Olemaun and Alice

When I Was Eight

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Art by Gabrielle Grimard

Published in 2013 by Annick Press

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The Story: Olemaun, an Inuit girl, longs to go to school so she can learn to read the outsiders’ books, especially the book about Alice that her sister Rosie reads. Olemaun begs her father to take her to the outsiders’ school until he reluctantly lets her. But school is nothing like Olemuan imagined. A black-cloaked nun cuts off her long hair, strips away her warm parka, and takes away her Inuit name, and calls Olemaun instead Margaret. For weeks Margaret does nothing but chores: scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, dishes, and laundry. Margaret is no closer to being able to read, so she takes her education on herself and teaches herself to read. One day, intended to shame Margaret, a nun throws a large book towards Margaret and tells her to read, and Margaret “confidently sliced through the words without a single moment of hesitation.” Margaret feels powerful from this victory and realizes she is “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. . . I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.”

What Wallace and I Think: This is a picturebook about Canadian residential schools. Let that sink in. I don’t remember being taught about residential schools when I was in school. It may have been mentioned, but there wasn’t any emphasis to make it stick in my memory, and I think this was intentional. Why? Because Canada, our nation, is embarrassed, ashamed, by what was done to Indigenous children in these schools. And what do we do when we’re embarrassed about something? We don’t talk about it, because talking makes the knot in our stomach, lets others know about that thing we’re embarrassed about, that we don’t want other people to know about. It makes us, the person who is embarrassed, uncomfortable.

But those like the Fentons are telling their own stories, so that what was done is not ignored and not forgotten. The Fentons do this by writing a picturebook, to start education about this dark history young. When I Was Eight is the true story of the Margaret Fenton’s experience at residential schools, and she has dedicate the book to “the Indian Residential School survivors who haven’t yet found their voices.” And perhaps it may help those to find their voices if what happened to them wasn’t ignored, and this picturebook is a step is solving this ignorance.

So as you can probably already guess, I think this is an important picturebook that needs to be read to children. It will take many children outside their own lived experience and help to develop their empathetic sensibilities, and will give voice to many children whose own family members are still coping with what was done to them in residential schools.

I could recommend this book being read to children as young as six or seven (grade one age).

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14 thoughts on “Olemaun and Alice

  1. Hello Anah this is Soban from Ms. Samuelson for the book when I was eight I think we should forget what has happened in the past and consentrate on what is happening in the present time. If we keep learning about are past how will we learn what is going on in this period of time.

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  2. Hello Anah! This is Jialu from grade six. I think that residential schools should be discussed more often even though it makes us feel bad. Some people don’t even know about what is done to children in residential schools. I think this is a problem because if we don’t know the mistakes that we have made in the past, we are bound to make them again.

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  3. Hi Anah. I’m Maddie F. from Ms. Samuelson’s grade 6 class. I agree that we should not hide our past, we should teach our students or kids of what mistakes we made instead of burry them deep inside us where they can get you later. I don’t think it is fair that they sent the kids to residential school. They only made them do chores and they were not all treated equally. The nun particularly picked on Olemaun, and made even more opportunities for the other girls to pick on her. Human rights also tie into this. Everyone has the right to education, and clearly Olemaun is not getting the education she needs, or wishes to have. Slavery is also in here. The nun is making them scrub floors and desks, and wash pots and pans in boiling water. Overall I think Olemaun was treated unfair and no one had rights in that school. I would just like to say thank you Anah for skyping with our class, and sharing this book with us!

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  4. Hey Anah, this is Aliaa from Ms. Samuelson’s class. I think it is important to learn about residential schools because you get the chance to know about what was happening in your country. I don’t think it is something to be embarrassed of, I think it is something to be proud of because when you learn about it you would think it is sad but at the same time you would realize how much your country has improved and how much they respect people and their right now. I don’t think it would very fair if you didn’t learn about residential schools and all the bad things that happened in your country because you sometimes learn about other countries and all the bad stuff that happened there. I think this book is a very important book that children should definitely read and learn from because even though some children won’t be able to understand it, they might feel thankful that they get to live with their family and not get tortured or slaved. I think it was absolutely terrible that young children had to go to residential schools. I think it is unfair because of their unequal treatment and how they didn’t all get education. Also, residential school didn’t stop until 1996 when human rights started at 1947. One of the human rights says that everyone has the right to education, which Margret didn’t receive. I think Margret is a great role model because she didn’t give up and let the nun treat her like that. She stood up for herself and stayed strong which I think motivates children to do the same thing. Thank you very much for sharing this book with us; I am really excited to find and read the novel “fatty legs”.

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  5. Hi Anah Its Olivia from grade six!

    When I read the book When I Was Eight I thought about the pain children had to endure in residential schools. I thought about how much the children had to work and how they made it through the painful residential schools. I also realized that the children had physical pain, and emotional pain. Some of the things they did where against religion. Like cutting off your hair or going to church. Most of the kids didn’t speak English and were stripped of there identity. Children would be punished if they spoke their tongue. Residential schools were a terrible experience for the children and they were traumatized. Most of the children forgot how to speak their original language and couldn’t communicate with their family when they got back. The kids had to go through a lot of work to meet the expectations of their new life. I think Canada should speak about what they have done, so they know not to do anything like it again. The country will be furious that they didn’t tell it sooner but Canada was a little embarrassed, just like you said.

    This book has had a huge impact on people and they are beginning to shed some light on the topic.

    Thanks for reading!

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  6. Hi Anah, this is Denis.T writing to you from the grade six community!
    I’m here to respond to your review of “When I Was Eight”. When I first listened to you reading it. I was thinking about how it would feel to have to be forced to go to a school that treats you unfairly. I agree that the idea of schools that educate Aboriginal children was a good idea, but the way it was executed wasn’t right. It was a step of freedom gone backwards. A lot of people argued that the human rights should have applied to the aboriginal people; however, many don’t consider that the human rights were only entrenched in our constitution in 1999. Just because some government figure signs a sheet a paper, it doesn’t mean you always follow what you agreed to.

    Yes I agree it’s inhumane and it shouldn’t have happened, but today is today. You have to acknowledge the past, but not dwell on the past. Canada should learn from their mistakes not avoid them. In contrast, people shouldn’t argue about it now. Today is the present not the past. Learn from it, get something out of your mistakes don’t turn back on them and try to forget them. Mistakes are what make something unique, something different than others.

    I feel Canada’s history something that needs to be acknowledged, but not discussed about how wrong it is. This is one of humanity’s biggest flaws; people who have almost absolutely nothing to do with a topic argue about something that won’t help them or anyone else all. It’s okay to state your opinion, but you should avoid having hour-long conversations about your opinion. It usually only creates tension between people.

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  7. Hi Anah Emily here,
    I am responding to the book you reviewed, When I Was Eight. It is an awakening for me. Residential schools were such a horrible part of our history, we prefer to keep it quiet, but I agree with you that it shouldn’t be kept in the dark. We need to be educated on our history, no matter how much of a mark it puts on our ancestors.
    I am personally ashamed of us as Canadians for hiding such a horrible part of our history. What early Canadians did to the Aboriginal people indigenous to Canada is unacceptable and frankly a disgrace to Canadian identity.

    I somehow can’t believe that those nuns and the people running residential schools thought they were doing it for the Aboriginal children’s own good. The nun that was so horrible to Olemaun would never treat an English child in that way. They went against all the values we as Canadians have today and they took her religion away. They had no regards for the Aboriginal children’s happiness and wellbeing. There was a definite negative impact on all the children that attended residential schools and the nuns were clearly incompetent to teach the children anything. I am so glad that now our brutal history is coming to light and I hope that all Canadians begin to accept our history and embrace it to stop it from ever happening again.

    Until next time,
    Emily

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  8. Hi Anah, It’s Zac here from Ms. Samuelson’s class, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m the one with long curly hair. Anyways, I’m commenting on the book, “When I was Eight”. I think that it is absolutely horrid how people in that time could just treat children like slaves and be so torturous to them. If you think about how many rights they’re taking away, its just crazy. Thanks for reading to us, “When I was Eight” and reminding about how horrible Residential schools really were.

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  9. Hey Anah, JakeE here. I think that we should keep quiet about residential schools because it could bring back bad memories for indigenous people that had to go to a residential school so it would be best for us and the people that had to go to a residential school. I also think about residential schools are best not to talk about That is best for no one to talk about residential schools. Do you know why new kids or younger kids or disliked kids had to do all of the chores? Also do you know why the children got striped of their indigenous names? If we do end up talking about something embarrassing it usually ends up ending in something bad. But why still do we not talk about them even if they were bad?

    Thank you Anah for introducing this book to us and I think soon many people will start to read these kinds of books.

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  10. Hi Anah, Joseph from Ms.Samuelson class.

    Thank you for reading the book “When I Was Eight” in your SKYPE visit to our class. Today was the second time we read this book and when I saw the pictures and the words it really struck me on how horrible residential schools were. Especially the part when the mean girls in her classroom were calling her fatty legs, which we know now is verbal bullying. It is so tragic that this would allow at a school. I found it interesting when you said “Canada is just so ashamed” about what they did in the past with Indigenous children. I think this is a topic that is valuable for kids like me to learn and I’d like to thank you for sharing it with us.

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  11. Letter to Reading with Wallace February 25, 2015
    My thoughts on When I Was 8 Years Old

    HI Anah,

    When I first saw the book cover (I know the saying” don’t judge a book by its cover”) I thought it meant everything that she did when she was eight. The book was about when she was eight, she went to a residential school and her religion was being discriminate, because in her religion their hair is not supposed to be cut off. She had to do chores like a slave and treated very poorly. What I liked about Olemaun is that she stood up for herself and didn’t let the nun “destroy” her faith.

    This book is a strong message for people throughout the world. But sadly people feel ashamed, or embarrassed to even talk about it, while others are not ashamed, and embarrassed. I really enjoyed this book and I hope other people do to. I still can’t believe that the last residential school closed down only 20 years ago and nuns were teaching aboriginal kids Christianity for their own good! They think it is for their own good, but really, aboriginal are happy with their faith.

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  12. Hi Anah, this is Jenna from grade 6,
    After reading this book I can’t believe how mistreated the Aboriginal People were. Without the Aboriginal People a lot of thing we have today would of never existed. There are a lot of human right that are being violated in this book. Human right number 18, “the freedom of thought”, Human right number 28 “The right to a fair and free world, Human right number 24’’ the right to play, Human right number 16 ‘’the right to marriage and family, Human right number 1,’’ we are all born free and equal, Human right number 2,’’ don’t discriminate, Human right number 3’’, the right to life, Human number 26,’’ the right to education, Human right number 30,’’ no one can take away you human rights. These are most of the human rights that are being violated. The first residential school opened in the 1840s and the last one closed in 1996, which means human rights were around when this was happening! So why did this happen? So many Aboriginal people’s lives are scared because of residential schools. 1996 was only 19 years ago. I am disappointed in our country. The human rights were established in 1948 just after the war. We were violating their human rights that were entrenched into our constitution. Why was this happening? Thank you for bringing this book to my attention and I hope that the more people read this kind of books history will not repeat itself.

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  13. Thank you all for your comments! You’re all very insightful 🙂 I only wanted to add that while I understand what some have said about not focusing on the past, but on the present and future, it is important to remember that the impact of Residental schools is part of our present and our future. As one student pointed out, the last school closed in 1996. That may seem like a long time ago, but it really isn’t. I was in grade four in 1996. And I’m not that old 🙂 So there are still thousands upon thousands of people living with the lingering effects of trauma caused by these schools, many who do not have the means to get help, many still living whose experiences in Residental schools have scarred them for life. This brings “history” into the present. As well, the Residental schools’ policy was to “kill the indian to save the child,” meaning riding children of their culture in order to “civilize them.” The outcome of this is a continued deterioation of Indigeous people’s cultures, and a devaluing of their traditional cultures that is likewise a current issue. So while Residental schools are a thing of the past, their effects are still hugely present. Learning about the history, and talking about the past, helps us understand why our world is the way it is today, and hopefully inspires us in the present to make positive changes for the future. Saying we shouldn’t think about Residental Schools because they are a thing of the past is like saying to those who are still living with the hurt these schools caused that their experience is not important.
    I have enjoyed reading all your comments and seeing your discussion! Until next time and happy reading!

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