Indigenous issues have certainly come into the forefront of Canadian publishing in the last little while – especially the tragic situation of the residential school system upon the First Nations communities. Yet, as I documented some of those works here, I have been finding that there is international interest in some of those works as well. So it seems fitting that I mention here children’s book I Am Not A Number written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Illustrated by Gillian Newland.
From I Am Not A Number
The dark figure, backlit by the sun filled the doorway of our home on Nipissing Reserve Number 10.
“I’m here for the children,” the shadowy giant said, point a long finger at me. “You! How old?’
I shrank behind my mother. Here for the Children?
“How old?” he repeated.
“Eight.” The whisper floated from my mouth.
The Indian agent marched into our house and approached my father. “You knew I would come, Ernest,” he said. “The children are going with me to the residential school. They are wards of the government, now They belong to us.”
“Not Irene! She needs to be with her family.” My mother wrapped her arms around me. “I won’t let you take her.”
The man shrugged. “Give me all three or you’ll be fine or sent to jail.”
“We have no choice, Mary Ann,” my father replied, sounding defeated. “It was only a matter of time before they came for the children.”
Fear rose inside me, filling my throat. My brothers George and Ephraim stood with their heads bowed low. Are they as scared as I am? I wondered. My other brothers and sisters, those too old and too young to be taken, huddled together, watching.
The brutal actions of the residential schools and the effects they had on Canada’s Indigenous population is for many people just coming to light now. This book does a great job in telling the story of how children were taken away from their parents and forced to endure severe institutional conditions all in the name of ‘betterment.’
The illustrations in the book are bold and daring. They are muted when the protagonist’s mood is saddened and brightened when she is surrounded by the clutches of her family. Those changes help any reader of any age build empathy with the situation and gain understanding of the tragic events of the residential school system.
The story is vivid and honest. A reader can sense the emotions of the protagonist with its use of simple, clear terms. No doubt this book should be included in the list of books that are bringing awareness to the issues of Indigenous peoples.
Afterword by Jenny Kay Dupuis
I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Granny’s father was chief of the community, and her mother looked after their fourteen children. The Couchie house was modest, with no electricity or running water. Everyone helped with daily chores. They didn’t have a lot of material goods, but they valued family, and that was more important than almost anything else.
In 1928, when Irene was still a young girl, she and her two brothers were taken from their community of Nipissing First Nation to live at Spanish Indian Residential School. While she was a student there, Irene suffered neglect and abuse. She and the others were regularly strapped or shamed for not following the many harsh school rules. The children were not permitted any regular contact with their parents. Their names were replaced by numbers. My granny’s number was 759.
I Am Not A Number – written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer/illustrated by Gillian Newland – is a bold book that is enlightening readers about the situation that that Indigenous People of Canada endured in the Residential School System. A great read for people of all ages who view it.