Review of “I Am Not A Number” by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer Re Forced Re-Education of Native Canadian Children

In an afterword to this book for children by Jenny Kay Dupuis we learn:

I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Granny’s father was chief of the community, and her mother looked after their fourteen children.”

In 1928, when Irene was eight years old, an Indian agent came to their house and demanded that her father hand over the children for the residential school: “They are wards of the government, now. They belong to us.” When her father objected, he was told that otherwise he would be fined and sent to jail. It was the law, and they had to go.

The stories taken from Irene’s memories of the school are pretty horrific. She was given a number and not allowed to use her name. Irene became “759.” She was not permitted any regular contact with her parents. She was told to “scrub all the brown off” her body when she washed. The food was awful, and she and the other children were always hungry. They were beaten if they were heard using any words in their own language – “the devil’s language” according to the nuns.

When they attended mass (every morning and twice on Sundays) she recalled that she “secretly begged God to let me return to my family.”

After a year, she was allowed to return home for the summer. She loved being home, but had nightmares about the school every night. She begged her parents not to make her go back. Her parents decided to hide her and her brothers in the father’s taxidermy shop. The Indian agent searched everywhere, including the shop, but didn’t find them. Her father claimed they went up north and he didn’t know when they would be back. Finally the agent left, and they came out laughing and crying and shaking:

“We were safe. I was Irene Couchie, daughter of Ernest and Mary Ann Couchie. And I was home.”

An Author’s Note reports that Irene was among approximately 150,000 children – some as young as four – who were were removed from their homes and sent to live at residential schools across Canada. [There was a similar system in the United States.] She writes:

“Of the over 80,000 students who either returned home or relocated to cities and towns across Canada, many felt they didn’t belong anywhere and strugged all their lives.”

The last residential school did not close until 1996. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a statement of apology.

There is an afterward by Jenny Kay Dupuis, the granddaughter of Irene Couchie Dupuis. She says her granny rarely would speak about what happened to her.

A photo of some of the Couchie children included in the book. Irene is standing at the far right.

Illustrator Gillian Newland, using watercolor, ink, and pencils, manages to convey the hurt and fear and sorrow of the children in the schools with her spare lines and colors.

Evaluation: This is a story children should know. In fact, adults should be aware of what happened to Native Americans as well, in both Canada and the United States. It is a sorrowful and shameful chapter of North American history. While the subject matter is difficult, it will help children develop empathy and understanding of the situation of others. Kids need alternate perspectives. There is no moralizing in the story; readers will have to think about what happened and draw their own conclusions.

In an interview, Jenny Kay Dupuis said:

“Co-writing I Am Not a Number with Kathy Kacer gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of literature for young people and how educators and families can make use of picture books to start conversations about critical, real-world issues.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Second Story Press, 2016

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