Allison's Book Bag

The Issue of Residential Schools

Posted on: June 25, 2014

My name is Olemaun Pokiak—but some of my classmates called me “Fatty Legs”. They called me that because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous. But I put an end to it. How? Well, I am going to let you in on a little secret that I have kept for more than 60 years: the secret of how I made those stockings disappear.

The above introduction comes from Fatty Legs, a true story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. If you look the book up on Annick Press page, you’ll find that it won awards from the Canadian Children’s Book Center, the Cybils (Blogger Literary Award), USBBY (International Book List), to name a few notable categories. Christy is the daughter and Margaret the mother-in-law in this writing pair duo. Together, they have now written four books about Margaret’s difficult childhood as a young Inuit child growing up in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I’ll review them this month.

AUTHORS

Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Photo from Coastal Reporter
http://www.coastreporter.net/entertainment/arts-entertainment/tales-of-the-true-and-traditional-1.1052662

As I was unable to find other sources, what follows is a paraphrase of the biography of Christy Jordan-Fenton from Annick Press: Christy grew up on an Alberta farm, where it was common for her to find lambs, calves, and foals in the bathroom on early spring mornings. She has always loved horses and the mountains. Brandings, cattle drives, and rodeos were regularly attended events. Camping remains a favorite activity.

During her teens, Christy moved to Ontario to live with her aunt and uncle. There, she attended a rural high school composed of students who came from six different communities. Her greatest accomplishments were secretly “composing volumes of poetry during math classes and reading nearly every book by Mordecai Richler during lectures”.

For several years, Christy fell under the travel bug. In her final semester of high school, Christy joined the infantry reserve and spent the next few years at different bases. Christy was then accepted to a university in Vermont to study Peace, War, and Diplomacy. While there, she was “part of the Mountain Cold Weather Special Operations Company, played rugby, and often road crazy carpets down the school’s ski hill”. During her senior university year, Christy was awarded a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to study at the University of Queensland in Australia. When she returned to the United States, she developed a leadership challenge program for disadvantaged youth as well as taught wilderness survival. Next, she headed off to South Africa, where “her fondest memories are of reading stories to street children at night”.

Eventually, Western Canada became home to Christy again. She and her husband now live on a farm in British Columbia, which they share with her mother-in-law Margaret, three children, three dogs, several horses, and even a llama and some rogue rabbits. A desire to raise her children with a healthy sense of self-esteem rekindled her passion for Native issues. Christy expresses gratitude that her mother-in-law not only shared her residential school experiences with her but also gave her the chance to write about them.

The only biographical information I was able to find on Margaret Pokiak-Fenton also comes from Annick Press. Margaret was born on a tiny island far north of the Arctic Circle. She spent her early years on Banks Island. When she was eight years old, Margaret travelled to the mainland to attend the Catholic residential school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, events of which have been described in Fatty Legs and subsequent books. In her early twenties, while working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Tuktoyaktuk, Margaret met husband-to-be. Together, they have raised eight children. Margaret can be found most Saturdays at the local farmer’s market, where she sells traditional Inuit crafts, along with bread and bannock.

CULTURAL SETTING

Teachers interested in using Fatty Legs and subsequent books with their students should be aware of the local context with regards to residential schools. According to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, with the last school closing in 1996. During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture.

On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government of Canada, delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons to former students, their families, and communities for Canada’s role in the operation of the residential schools. According to The Contemporary Church History Quarterly, during 1991-1998, all of the churches involved in the schools also issued formal apologies for their respective roles in the schools. The churches have continued to work toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

As further background to the issue of residential schools, you are encouraged to read the article: They Came For The Children. Published by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Of Canada, the report is divided into several chapters which investigate the reasons behind the Canadian government’s initiative to implement the residential school system. It provides detailed accounts of the experiences lived and witnessed by several former residential school students. Furthermore, the report examines the long-term implications that the residential school system carries for the aboriginal community.

ONLINE RESOURCES

There’s a general consensus with Stephen Harper’s apology that there needs to be education and this needs to be in the curriculum, but there’s really just been so few resources out there.

–Christy Jordan-Fenton, The Tyee

The Tyee has posted an article about the authors, the books, and even information about residential schools. It’s called A Residential School Story Kids Will Love.

The Edmonton Regional Consortium has a two-part webinar, along with handouts and resources at: Fatty Legs Webinar Series The first webinar introduces the authors. The second webinar presents a teacher who shares how she has used the book with her grade-seven students.

REVIEWS

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