The Legacy Room at Books & Company received another chapter in reconciliation on Thursday as students from Sophiasburgh Central and Tyendinaga Public schools joined to listen to a presentation from a celebrated indigenous author.
In August, County Kids Read received a grant from The County Foundation to purchase books for its Indigenous and Multicultural Collection, and, building on this opportunity, the Prince Edward County -based youth literacy organization that operates under the auspices of the Prince Edward County Arts Council was able to bring one of the books to life by inviting award-winning author Melanie Florence to read to the children.
Florence, a TD Canadian Children’s Literature award-winning author of Cree and Scottish heritage, told traditional folk tales including the story of the creation of Turtle Island before reading from her book Stolen Words, a poignant picture book about the devastating legacy of residential schools.
The story recognizes the pain of those whose culture and language were taken from them, how that pain is passed down, and how healing can also be shared.
According to Arts Council Executive Director Janna Smith, it is only fitting the reading take place in the Legacy Room, a designated space within Books & Company where conversations about Indigenous history, and the journey towards reconciliation are encouraged and facilitated.
Despite some cramped quarters, the children were enthralled with Florence’s presentation and came well prepared with plenty of questions about the authors journey and her works.
“We were so excited to use this funding from The County Foundation to bring a wonderful book to life from an accomplished indigenous author,” Smith told the Gazette after Thursday’s reading. “This is an appropriate use of this space and it was a huge success.”
Smith added bringing the youth of a neighbouring communities that share a waterway and integrating them for a powerful presentation in a safe space designated for reconciliation was one of the main drivers for the creation of the Legacy Room.
Each school was able to take books authored by indigenous writers including Florence’s Stolen Words back to their home libraries and bolster their indigenous offerings.
Smith added the Prince Edward County Arts Council was happy to provide Florence with a professional author’s fee as determined by CANSCAIP, and encourages all groups and organizations to always compensate artists for their time and expertise.
Florence said Thursday was not the first time she’s presented to an integrated room of children but said the experience is always interesting to her as a writer because the traditional folk tales will often vary from community to community.
“It’s interesting because they can teach me something too because I find the students have heard a version of the reation story or a version of the trickster stories. It’s always unique,” Florence told the Gazette.
The efforts to shed light on the need for reconciliation by the late Gord Downie, a former Prince Edward County resident, certainly isn’t lost when standing in the Legacy Room as the space was one of the first of its kind created in Canada.
It seems more and more Canadians are waking up to the devastating legacy left by the residential school systems but, sadly, Florence still sees racism in her visits to areas outside indigenous communities.
“I do find there’s still racism but it’s incredible how much the children know about residential schools compared to the adults,” Florence said. “In my presentation I speak about the early years of Canada, Colonialism and the history of residential schools and so it’s an eye opener for a lot of people, primarily adults, but I think most people want to keep an open mind and open heart want to learn and discover the real truth and the real history of Canada.”
She added that children are gaining a knowledge most adult Canadians never had the benefit of learning in school.
“I think it’s great children are growing up with this knowledge that a lot people before them didn’t have. Kids go home and share this information with their parents and that’s so beneficial,” She said
According to Florence, diversity in literature is a vital aspect that can put forward a message of truth and reconciliation and the compliment of current indigenous authors is a great strength to the cause.
“There are a lot of great indigenous authors in Canada and their material is coming to light and that’s an important aspect to the education overall,” Florence added.