The Durham District School Board (DDSB) is responding to controversy surrounding a decision to temporarily remove a children’s book by an Indigenous author from its school library collection.
It recently came to light that the board has pulled several books from school libraries saying they contain “content that could be harmful to Indigenous students and families.”
Among the books is ‘The Great Bear’ by David A. Robertson, a widely celebrated Cree writer and two-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award.
An email, obtained by the Toronto Star, that was sent by the board to school principals says the books “do not align with the recently updated DDSB Indigenous Education policy and procedure.”
The email doesn’t specify what aspect of the books did not align with the new policy.
“The Durham District School Board is committed to upholding Indigenous rights, including the self-determination of parents and families,” the DDSB said in a statement released April 16. “We continue to engage with the local Indigenous community members who raised the initial concern about this book before sharing any more information publicly.”
The statement adds that “we will be providing an update on this topic next week.”
‘The Great Bear’, aimed at kids 10 and older, is the second book in Robertson’s Narnia-inspired ‘Misewa Saga’, which also includes ‘The Barren Grounds’ and ‘The Stone Child’. It has been shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award, and last year was named one of the Canadian Children’s Book Center’s favorite books of the year.
Robertson said he was stunned and confused by the DDSB decision, particularly the suggestion that his book could be harmful to Indigenous students.
“I wrote it for Indigenous youth and families,” he said, adding he was “at a loss” to understand what about his book could be considered offensive.
In the fall of 2021, the DDSB released a new Indigenous Education Policy, which replaced older documents last updated in 2014 and 2015.
A procedure on classroom notes practices DDSB curriculum resources must be “free of harmful stereotypes and narratives; accurately represent Indigenous contributions both past and present, treaties, residential schools, accurate histories and the ongoing impacts of colonization.”
The procedure says school leaders are responsible for facilitating the review of school and classroom resources to ensure they are “inclusive of First Nations, Métis and Inuit truths, accurate historical context, avoid harmful stereotypes and narratives, centering Indigenous voices and truths.”
Robertson’s best guess on what from his book may be considered potentially harmful to Indigenous students is a scene in which one of the main characters, Eli, cuts off his braid after he is bullied by other students.
“This is not just about ‘The Great Bear’. This is about education leadership acting as gatekeepers that decide what teachers can teach, and what students can learn. It’s appalling, and I’ll keep fighting for my book and others,” Robertson tweeted. “Gatekeepers can pick off, confiscate, and ‘review/ban/not recommend’ books at their discretion. And teachers are afraid to speak out.”
Robertson has encouraged supporters to raise the issue during public question period at the DDSB’s April 19 board meeting.
— With files from Torstar News Service