An award-winning Indigenous author has decried an Ontario school district’s “outrageous” decision to remove his book from library shelves as part of a review process, saying he still has no idea why it happened, and condemned a recent board meeting as a “farce rife with platitudes and political non-answers”
On Tuesday, trustees for the Durham District School Board (DDSB) passed a motion asking district staff to explain, by June 1, the removal of books and the criteria for doing so, and to list themes that could trigger the removal or review of books .
“We need more information. We need to know what books are being removed and why they are being removed,” said board chair Carolyn Morton in an interview Wednesday.
The move came following the news that one book by David A. Robertson, a two-time winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award, was up for review by the school board and had been removed from school shelves. Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, has said that the district should have at least left his book on the shelves while they conducted their review. Pulling it amounted to “censorship.”
“DDSB board meeting was a farce rife with platitudes and political non-answers. We still don’t know why The Great Bear was pulled or what in it could possibly harm Indigenous students. I saw tonight exactly what I’ve been hearing from DDSB teachers all week. Fear and frustration,” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
The episode has raised a number of questions — similar to those percolating in other jurisdictions — about what literature is appropriate for children and how this work is evaluated. In the United States, the American Library Association reported a “dramatic uptick” in efforts to ban books about those who are “gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color.”
Robertson has called the claim that his book does harm to Indigenous students”outrageous,” saying all of his books were “written to empower Indigenous students.”
“We need to be putting more books by Indigenous authors on the shelves, not taking them out. This is an insult to teachers, librarians, and children,” Robertson wrote on Twitter. “They say my book is harmful to children. The irony is thick, when taking truth from kids, pulling books from shelves, is the real harm.”
When reached Wednesday, Robertson declined an interview, saying he needed to “step back” from the issue. He referred comment to his Penguin Random House Canada publicist, who in turn referred the National Post to the company’s communication department. A response was not received by press time.
Robertson’s book, the second in the Misewa saga, tells the story of Eli and Morgan, two Indigenous children, who travel to another world called Askī, via a portal in their foster home. There, they meet animals who “connect them to traditional ways, as well as help them deal with the challenges in the real world,” says a series description from Penguin Random House Canada.
Norah Marsh, the district’s director of education, said that the school board has adopted a policy that takes “anti-colonial approaches and actions and to actively identify, prevent and eliminate anti-Indigenous racism.”
The complaint, she said, came from Indigenous families who wanted to hold the district “accountable to the policy in terms of ensuring that we don’t impact their children negatively and cause harm.” As a result, the district is doing a review of The Great Bear.
“We value Indigenous authorship and literature,” Marsh said, adding no definitive decision has been made about the book.
In a Wednesday statement, the DDSB said teachers and librarians “regularly review” library content “for books that are no longer current, or which may contain content that perpetuates harmful narratives, racial slurs and discriminatory biases, assumptions, and stereotypes.”
Waubgeshig Rice, an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation, said in an interview that taking books by Indigenous authors from shelves risks being “regressive.”
Having as many Indigenous voices and books by Indigenous authors in the classroom is essential
“At worst, in my opinion, it sets us back a long way and a lot of people have worked really hard to get materials by Indigenous authors into the classroom,” Rice said. “Having as many Indigenous voices and books by Indigenous authors in the classroom is essential.”
The school board said the complaints were made before the books were removed from shelves, which took place in early March. It did not clarify how many books were under review, and the board said “we do not wish to share” the nature of the complaints.
Morton said she found out about the removal of the books from media reports.
“The DDSB has been in the news for the last few days. This is not good for our reputation. We need to have more specifics. We need to be informed,” Morton said.
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Marsh told trustees the district had not reached out to Robertson initially, though said Tuesday they have now done so.
“Our responsibility is to serve the students on this land,” Marsh said. “We did not inform him that there were questions yet because it was premature.”
Trustee Niki Lundquist said she had heard from Indigenous students who were upset by the district’s decision-making, noting there’s “not a uniformity among Indigenous students on our board,” and calling for transparency in the review.
“We have charter values still, of freedom of speech and I know we certainly don’t want to be involved in censorship and we also don’t want to do things that are harmful to Indigenous communities,” said Lundquist at Tuesday’s meeting.
There can be challenging and uncomfortable topics in children’s books, Rice said, but the whole student body shouldn’t be deprived of a certain book. There may even have been merit to the original concerns raised, but, Rice argued, Robertson could have been brought in to discuss the questions raised by his work.
“Those stories may be uncomfortable or some of the details may be uncomfortable, but uncomfortable details have been at the root of the literature in curricula for decades,” Rice said. “Just take a look at any Shakespearean story that has to do with murder, rape, infidelity, whatever else.”
The review, trustees were told, would include seeking feedback from Indigenous students and families, the Indigenous advisory circle and the Keenanow Indigenous Educators Network. “We continue to engage with the local Indigenous community members who raised the initial concern about this book before sharing any more information publicly,” said a statement posted to the district’s website.
On Tuesday, trustees noted that 21 questions had been submitted by the public, including asking what the specific complaints were, so parents could discuss them with their children, and another asking why the board was acting as “gatekeepers” not educators.
Marsh did not address the questions specifically. “We’re committed to this process even though it may cause discomfort for some to disrupt systemic oppression,” she said.
Jim Markovski, the associate director of equitable education — he’s responsible for addressing “institutional racism and oppression,” says a 2021 statement announcing his move to that role — told trustees he recognizes “the sensitivities around making a decision involving an Indigenous author.”
“However, it’s our duty and responsibility to respond to and address the concerns that Indigenous students and families have raised,” Markovski said.
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