I Am Not A Number is a picture book that presents in a way most suitable for young children, the reality of the residential school situation that existed in Canada for a century and a half. The picture book tells the story of author Jenny Kay Dupuis's grandmother Irene Couchie Dupuis who was sent to a residential school for one year.
Irene Couchie was an Anishinaabe girl growing up on the shores of beautiful Lake Nipissing in the early 1920's. She lived with her mother, her father who was chief of their community and her siblings. Their life was simple with plenty of healthy food but none of the basics such as running water or electricity. Aboriginal culture placed a strong emphasis on family. In 1928 when Irene was a mere eight years old, an Indian Agent came to their home and told Irene's parents they had to give up their children so they could attend the residential school. Irene and her two brothers were placed in the Spanish Indian Residential School for the year, against the wishes of her parents. It was a lonely year for Irene who was separated from her brothers and forbidden to speak her mother tongue.
The residential school system was in existence for some time before the 1800's but by the 1830's most Christian denominations in Canada were running some schools. It was the treaties and agreements from 1870's onward which shaped the residential schools in Canada. The government of Canada was obliged to assimilate aboriginal peoples into "Canadian" culture and it was decided that the residential school system was the best way to accomplish this. At first many First Nations people also agreed that learning how to live in the new European-Canadian culture would be beneficial but the schools did not live up to their expectations. Families were separated, children grew up disconnected from their parents, their culture and their communities. Language and customs were forgotten.
Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer capture all of this and more in this short, simple story based on the life of Dupuis' grandmother. The story is accompanied by Gillian Newland's beautifully expressive watercolour illustrations. The illustrations are done in browns, beige and black mimicking the sad subject matter of the book. The picture book's title is a reference to the common practice in residential schools of assigning aboriginal children a number rather than using their given name.
For those who would like to learn more about the Residential schools check out the Canadian Encyclopedia entry.
To explore the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada please visit this website as well as the archived TRC website.
I Am Not A Number by Jenny Jay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Second Story Press 2016