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Indian School Road a Necessary, Remarkable Read

It's no secret that Canada's residential schools were largely unhappy places designed to take the Indian out of the student. The fact that First Nations students who lived after the experience are called "survivors" is an appropriate use of the word—some children were malnourished, emotionally and physically abused, worked and/or neglected to their deaths. Yet knowing intellectually and abstractly that residential schools were racist and oppressive places, and reading a book about one such school right here in my home province of Nova Scotia that includes the names of organizations and people I have heard of or know, was for me a profoundly different, necessary and important experience.

Chris Benjamin's book Indian School Road, Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School (Nimbus Publishing 2014) is an expertly researched and constructed book. It opens with a thorough history of the residential school system in Canada through which government-supported, church-run schools housed and taught First Nations children, substandardly and often against their and their families' wills.

It then focuses on the construction of one particular school, the Shubenacadie Residential School, which was poorly built and inadequately funded from its opening in 1930 in central Nova Scotia, and traces experiences there until its closure in 1967. The story is unsurprisingly tragic, but the closing chapters provide readers with a glimmer of hope given more recent efforts by some people to understand, heal, apologize, reconcile, and do things better so First Nations can maintain and celebrate their culture.

Benjamin clearly spent thousands of hours digging for information, reading, interviewing, challenging, considering and crafting this book—and it paid off. His work as a journalist, nonfiction and creative writer combine to create a book that is in equal measures thorough, evidenced and emotional. Records were destroyed, government officials and many of the school's administrators, teachers and students are now dead, unreachable, or uninterested in talking, and the monumental task of piecing this narrative together was clearly daunting. Yet Benjamin does so with thoroughness and sensitivity.

My favourite story in the book comes via Rita Joe, a Shubenacadie survivor and renowned Mik'maq poet. Her time at the school is described as challenging though not entirely terrible. (Survivor experiences are greatly varied as are the memories of those who worked there.) Joe had relationships with some of the Sisters of Charity (the Catholic order that supplied the teachers) that she maintained after leaving Shubenacadie. Joe accepted an invitation to return to the school as a guest speaker. She came back in fancy clothes and bright lipstick, an act of defiance contrasting the drab and ill-fitting uniforms the students had to wear, and spoke in Mi'kmaw which was forbidden amongst students and indecipherable to the teachers. She told them in words only they would understand to return to their reserves and rediscover themselves after they left the school, that they would be safer there in their own communities surrounded by family.

I was affected by Rita Joe's story. Although she died in 2007, I've been learning that Joe overcame childhood poverty and prejudice to write about her people's history and culture, and counter negative stereotyping. She had remarkable resilience and capacity to heal and forgive.

Shubenacadie Residential School was operational a mere half-century ago. It rightfully shames us that in our not-so-distant past this existed. But to pretend it didn't, to turn away from this story because it is uncomfortable to read, is to deny the pain and lose an opportunity to learn from it so that we can be better, together. The best forms of investigative journalism shine a light into the darkest corners, and in Indian School Road Benjamin illuminates a bleak and misdirected attempt, even if originally well-intentioned, that was nothing short of a cultural genocide.

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Reader Comments (1)

definately to read this book this summer

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterromeo rubenstein

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