience and strength were derived from the values instilled in her by her father, and, as hard as these schools attempted to wipe the culture out of its students, it was precisely those deep roots that allowed them to survive. Based on a true story, Betsy’s experience will stay with readers for a long time as they realize that this experience was lived by thousands of children across Canada.