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Reconciliation Reading Club: Five Little Indians

As an environmental organization working in Indigenous territories, and as treaty people, LWF recognizes our obligation to actively practise reconciliation. To us, this work must include amplifying Indigenous voices, respecting Indigenous knowledge and affirming Indigenous rights.

In January 2021, LWF and the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective (LWIC) collaboratively created a reconciliation reading club. Our goal is to equip LWF and LWIC staff with knowledge, terminology and perspectives that will help us integrate actions of reconciliation and antiracism within our professional work and in our personal lives.

The topics, ideas and truths we encounter may be difficult and provoke uncomfortable feelings. Having honest conversations about the impacts of colonialism and racism are not easy, but they are incredibly important.

As we read new books, we will be sharing our reflections on our website, as well as in our newsletters and through e-updates. We invite you to join us on this learning journey.

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

This is the first book I had read since becoming a mother, and since the 2021 discovery of the 215 children found buried on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops. That number is rapidly increasing as more residential school grounds are being surveyed. To date, only 15 schools out of 139 have been surveyed, and over 1,800 graves have been found. We need to remember that these numbers are children who were loved. They were children who could have been grandmothers and grandfathers, who became ancestors too soon.

This is a hard truth. I grew up hearing stories about these unmarked graves. I grew up with these stories that traumatized and strained family, stories that have been ignored and denied by mainstream Canadian society. Although I am happy our truth can no longer be denied, the grief and the mourning weighs heavy. With each announcement of more children, I hold my baby tight at night, where no one can take her. No church, no RCMP and where she is safe from Canada.

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good tells the story of a group of friends and the different ways each of them deals with the trauma they endured at a church-run residential school. It was one of five books featured in Canada Reads 2022, an annual ‘battle of the books’ whose theme this year was “One book to connect us.”

I challenge this idea. Despite it being a good book which sheds light on common experiences of survivors, I think the way it is perceived by individuals reading it will be different based on identity. As a young Indigenous woman whose grandparents attended residential schools, whose mother attended day school and who is myself a product of the child welfare system, I wasn’t shocked by the contents of the book.

Something often expressed during reading club discussions was that this book “humanized” its characters. However, as an Indigenous person, alongside a lot of my peers, we saw our relatives in each character. We saw our grandparents, our aunts and our uncles. We saw our parents and we saw ourselves. We didn’t need our relatives to be “humanized” because for us, they have always been that: human.

Survivors and their descendants don’t owe anyone anything. For non-Indigenous folks and settlers, I think it’s crucial to unpack your own biases. This book addressed uncomfortable topics such as substance use, sex work, young motherhood and involvement in the justice system. Although it’s true that not all Indigenous people partake in these things, it’s also true that a lot do, and they are no less than the ‘palatable’ natives. John Trudell, an author and an activist with the American Indian Movement, talked about how “the drunken Indian saved us,” the idea that under colonization, we couldn’t be who we are, and we refused to conform to what colonizers wanted us to become, so instead we became something else. In this way, the stereotype represents rebellion: a refusal to submit.

Indigenous people aren’t stagnant in the past, and neither is our oppression or genocide. I think the ideas explored in this book still ring true for a lot of Indigenous youth in present-day so-called Canada. Currently, there are more Indigenous children in care than there were at the peak of residential schools. In Manitoba, Indigenous children account for about 90 per cent of the approximately 10,000 children in care. The intention of stealing Indigenous children from their families has always been there, only the tactics and language has changed.

By: Kakeka ThunderSky, Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective Communications and Engagement Coordinator

Staff reflections on other books can be found on our Reconciliation Reading Club web page.

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