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Truth, storytelling and conversations about residential schools

Author David Robertson and his book, When We Were Alone
Author David Robertson

The power of storytelling in education

This year as we mark Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we're focusing on how to have conversations about reconciliation and residential schools with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our team will be observing the day with a session facilitated by author David Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation who writes stories about Indigenous culture and communities. The session he's hosting for BC Hydro employees will focus on engaging in conversations about reconciliation and residential schools with kids and adults.

Between 2007 and 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences. Its multi-volume final report included 94 calls to action to further reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous Peoples.

One of those calls to action asked the government to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to grade twelve students across Canada.

"I felt like the calls were asking a lot of teachers," says David Robertson. "At the time, they weren't supported enough to do that work."

"My central focus has always been education. I think it's important to have Indigenous stories represented in literature in ways that are accessible to everyone," says David.

His books for young readers have won numerous awards including the Governor General's Literary Award.

David's book, When We Were Alone, shares the story of a young girl noticing things about her grandmother. As the girl asks questions, her grandmother shares her experiences in a residential school. The book has become an important part of the curriculum for kindergarten and is used by teachers and librarians in schools across the country. It's available in English, French, and Cree.

"I was doing a reading for a classroom in Winnipeg and there was a group of Cree kids and they all said that hearing their language was their favourite part of the book," says David.

Meeting people where they're at

We often hear from Indigenous leaders that you can't have reconciliation without truth. Having conversations and sharing the impact and legacy of residential schools is essential to this. One of the key things when having difficult discussions about residential schools is meeting people where they're at, whether that's their age-level or knowledge and experience.

"When writing for kids, I find it's helpful to strip ideas down to the simple, core principles of your message. Kids are smart, so you don't want to write down to them, but you also don't want to present ideas that are too complicated. When We Were Alone looks more at the principles of identity than it does at the trauma of the grandmother's residential school experience. The trauma is inferred and implied. Kids can see into the lives of someone else through the book, connect with the basics of identity and build empathy."

When talking about reconciliation or residential schools with adults, meeting people where they're at becomes even more important. People can have different levels of knowledge and different perspectives depending on their own personal experiences and education.

"I grew up without knowing any residential school history. It wasn't taught when I was in school," says David. "When I first learned about it in my 20s, I was shocked – I thought that kind of thing couldn't happen in Canada. For an adult you have to alter how they've been taught to see things and then present the truth. There's an active breaking down and building back up."

David has a number of books available for readers of all ages. You can order them online from Strong Nations, an independent Indigenous bookseller based in B.C. You can also check out his CBC podcast, Kiwew, where he dives into his family's history and connects with his Cree identity.