Brief summary:“…You are 759.” I am not a number. I am Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie.” Irene lives on Nipissing First Nation with her father, (the Chief of the community), her mother and several brothers and sisters. One day an Indian agent comes to take three of them to a residential school, as they are considered to be wards of the government. If there is opposition, the parents will be fined or sent to jail. Terrified, the three go with the agent where they are separated into groups of boys and girls.
They lose their names to being called numbers instead. They have to shower in ice water, wear a uniform, and have their hair cut. Having one’s hair cut by Sister Mary was more then a simple cut. In Irene’s culture, one cuts the hair if a loved one dies. Long hair is considered beautiful and something to wear proudly. They have to eat porridge and stale bread while the nuns and teachers eat steak and potatoes. They are not allowed to speak in their native tongue. If they do, a physical lesson involving a wooden spoon or strap would be put into effect. They are forced to attend mass which is the only time Irene sees her brothers.
Summer finally comes. They are permitted to return home where they slowly tell their parents of the abusive lessons they endured; begging never to return to the school. The father hides his children when the agent comes to get them. Irene’s father lies and tells him the children are not there. The two men have a stare down. The agent does not return.
Comments: This story is based on the childhood of the author’s grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, who was an Anishinaabe woman. Photos are included. Back pages tell about the Residential School System in Canada and an afterword about these types of schools. There is also a back section explaining the laws and how they have changed. An apology is cited. I was surprised how recent the laws were put in place. I thought these type of residential schools all happened decades ago.
These are the stories that must be told, and I am thankful that Dr. Dupuis does share the horrific residential school experience of her granny. I would suggest this for intermediate students as some of the scenes are difficult but would make thoughtful and heartfelt discussions. I highly recommend this book for parents and teachers to discuss and understand how indigenous citizens were treated. The illustrations are serious and dark at times but superbly enhance and coincide with the story. I would like to see more of these stories shared to make sure this injustice never happens again to children. I feel this is a must for every library collection.
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