Starting with Truth: 6 Residential School Memoirs to Read for Those Seeking Truth and Reconciliation

A photo of the 6 RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL MEMOIRS in a stack

In their final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called on all Canadians to take action. Because similar to our democracy, reconciliation is not a spectator sport, it requires action from us all.

The Commission also recognized that any action needs to be built on a strong foundation of truth and understanding. In that vein, I’ve often been asked for book recommendations with the question “What’s a good book to start with?”. Here is my attempt to answer that question.

Each of the books listed below helped me better understand Canada’s truth through the eyes of the authors, all of who directly experienced the residential school system. They use their powerful voice as a residential school survivor, each with unique personal stories and styles, to share important first-hand truths about Canada’s colonial residential school system and the legacy which we are still experiencing today.

Obviously, our colonial truth doesn’t end in the past with residential schools but, if you’re a settler like myself, these memoirs are a pretty good place to start.

THE EDUCATION OF AUGIE MERASTY: A RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL MEMOIR – By Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

“A story in which our entire nation has an obscure and dark complicity.” – David Carpenter

Determined to tell his story before he passed on, residential school survivor Augie Merasty sought the help of David Carpenter who ultimately worked to turn his hand-written letters in to this important memoir, finally published in 2015. In less than 100 pages, this book covers Augie’s near decade spent at St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, SK. He doesn’t hold back about the horrible abuse and suffering he and others experienced while there. While his strong sense of humour shines throughout, it is at times graphic and very tough, even brutal, to read. But as the review on the cover says this book is, “Heartbreaking and important”. All the more important that his story was preserved given that Augie has since passed away, back in February of 2017.

MY DECADE AT OLD SUN, MY LIFETIME OF HELL – By Arthur Bear Chief

“Often fear is the only emotion that comes when we are unsure of the unknown. I took a courageous step in my approach to the unknown by writing this book in hopes that it will help me in my journey of healing and recovery from my abuse at Old Sun Residential School.” –Arthur Bear Chief

Arthur Bear Chief is straightforward and blunt as he shares the story of his decade spent at Old Sun Residential School in Gleichen on the Siksika Nation, the lasting impacts on his life, and his attempts to re-connect with his Blackfoot culture. In his deeply personal book, he details the hellish abuse experienced at the school, his courage in testifying as part of the residential school survivor law suit against the federal government, and his hopes for future generations. There were definitely moments where I found it tough to keep reading. It often left me feeling gutted, frustrated and deeply angry… with our governments, our legal system, bureaucracies, lawyers, and just about everyone else. But reading Arthur’s memoir also provides a story of hope, highlighting the power of personal and collective healing.

THEY CALLED ME NUMBER ONE: SECRETS AND SURVIVAL AT AN INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL – By Bev Sellars

Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars’ award winning memoir takes the reader on a journey of three generations of women in her family – her grandmother, her mother and herself. All were forced to attend the St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, BC, a school now infamous for the sexual abuse that happened there. Jam-packed with information and powerfully written, you can feel her sadness, her suffering and her anger while candidly sharing such a deeply personal yet important family story. But this memoir goes well beyond a story of residential schools and survival, to tackling systematic racism and the need to decolonize, to live, and to thrive.

*This memoir left me wanting to hear more from Chief Sellars. Thankfully she continues to share her vast knowledge through her second book, which you can learn more about here.

BROKEN CIRCLE: THE DARK LEGACY OF INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS –A Memoir by Theodore Fontaine

“Told as remembrances described with insights that have evolved through his healing, his story resonates with his resolve to help himself and other residential school survivors and to share his enduring belief that one can pick up the shattered pieces and use them for good.”

Starting at the young age of 7, Theodore Fontaine was forced to attend the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School and later the Assiniboia Indian Residential School. His memoir tells the story of those twelve years of physical, mental and sexual abuse, followed by a decade of self-destruction while trying to cope. Eventually Ted is able to move from self-destruction, to survival, to confidence and reconciliation. This is a powerfully written and thoughtful read.

GOODBYE BUFFALO BAY: A TRUE STORY OF LIFE IN A RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL… AND OF MOVING ON –By Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden

Done in a youth chapter book format, Cree Author Larry Loyie shares his story as a survivor of the St. Bernard Residential School on Buffalo Bay; leading to the loss of his traditional ways, his feelings of being a stranger in his own community while attempting to re-enter the world afterwards, and ultimately moving on beyond his anger with the support of his family. As Larry’s confidence grows, so do his experiences, making for an interesting adventure-filled story about strength, friendship, community and resilience. Larry uses a humorous style combined with easy to read prose making this a small and accessible book. *Note: This book is part of a series; a list of other titles by Larry Loyie can be found here.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR: THE ESSENTIAL HISTORY OF RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS –From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

While not exactly a personal memoir, this book was produced using a mix of research, reports and survivor testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It contains a perfect mix of history, facts and personal stories and really should be essential reading for anyone seeking to be informed on the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Looking to dive deeper? Here are some other Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada publications:

THEY CAME FOR THE CHILDREN: CANADA, ABORIGINAL PEOPLES, AND RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS –By the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

A straightforward and concise book produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, with the goal of educating Canadians on the intent, implementation, experiences, and legacy of residential schools.

OTHER TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION OF CANADA REPORTS

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, as well as all other reports of the Commission are available to read (or can be ordered) online through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: http://nctr.ca/reports2.php

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