Author concerned about ‘chilling effect’ on B.C. after book on residential schools temporarily banned in U.S.

A British Columbia author whose children’s book about residential schools was temporarily banned by a United States school board says she is concerned about possible bans on Indigenous books in B.C. classrooms.

Christy Jordan-Fenton lives in Fort St. John, B.C., and co-wrote Fatty Legs with her late mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, an Inuvialuit knowledge keeper and residential school survivor.

The acclaimed 2010 book tells the story of Pokiak-Fenton’s experience and self-advocacy at the Immaculate Conception residential school in Aklavik, N.W.T., aimed at children in Grades 4 to 7.

“Being the mother of Inuvialuit children, when I looked around for books that accurately represented them and their culture or even Indigenous culture at all, I just wasn’t really finding very much out there,” Jordan-Fenton told CBC’s Daybreak North on Tuesday. “And at the time, residential schools were not really being talked about.” 

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-Fenton co-authored a series of children’s books that drew from Pokiak-Fenton’s experiences in the residential school system, including Fatty Legs. (Annick Press)

Last year, Fatty Legs was included in a group of 176 books banned by the Duval County school district in Jacksonville, Fla., due to state legislation that puts limits on what teachers can say about race, gender and sexuality in classrooms. 

While the ban on some of those books was lifted earlier this year, Jordan-Fenton said she is concerned about similar potential bans on books about Indigenous issues and residential schools taking hold in Canada.

“Educators and librarians are worried about the backlash that they’re going to, maybe, experience from parents or people who are going to complain,” said Jordan-Fenton. “So books just disappear.”

‘A growing backlash’

Some experts share Jordan-Fenton’s concern about U.S. book bans having a “chilling effect” on decisions about school books in B.C.

But they say barring province-wide legislation to limit course materials, it’s unlikely to happen on the same scale as south of the border.

“There is a growing backlash against residential school education and it’s unfortunate and it’s very scary, but it’s also something that people are pushing back on,” said Daniel Heath Justice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and professor of critical Indigenous studies and English at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Providing all students in Canada with age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous peoples was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action in 2015.

Justice, however, is concerned that book bans “are part of a larger attempt to silence Indigenous people and Black people and queer people, and anyone who has struggled for civil rights.”

At least 29 Indigenous-authored books have either been challenged or banned in the United states, according to the academic journal American Indians in Children’s Literature, which maintains a comprehensive list. 

That includes Fatty Legs and at least one other book by an author in Canada, according to the updated list on Sept. 26.

More than 800 individual book titles, many of which deal with race or LGBTQ topics, were banned or challenged in U.S. school districts in the last six months of 2022, according to PEN America, a non-profit that advocates for freedom of expression.

Two people standing.
The late Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is pictured with her daughter-in-law, Christy Jordan-Fenton. Providing students in Canada with age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous peoples was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action in 2015. (Submitted by Christy Jordan-Fenton)

Some books banned in Canada

Shannon Leddy, an assistant professor of Indigenous education at UBC, says bans on Indigenous books aren’t just an American issue.

Last year, a novel by David Robertson was banned temporarily by Duram, Ont.’s school board, and another of his graphic novels was added to Alberta’s not-recommended reading list in 2018.

No book bans in B.C. come to Leddy’s mind, but she added that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened.

“I think there should be a concern about that happening throughout all of North America,” Leddy said. “It’s a suppression of the colonial truths, of the actual history of Indigenous peoples and the land here being colonized. 

“And by banning those books, I think governments and school districts are hoping that we can just erase the fact that that happened and that allows the colonial project to continue.”

Justice and Leddy said that a diversity of age-appropriate books about all kinds of cultures and human rights issues is important for children and youth to learn to be proud of who they are and to relate to one another better.

“Education is about improving people’s lives and well-being and place in the world and banning books or excluding certain voices is the opposite of that,” said Leddy.

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