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Church funds residential schools comic book study guide

Posted on: February 9, 2016 10:02 AM
Lost Innocence, a comic book dealing with the Indian residential school system, took author Brandon Mitchell two and a half years to write because of the difficulty of its subject matter.
Photo Credit: Saskia Rowley / Anglican Journal
Related Categories: Canada, indigenous

[Anglican Journal, by Tali Folkins] Lost Innocence is just a comic book, but it took two and a half years to write.

It’s not that its author, graphic designer and education student Brandon Mitchell, wasn’t dedicated. The issue, Mitchell says, was the emotional power of the material.

Lost Innocence deals with Canada’s Indian residential school system. Mitchell, a member of the Listuguj Mi’kmaq First Nation, found researching the topic affected him so much that trying to write it in an even-handed way seemed at times impossible.

“It was such a heavy subject matter,” he says. “It was difficult to write – to the point where I had to put it away, for some time . . . I was like, ‘How do I write this? Do I pull back any punches, or do I tell it like it is, or –?’ It was really hard to find that balance.”

The fruit of Mitchell’s long labour – and that of artist Tara Audibert, who drew the illustrations – may be about to reach a wider audience. As of this winter, Lost Innocence, which was published in 2013, now has a teacher’s guide to go along with it, thanks to a $14,050 [Canadian Dollars, approximately £7,000 GBP] grant from the Anglican Church of Canada’s Healing Fund.

Mitchell and Sean Muir, executive director of the Healthy Aboriginal Network, which published both the comic book and guide, hope it will soon be taught to children in schools across Canada and beyond.

Lost Innocence tells the story of Umqui and Maltaless, a brother and sister whose happy childhood in a warm family is suddenly interrupted when they are taken to a residential school. The siblings escape and return home, but only after experiencing and witnessing beatings, malnutrition, death from disease and other horrors at the hands of the clerics who run the school.

The story is conveyed through highly charged pictures. The children’s faces radiate expressiveness, from joy in the sunlit natural scenes at the work’s beginning and end, to fear in its dark middle sections, where grey, looming school buildings and the menacing figures of ruler-wielding nuns dominate.

The book begins with the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, minister of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, who made attendance at residential schools mandatory for Native children in 1920: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

The story of Lost Innocence began a little over a decade ago, Mitchell says, not long after he had finished working with Muir on a comic book dealing with the risks of smoking. Muir asked him if he had any other ideas, and Mitchell suggested a residential schools-themed piece.

“I was thinking, ‘There’s a story here, and there should be a way to tell that story for a general audience,’” he says. “He was like, ‘I like it – draft something, come up with something.’”

Proposals requesting funding for the comic book project came up dry. But Muir’s Healthy Aboriginal Network decided to go ahead with it anyway.

“We thought, ‘It’s so important, we’ll have to do it ourselves,’” he says.

Though Lost Innocence is fiction, the incidents in it are based on facts – many of which Mitchell gleaned while writing academic papers on the residential school system. Other material in the book, he says, comes from conversations he’s had with survivors – including one co-worker he worked with for some time before discovering he was a former residential school student.

Muir says it’s not uncommon for survivors to keep this aspect of their past a secret.

“A lot of people in our community still don’t talk about it, and people don’t realize, even within the community, the effects that it’s had in a lot of cases,” he says. “It’s kind of like war – veterans come back and do not want to talk about what they’ve seen. They stamp that down good and deep and just try to forget about it.”

Though no actual places are mentioned in the story, Mitchell says the residential school in Lost Innocence is loosely based on an institution in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia (one of the schools in which children were used for studies in malnutrition once government researchers discovered they were underfed), and the children in Lost Innocence have Mi’kmaq names.

Mitchell says he enjoyed working on the project with Audibert, whom he knew from high school in Miramichi, New Brunswick.

“She’s got a great unique style – I couldn’t have brought it more to life,” he says.

After Lost Innocence was published, a contact at an Aboriginal organization suggested putting together a teacher’s guide to go with it, Muir says.

She wasn’t the only one, says Mitchell.

“People would pick it up and say, ‘This needs to be in classrooms,’” he says.

When Muir’s attempt to get funding from that organization was ultimately unsuccessful, he turned to the church’s Healing Fund.

Fund co-ordinator Esther Wesley says Lost Innocence impressed the Healing Response Committee, which administers Healing Fund grants, because it makes the history of the Indian residential school system so accessible to young people.

“It’s simple to read, the illustrations are simple. It is a worthwhile project that could be taken into the schools,” she says.

When it comes to teaching about the Indian residential school system, Wesley says, “There are a lot of resources available, but there are few that are . . . geared strictly for youth. There aren’t necessarily teacher’s guides provided with these resources. That’s where we saw we could help.”

The Healing Fund approved the grant, and the Healthy Aboriginal Network hired Sylvia Smith, a teacher and honorary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her husband, Evan Thornton, to write the teacher’s guide. They wrote a draft, got feedback from a number of teachers and revised. The final version of the 22-page guide was completed in December 2015, Muir says.

Wesley says she’s “very, very pleased” with how the teacher’s guide turned out. An added plus to educators, she says, is that the guide is free. Once purchased, both the comic book and the guide can be downloaded and printed.

Getting Lost Innocence into school curriculums has not been easy, Muir concedes, and school funding cutbacks in recent years haven’t helped. But teachers who have expressed interest in it, he says, seem committed to it.

“When we do get orders, it’s from teachers who want to do it,” he says. “They want to teach it, and they make it happen.”