I Am Not a Number, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland, tells the story of Irene Couchie, Dupuis’ grandmother, and her experience of the residential schooling system, where, along with many other First Nations children, she was stripped of her identity both as a person – the children went by numbers, not names; she was assigned 759 – and as a member of her community, punished for speaking her language – the Devil’s tongue, the nuns called it. As Irene is getting her hair cut, she says that she is crying not only because her hair is getting cut, but because in her community, hair is cut as a signifier of loss; the nun is not only cutting Irene’s hair: she is attempting to kill Irene and her culture*.
The style of illustrations throughout the book, an odd mix of realism coupled with simplified elements, serves to capture in particular the emotions Irene went through in each episode. The scene of Irene crying as her hair is cut, after she has been separated from her brothers (immediately after she vows never to be separated from them), is especially poignant, along with the confrontation between the father and the Indian Agent. Although things turn out well – do they really, though? – the reader is confronted with the realization that for most of the other First Nations children taken away to residential schools, there was no way out of the cultural genocide taking place. (And while we’re on the topic of cultural genocide, I’d like to point out the parallels that appear to be drawn in this book between the depiction of the residential school Irene attended and Nazi Germany concentration camps, even if no direct mention is made.)
*Lest it be taken out of context, I am not saying that that specific nun was trying to literally kill Irene personally.
For more on residential schooling, here are a couple of suggestions and links:
- Secret Path by Gordon Downie
- Materials in our collection about residential schools are under a baffling number of different subject headings:
- Native Peoples – Canada – Residential Schools
- Indigenous Peoples – Canada – Residential Schools (the only result is I Am Not a Number)
- First Nations Peoples – Canada – Residential Schools (I Am Not a Number & Secret Path)
- So here’s a general keyword search that should include all of the above