I Am Not a Number
Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
Second Story Press
Good presses and good authors don’t shy away from heavy subject matter. For the second week in a row, we’re reviewing a book from Second Story Press that covers the subject of Canada’s residential schools.
I Am Not a Number brings the full force of this dark subject. Author Jenny Kay Dupuis (who worked with co-author Kathy Kacer on this book) has based the story on that of her grandmother, Irene, who we see taken from her family and put in a residential school.
This, in itself, is horrifying; during Canada’s shameful history of residential schools, Indigenous families were required by law to allow the government to take their children and place them in schools far away from their homes to be assimilated into “Canadian” culture. Readers learning of this for the first time will find it astounding.
But it doesn’t stop there, and we see Irene punished at school for speaking her own language — she’s told she’s not allowed to speak anything other than English. Her hair is cut and she is told her Indigenous heritage is meaningless. And she is not even allowed to keep her own name — she is given a number.
The book sugarcoats nothing. The darkness of this chapter in Canadian history is present throughout, and a historical note at the end of the book makes clear that Irene’s story was not unique. But rather than rely solely on bleakness to carry the story, the authors allow for optimism in the form of Irene’s silent defiance. Though she’s told she has to forget her name, she refuses to do so, telling herself that she is not a number, and recalling her mother’s final words to her before she was taken away: “Never forget who you are.” This provides the story arc that turns Irene’s story into one of triumph on the final pages.
Second Story Press is one of Canada’s finest independent presses, and their commitment to telling the uncomfortable history of Canada’s relationship with the land’s Indigenous people is among the many commendable things they do. The disgrace of the residential schools system is something every Canadian should be familiar with and Second Story, along with authors Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and illustrator Gillian Newland, have provided a superb book that will tell this necessary story to readers at a young age.
Review by Barry Jowett