by David Alexander Robertson
Maybe I’d been spoiled.
For 10 years, my books usually avoided controversy, although some of them dealt with heavy subjects. My picture book, graphic novels and young-adult novels met kids at their level because I worked with educators, Indigenous Elders and cultural advisers to ensure the content was accurate, age appropriate and culturally sensitive.
My books are used in classrooms and school libraries across Canada. My picture book and graphic novels get the most use, and that was always the plan. Images and words make a powerful team that allows students to draw meaning and generate empathy. That’s important in this business of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
In the fall of 2018, I learned of a book review website created by Edmonton Public Schools. The website listed books to weed out of school libraries and classrooms. The books were primarily by Indigenous writers. My graphic novel series 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga—a four-part epic that follows one Cree family over three centuries—along with several other books were “not recommended” for use. For 7 Generations, the reviewers had multiple concerns: “The graphic novel series contains sensitive subject matter and visual inferencing of abuse regarding residential schools. These titles are not independent reads as they require pre- and post-conversations with students regarding the legacy of residential schools and therefore not recommended.”
A growing number of Indigenous creators are writing important own voices stories that help make a teacher’s job (for example, having pre- and post-conversations with students) a bit easier. Own voices refers to marginalized characters who are written by authors from the marginalized group; they have lived experience. It’s counterproductive to have administrative bodies ostensibly take these valuable resources away. While Edmonton Public Schools didn’t intend to suggest these books be made unavailable, that’s what happened. One teacher who asked to remain anonymous messaged me. He was told to stop teaching Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story, another book of mine, because it appeared on a similar list created by Alberta Education, the provincial ministry of education.
It would’ve been easy to get upset, but I’ve been doing this work long enough to know the reason these things happen. I, and others, have more work to do. It’s a question of readiness, and the answer can be found in the history of representation.
When I was a kid, I read comics. Historically, Indigenous representation in comics could be boiled down to stereotypes perpetuated by popular culture. The Dead Indian. The Noble Savage. The Savage Indian. These representations influenced perceptions, and they still exist today. The most effective response is making accurate depictions available. Representations of truth were not readily available when I was a kid. They are now, and we need to give them to, not take them away from, children of all ages.
Edmonton Public Schools took the list down due to public pressure. It felt like a small victory, but it was just a band-aid on a gaping wound. It’s said that overcoming the impact of historical trauma, as it pertains to the treatment of Indigenous people, will take seven generations. Because we still live in colonial Canada, the clock has yet to start. A gaping wound needs time to heal. And there is more work to do than take a list down.
This work needs to happen at the grassroots by Canadians who recognize that they have a role in reconciliation and take meaningful action toward collective healing. This can be as simple as placing an own voices book in the hands of kids and showing them truths that have long been ignored, so they can make better decisions for us in the future.
David A. Robertson (darobertson.ca) is the author of books for young readers. They include When We Were Alone, which won a 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. A sought-after speaker and educator, David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and lives in Winnipeg.
Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2020.