Ruby Slipperjack, the author of this 2016 addition to the Dear Canada series, is herself a residential school survivor, and very possibly brings some of her own remembrances to this historical fiction novel. Slipperjack is an Anishinabe speaker from the Eabametoong First Nations in northern Ontario, and her experience would be similar to thousands of residential school children across Canada in the 1960’s. She obtained her PHD from the University of Western Ontario and is currently a full professor of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University.
These Are My Words is aimed at mature readers in Grade 5-9, interested in historical fiction, Canadian history, and residential schools in Canada.
Many schools observe Orange Shirt Day (September 30) and Slipperjack primarily addresses this theme of loss throughout her novel. The protagonist, Violet, has everything that she brought from home confiscated upon arrival at her residential school. She is issued a school uniform and a number. Letters, and other personal writing, such as her diary, are subject to censorship, and often thrown away. The students are forbidden to speak in their own language, and Violet invents ways to remember when she realizes she is forgetting her Anishinabe words. Violet’s first person voice, through her diary entries, is strong as she expresses her profound loneliness and need to see her mother, and especially the grandmother who raised her. However, the mood is not entirely dismal, and Slipperjack balances her story with many happy anecdotes – Violet was a good student who loved her lessons and the new experience of a different teacher for each subject; she had a good appetite and even liked most of the new foods, eventually buying a cook book of her own; some of the staff and students smiled and were kind, although never overly friendly. The cleaning chores that she learned came in useful when she got her first summer job. The disappointment when quarantine canceled her Christmas break is balanced by the joy of going home for an extended break at Easter.
Some cautions to note: There is a brief reference to Violet’s developing maturity (first period, first bra), to an incident when a stranger offered her a ride and she ran away, and to an older girl who complained of a doctor who “touched her in places that she didn’t think had anything to do with a check-up”. Most mature readers are aware of these issues, and the incidents are presented briefly, in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner that gives an honest, sensitive portrayal of life for girls far from home. With a middle school audience in mind, Slipperjack focuses primarily on the psychological stress of loss endured by residential school students.
This story, from a female point of view, could be paired with Goodbye Buffalo Bay (by Larry Loyie and reviewed in this database) for the male perspective.
Brief endnotes provide some factual information on the number of residential students and schools between 1800 and the last school closure in 1998. There is reference to the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the life-long effects on adult school survivors, and the apologies that have been given by government and religious institutions. Also included are eight archival photographs, and a map of school locations in Canada. It is a place to start for students interested in doing further research on the issue.
Written in the first person, using a diary format, this is a useful novel for teaching voice, and writing format (both journal and letter writing). Useful for Social Studies (residential schools), FNMI stories, and for writing and reading programs that focus on the historical fiction genre.