As we look back on 2021, the discoveries of over thirteen hundred unmarked graves at the sites of residential schools in western Canada leave us shocked. Survivors of the residential school system have long known the injustices and horrors that occurred for over a hundred years, but these new recoveries of unmarked graves have exposed this devastation to the greater population. As an educator on a journey of learning more about the horrendous history of residential schooling, I have been on the lookout for resources that will help inform this journey. The tragic history of Canada’s residential schools is being told with the help of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), a body mandated to tell Canadians about the truth of residential schools through the collection of survivors’ stories and compiling of historical evidence of what happened in these residential schools. Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation has been written for young people about Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people. In it, Monique Gray Smith begins to tell the story of those who have suffered as a result of the residential school system in an age-appropriate way. It challenges the reader to ask the following questions: What action can I take today? What action can I take with my family? What action can I take at my school? What action can I take in my community?
The book is broken down into four chapters. The first chapter is called “Welcome to the Journey.” Gray Smith uses the metaphor of a journey to describe why learning more about the history of Canada’s residential schools and Indigenous people is important. She suggests that readers need to pack for their journey “a willingness to listen to and have meaningful conversations with others, curiosity, openness, and an ability to reflect on difficult things” (14). The things one should leave behind are thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs, such as “History isn’t important” or “I, as one person, can’t make a difference” (15). Gray Smith is clear about the trauma that children taken to residential schools experienced including separation, hunger, and abuse. Young readers should seek support from an adult to talk about what physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse may have looked like for these children. The author, who identifies as both a colonizer and colonized based on her own ancestry, shares her own journey of learning more about residential schools. The chapter concludes with an overview of the seven sacred Indigenous teachings: honesty, respect, love, courage/bravery, truth, humility, and wisdom, and then delves into how each informs what it means to be a respectful, caring, and helpful citizen.
The second chapter continues the journey metaphor and is entitled “Honesty: Where Have We Come From?” Gray Smith suggests that looking back on our history can be hard to believe and difficult to hear. She stresses the importance of knowing where we have come from and where we currently are before we take the next steps to move on. She applies this to the importance of knowing the truth before we can understand the need for and importance of reconciliation. Within this chapter, the author warns that the information and stories may be upsetting and encourages readers to reach out to parents or another trusted adult for support. Stories from residential school survivors and their families, photos of people and archives, as well as a summary of historical facts from that era make this chapter both interesting and informative. Reflection questions that engage readers on both a cognitive and emotional level include “Why do you think the Government of Canada made it illegal for Indigenous people to practice their ceremonies?” (39), “What year did the last Residential School in your province/territory close?” (48), and “How do you think it would feel to be referred to by a number instead of your name?” (51).
The third chapter, “Love: Where Do We Stand Today?” encourages readers to consider love as a means to overpower evil and heal the wounds created by the residential schools. Gray Smith suggests that Canada’s journey of reconciliation requires love that “is rooted in respect and honors the uniqueness of each individual” (80), a response that was rarely practiced in the residential school experience. This chapter includes stories from both young people aged nine to thirteen years old and adults who were interviewed in order to share their understanding of reconciliation. The history lesson continues with information about the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the apology made by Canada’s prime minister Steven Harper, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the events that followed. Again, readers are challenged to self-reflect as they consider questions such as “What does it mean to apologize?” (88) and “Where do you see your community taking action?” (96).
The final chapter, “Kindness and Reciprocity: Where Do We Go From Here?” suggests that the journey of reconciliation is a process in which we will need to continue to grow, heal, learn, and find our way forward. Gray Smith describes reconciliation as an ongoing journey that can be likened to building bridges.
Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation, by Monique Gray Smith (Orca Books, 2017)
Dr. Edith van der Boom is Assistant Professor of the Philosophy of Education and the Practice of Pedagogy, as well as Director of the Master of Arts in Philosophy in Educational Leadership at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario. With over thirty-four years of experience as an educator in both K–8 schools and university settings, she acknowledges that she has benefited from privileges due to the white color of her skin and is on a journey to become more aware of the racial and cultural injustices within our world and specifically in our classrooms.