I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer; Illustrated by Gillian Newland
It’s difficult to believe that not too long ago the government of Canada issued a law that allowed them to forcibly remove children from the care and love of their parents in order to place them into residential schools. This was done (I would argue) not to better the lives of the First Nations children and family members themselves–but the lives of the newly settled Europeans. The first people of Canada were simply too “wild,” too “uncivilized,” and most obviously “not Christian.” They were scary. Therefore, they and their culture needed speedy assimilation into the now dominant culture and religion. And so a war on the First Nations people and their culture began… all done in the name of God and enforced by government law.
It’s a black mark in the history of Canada (and the history of Christianity).
I am Not a Number recounts the true story of Irene Couchie Dupuis as she is taken from her home in Nipissing First Nation by a government agent and placed in a residential school where her name is replaced by a number. This is a harsh story of child abuse told from a very gentle and loving point of view (through the eyes of Irene). The result is a heartfelt story of family love in an era of painful racism. Spoiler Alert: You will cry, but it ends on a happy note:) It also contains some great back matter on the history of residential schools as well as an Afterword by the author Jenny Kay Dupuis who is the granddaughter of Irene.
You may be asking yourself, “Why would I want to read my child a story like this?” But for those of us who were raised by grandparents or parents that endured the residential school system these stories are indispensable. They are like rays of light. They help us make sense of the trauma our families carry. They help us to teach our children our history.
Having a grandmother who went to residential school, I cannot tell you how much I wish I had books like I Am Not a Number on my book shelf (when I grew up there were zero books with First Nations children in them). Thankfully, it is not too late to begin making sense of the darkness our families endured.
However, if you have no ties to the residential school system, these books are still great opportunities to raise awareness with children regarding dangerous government policies that incorporate the harassment of children as a means to control unwanted cultures. (If you know what I mean #familiesbelongtogether.)
Ultimately, I think it’s as Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Keeping fear at bay in the face of change is key to keeping our character intact.