Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

A Stranger At Home continues Olemaun's (Margaret)story as she lives at home for a year and struggles to reclaim her heritage. Ten year old Margaret meets her family in Tuktoyaktuk. She is thrilled to finally be going home. She has short hair, is thin and much taller. On her feet on canvas shoes. But when she greets her mother, she refuses to believe Margaret is her daughter, shouting, "Not my daughter. Not my daughter." Margaret, separated from her family for the past two years due to a short summer, finds her excitement evaporating fast. She is saved by the warm embrace of her father who calls her by her Inuvialuktun name, Olemaun. Her eight year old sister Elizabeth, seven year old sister Mabel and two year old brother Ernest are also there to greet her.

From the very beginning Margaret has trouble adjusting back to life in her own culture. She no longer remembers how to speak Inuvialuktun and must speak in English with her father translating. She has been taught to pray and worries about her family's spiritual welfare. Her favourite foods disgust her. " I was sickened by the pungent smell of whale blubber -- muktuk, I remembered -- the salty smell of dried fish, and the musky, gamey smell of meat and whipped caribou fat...I crinkled my nose shut." For Margaret, the food was worse than what she was fed at school. Her own people's food was heavy and sickening. Seeing the difficulty she had eating made Margaret's mother cry, further adding to her distress.

Margaret wants to return to their home on Banks Island as soon as possible, believing that this will make it more likely she will never have to go back to the outsiders' school. However, her father tells her that they will now make Tuktoyaktuk their home because he can obtain work as a special constable with the RCMP. Caught between two worlds Margaret must learn to navigate in both to survive. Relying on her determination and inner strength she does just that.


A Stranger At Home which is the sequel to Fatty Legs focuses on Margaret's struggle to re-assimilate into her own culture after two years in a residential school. The authors do an excellent job of portraying the problems many First Nations children experienced when they returned home after even one or two years away from their families. Their struggles were real and complex. The lack of understanding what they were going through by their own families only compounded their pain. All of that is captured in Margaret's story.

While Margaret's mother expresses sorrow and anger over her daughter's loss of her identity, her father is more able to accept his daughter because of his previous experience attending a residential school. He understands her difficulties and patiently helps Margaret re-integrate.  As Margaret states, "He was the only one who nurtured Olemaun instead of chastising Margaret." He involves Margaret in the building of their new cabin, has her help him collect ice and teaches her how to handle the dog sled. Margaret listens during the long winter nights to the elders as they talk. Gradually over time, Margaret becomes less and less an outsider. The dogs no longer bare their teeth at her and greet her with wet kisses. She begins to relearn Inuvialuktun. She wears her mother's warm parka and her kamik. But she also loves to read and relishes the thought of have new books.

Margaret experiences tremendous internal conflict  as a result of her religious education at the residential school.  For example in the school she has been taught about God and that her family is going to go to Hell if they do not convert to Christianity. When she challenges her father about this he becomes angry. She states, "I felt like a bad Christian and a bad daughter for not trying harder to convert them." Margaret is afraid of the English-speaking missionaries whom she believes will punish her for not converting her family. Eventually from the stories told by the Inuvialuit elders, Margaret finds some comfort in the fact "that they had their own stories to give them guidance, stories that were handed down instead of being written." But she continues to struggle with her guilt because "the nuns had taught us that no one could go to Heaven without stories about Jesus." Although well meaning, sadly the Catholic missionaries used fear as a way to evangelize the Aboriginal peoples rather than demonstrating the love God has for us.

Like the previous book, Fatty Legs, A Stranger At Home includes numerous colour and black and white photographs in a section called Olemaun's Scrapbook and there is a small section titled The Schools which talks about the residential schools and their effect on the culture and families of the Aboriginal peoples.

Fatty Legs and A Stranger At Home are a much needed introduction to this difficult chapter in Canada's history.

Book Details:

A Stranger At Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Annick Press Ltd.      2011
124 pp.

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