The story in this graphic novel begins in a high school at the point at which an assignment is given to a class to examine the question of residential schools. The novel is directed at young people but equally informative for adult readers. Daniel is the student doing the assignment and his fellow student, April, offers to help him with his project by putting him in touch with her grandmother (her Kokum) who is a survivor of the residential school system. April arranges a meeting between Daniel and her Kokum at the latter’s workplace. April’s Kokum explains that the story must be told in the Round Room which contains all the sacred medicines and allows her sit on the star blanket of the four directions where she will be safe. April’s Kokum wears traditional clothing and explains that this is always brightly coloured because of the bland clothing that the students were made to wear in the residential schools. Kokum also explains that she is holding the eagle feather “to honour the past and move forward with courage, honesty, and truth.” She lights some sweet grass and prays: “Here in this circle of life where we are cleansed we can trust in this momentous time.” She helps Daniel get started by telling him that she thinks it will work best if he asks her a question and so he does. “Why did you have to go to the residential school?”Kokum explains that she must start at the beginning when she was about five years old and was tossed out of the house. What she didn’t know at the time about her mother was that she had been a survivor of the residential school system. The young Kokum had to shelter under an overturned canoe for a very long time. She was
But when she was eight years old things changed again and she had to go away to a residential school. Before she went her father took her to a place called Sugar Falls and gave her the best advice he could.
He told her that “Relationships…that’s where we find our strength as a people. The beat of the drum represents the strength in our relationships, between our ancestors, our traditions with Mother Earth, and with each other. Knowing this will keep you strong. Always remember these teachings by thinking of our time here at Sugar Falls.”
Kokum went to residential school but not without considerable resistence. That resistence continued until she figured out ways to cope with it. Her story is one that everyone should read and be fully aware of in order to understand what she and others in North America went through at the hands of those who claimed to know best.
What do you know about the Residential Schools in your country? What do you think it would be like to be put in such a school where instructors spoke a language very different from yours and you were not allowed to use your own language? If this happened to you when you were only eight, do you think you would have been able to forget it?
This slim volume would be an excellent resource in the hands of adults who are in a position to educate young people regarding the gross indignities which have been practiced upon their fellow Canadians and thereby expand their understanding of their fellow citizens: an excellent introduction which could be expanded by further research.
Used independently, this book has much to teach and will encourage further investigation. As Kokum says to Daniel when he thanked her for telling him her story: “You honoured me by asking to hear it. Telling these stories is how we will create change. We need to look at the past to teach others our stories and then look forward, together, with knowledge and healing.”
“Sugar Falls is based on the true story of Betty Ross, Elder from Cross Lake First Nation” -from inside back cover.
“This book was created in remembrance and respect for those who attended residential schools and those who were affected by their legacy.” -also from inside back cover
Note: the book does not say that it is sweet grass that is burned but it seems likely that it was. If I have been mistaken, please let me know.