I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland
From our northern neighbors comes the story of Irene Couchie Dupuis, co-author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis’s grandmother, who at 8 years old, was forcibly removed from her home by the Canadian government and sent to a faraway residential school with her two brothers.
The strict nuns there had a single goal – to erase the indigenous Native American/First Nations heritage in the young children, even their very names. Irene was reduced to “759” for the duration of the isolated, abusive school year when she was subjected to more brutal labor than actual learning. When the summer break finally allows the siblings to escape back to their home, their parents must find the defiant courage to keep their children safe. Lest readers think this is a tragic story that happened somewhere else, the U.S. shares the same, shameful history of government-mandated residential schools for Native Americans.
Writing with award-winning historical fiction author Kathy Kacer, Dr. Dupuis – of Ojibway/Anishinaabe ancestry – shares her family legacy with honesty and pride. The overview of “The Residential School System” at book’s end provides sobering details that disrupted, and too often destroyed, the lives of 150,000 children who were deemed “‘uncivilized’ and needed to be ‘saved’ from themselves.” Dr. Dupuis’s “Afterword” that immediately follows the numbers, dates, and laws, literally puts names and faces to her family members who were affected, turning artist Gillian Newland’s unforgettable images into real-life evidence through actual family photographs. With tenacious resolve and empathetic storytelling, this trio reminds us – perhaps more urgently than ever – that “there is still much work to be done.”