By Maureen Tai, 20 July 2021
When We Were Alone (ages 6+) is a gentle and beautiful picture book that introduces young readers to residential schools in Canada by focussing on the courage and resilience of its survivors.
In David A. Robertson’s story, a grandmother (kókom) works with her grandchild (nósisim) in the garden. The young girl notices how her grandmother wears brightly coloured clothes, has a long braid of hair, and speaks in Cree to a bird that has come to visit her birdhouse. “Why?” the grandchild asks, as curious children do.
In lyrical, unadorned language, Kókom tells of when she was a child, sent to a school far, far away from home. She speaks of how, in that place, her colourful clothes, her long hair and her language were taken away from her. But Kókom is not defeated. She recounts how she overcame these deprivations; when she and her friends were alone, how they fought to keep their traditions alive, how they fought to be with family, and how they fought to be themselves. Kókom’s story of strength and resistance in oppressive times is told in sparse, thoughtful prose, accompanied by Julie Flett’s lovely, earth-toned collage illustrations.
The residential schools system is a shameful blot on Canadian history. Thankfully, these institutions no longer exist – the last school closed in 1996 (still shockingly recent) – but even so, the full extent of the cruelty meted out to the indigenous children who attended these schools is only now coming to light, and the stories are heartbreaking. It is a painful chapter in Canada’s history books that should never be repeated, but also a story of fortitude that should never be forgotten.
For ages 6 and up.