Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton

Fatty Legs is the first of two books written by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton based on her personal experience in one of Canada's residential schools in Canada's far north. Margaret who was born Olemaun Pokiak, belonged to the Inuvialuit, or Canadian Western Inuit who inhabit the western Arctic. Olemaun had made the trip to Aklavik several times with her father when she was quite young. She was fascinated by the French-speaking nuns and priests. When her older half-sister, Ayouniq - called Rosie by the nuns, read part of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Olemaun, she became determined to attend the school and learn to read.

But Ayouniq warns her younger sister that life in the school is not as she imagines it will be. Her beautiful long braid will be cut and she will have to do chores and kneel for forgiveness. When Olemaun asks her father to send her to the school he refuses. Although he knows how to read he doesn't value the learning taught in the school over the skills learned at home. But Olemaun believes her experiences at the school will be different. Her persistence pays off and Olemaun is allowed to attend the school. Like those before her, Olemaun finds herself completely unprepared for life in the residential school at Aklavik. Even worse, she finds herself stranded there for an extra year when the ice does not fully melt.


Fatty Legs is based on Olemaun Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's childhood and her first two years in a residential school in Aklavik. Olemaun's father had warned her the outsiders will offer her no new skills and that their ways are not useful to the Inuit. "They make you wear their scratchy outsiders' clothes, which keep out neither the mosquitoes nor the cold. They teach you their songs and dances instead of your own. And they tell you that the spirit inside of you is bad and needs their forgiveness."  Olemaun is so keen to attend the school that she successfully argues against her father. Her initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened when she leaves her parents and is taken by the nuns. From the moment she enters the care of the nuns, her First Nations identity is broken down. Olemaun has her hair cut along with the other new girls and their beautifully handcrafted clothing, warm and suitable for the far North climate is removed and replaced with uncomfortable, ill-fitting clothing that is not warm. And the nuns are less than friendly.

Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
To convey how the Aboriginal children viewed the nuns, the authors use adjectives that portray the religious nuns as cruel, predatory animals. The nuns are described as "the spectacle of dark-cloaked nuns, whose tongues flickered with French-Canadian accents" evoking a image of snakes or reptiles.  Olemaun is met inside the school by a nun who is description reads like a predatory bird; "An outsider with a hooked nose like a beak came for me, her scraping footsteps echoing through the long, otherwise silent halls."  Olemaun describes the nun who cuts her braids off in the same way, "I can fix my own hair," I protested in Inuvialuktun, but she held tight and, with the same motion a bird makes to pull a piece of flesh from a fish, clamped the jaws of shears down on my braid and severed it."  When Olemaun goes to put on the stockings her mother has purchased for her they are snatched from her by a nun "with a scaly claw."  But Olemaun's true nemesis is a hook-nosed nun she nicknames " the Raven".  The Raven "shrieks" , cackles and "scuttles" around the girls mocking Olemaun for using shaving cream to clean her teeth.

But not all the nuns are remembered as cruel. Margaret Pokiak-Fenton describes the head nun in very different terms. "A tall slender nun appeared in the doorway. She was pale and seemed to float across the bathroom floor...She looked like a pale swan, long and elegant." That nun was Sister MacQuillan. When the Raven is about to strike Olemaun for spilling her cabbage soup on her, "Then Sister MacQuillan glided between us, the Swan protecting me with her gentle wing." The Raven frequently singled Olemaun out for extra chores as she was "wilful" and had a strong character. To further punish Olemaun, the Raven makes her wear red stockings that make her well muscled legs look large. This leads to her classmates laughing at her and calling Olemaun "fatty legs". But Olemaun figures out a way to get rid of the stockings forever and it is Sister MacQuillan who understands.

Liz Amini-Holmes' artwork reinforces the dark nature of the nuns with their ghastly white faces set off by their dark habits and widows peak caps. At times the nuns look like vampires and in this respect,  the artwork seems a bit overdone.

Young readers, whom this book is geared towards, will quickly understand why Olemaun and the other Aboriginal children did not like the residential schools. These schools were designed by the white Canadians who lived in the south and who did not understand the particular character of the far North climate nor the ways and culture of the peoples who lived there. Their intentions were to educate the children and to assimilate them, the first a noble goal but the second a definite product of the belief that white Western culture was the only culture of merit. The effect of the schools on the children is demonstrated by Olemaun when she returns to her family after only two years. Her mother doesn't recognize her, she finds their food greasy, salty and strong smelling.

The authors round out this short biography with a chapter about the residential schools and a wonderful section titled Olemaun's Scrapbook which contains plenty of fascinating black and white photographs of her family, of the towns her family visited, the residential school in Aklavik, the students and the nuns and brothers at the school and Catholic mission in the North West Territories and many more interesting subjects.

You can learn more about Inuvialuit culture from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation website.

The Canadian Museum of History also has a good section on Inuvialuit history that has been pieced together from various sources including traditional oral histories, archaeological research and the writings of those who lived and explored the far north.

A second book, A Stranger At Home was published in 2011 and is the sequel to Fatty Legs.

Book Details:

Fatty Legs: A true story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Toronto: Annick Press   2010
104 pp.

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