Mother outraged after school sends 'triggering' residential school book home to 3rd graders

Truth-telling critical part of teaching residential schools, says author of I Am Not a Number

A mother from Hay River, N.W.T., says she's upset after her son's school sent the third grader home with a graphic book about an eight-year-old girl being mistreated in residential school.

She said she only realized how triggering the book is after she started reading it to her son — partway through the first page, she said they both started crying.

The book is called I am Not a Number. The story is about a girl who was taken from her home to attend a residential school. One of the authors, Jenny Kay Dupuis, based the story on her grandmother's experience.

The book includes some graphic details, like the child being burned with a hot pan as punishment and being hit with a wooden spoon for speaking her language.

The book is rated for readers aged seven to 10.

The story hit close to home for the Hay River mother, whose own mother attended residential school. CBC has agreed not to identify the mother, as she fears her son will be bullied.

She said she wanted to teach him about the "strength in our culture before learning about the oppression." The mother said the book took that away from her.

"Explaining it to my son before I was ready is so unfair," she said.

She says her son is too young for the graphic content in the book. 

There should be a warning that the book may be triggering, and a phone number people could call if they needed support after reading it, she said.

Superintendent apologizes

The book was not part of the school's curriculum on residential schools, but was introduced as part of a project called Let's Read. The South Slave Divisional Education Council recently sent every Grade 3 student home with two books to try and encourage reading in the region.

Curtis Brown, the superintendent of the school board, said sending out I am Not a Number  was an oversight.

"We completely feel sheepish that we sent those books out without thinking about [how] it may have triggered some emotions," Brown said, adding that the books in the program have a northern and Indigenous focus to encourage discussion.

Brown said the district got the funding for the books about a month ago, and they were rushing to find suppliers who had enough northern-focused books to fill the order.

Brown said the school board is drafting a letter to apologize to students and parents, and will ask for feedback.

He said parents can return the books to the school and they'll be given an alternate book.

The Hay River mother has already returned her copy.

"I didn't want it in my house," she said.

Books shouldn't be 'thrown' into classroom

Co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis told CBC in a Twitter message that the book was written to share her family's history.

"When I was a child, I had questions. Lots of questions. Back then, I never felt I had an age appropriate book that I could read to help facilitate discussions about the truth. Instead I was given books that were full of stereotypes and misinformation," she wrote.

"Nowadays, there are many Indigenous writers who are sharing the truth. And educators, librarians, and the Indigneous community are making efforts to make space for their stories to be heard."

Teaching kids about residential schools isn't just about the facts, it's also about the community, said Paul Berg, who has written curriculums for Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, a non-profit based in Alaska that creates cultural resources for schools.

"The materials put into the classroom need to be part of a larger process — an awareness process, an education process, a sensitivity process," said Berg.

"If the materials are just thrown into the classroom it could actually be negative."

The Goldbelt Heritage Foundation introduces material on residential schools at the fourth grade.

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It's the same for the South Slave school board — they introduce it in the classroom in Grade 4 and again in Grade 10.

Aaron Paquette is a First Nations Métis speaker who hosts workshops for teachers on how to introduce residential school stories into the classroom.

Paquette did not speak about Dupuis' book specifically,  but he said it's "an inherent responsibility" for schools to teach kids about residential schools with sensitivity. Certain information should only be taught at certain ages.

"There's no reason why they should be exposed to that loss of innocence so early."

Clarification : This story has been edited to show Aaron Paquette did not speak to the CBC specifically about the book I Am Not A Number.(Feb 21, 2018 9:43 PM)