Monday, July 18, 2011

A Stranger At Home: a True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes
Published by
Annick Press

This book is the life of author, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, the sequel to "Fatty Legs" by the same authors. It is also the life of Canada's shame, the story of how the government took the children away from all aboriginal nations and sent them to Catholic residential schools. "A Stranger at Home" tells the true story of Margaret's return to her parents in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories and how she was snubbed by family, friends, and townspeople. I have not read "Fatty Legs", but must because it will take me into her years in school.

The boat bringing home the children is arriving in Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk as they call it. Parents and siblings are waiting for the arrival, but when Margaret approaches her mother, she says "Not my daughter!" Margaret's hair has been cut, she is in clothing supplied by the school, and all tradition is gone. She can not even remember how to speak her language, Invialuktun. She is unable to understand her mother and her mother does not understand her. Her siblings look at Margaret as though she were an alien. She is now an "outsider" and is devastated. The book is well named because Margaret is indeed "a stranger at home". Her father does speak English, fortunately, and he is her only strength.

Margaret can no longer eat the food her mother prepares. She can't eat and loses weight. Even the food at the Hudson Bay store doesn't appeal to her. She is horrified when the family eats without saying grace, and is terrified that her family will go to Hell. This is what she has been taught, and that it is her responsibility to convert her family. Margaret's best friend Agnes can no longer play with or see her, because she only knows English. Agnes kept her language by telling herself stories in her mind and occasionally naming things in her room, but she is punished when she is caught. Margaret's only happiness is playing with the dogs and reading. She particularly likes "Gulliver's Travels", relating to it in a way.

Through her father's attention and help, and her mother trying to find communication, Margaret finally finds a way to be a part of her family again. She is once again Olemaun Pokiak, her Inuvialuit, or Inuit name. She is able to eat the food her mother prepares. She remembers how to skin caribou, and she is able to drive a team and sled. But still she misses her home on Banks Island where she was so happy growing up. Tuktoyaktuk still seems like a stopover, and soon it will prove to be just that when the government people come and tell them that the children must go to the school, and that includes Margaret's siblings.

This is a book everyone should read. It is written for school-age, but I feel it should be read and explained by adults who can remember this time, or who understand this time, so the children and young adults will understand what happened, how it affected the families, and how so many languages almost went extinct.

Kudos to those who have worked hard to restore the languages, beliefs and teach their children of the old ways. That is not the whole story, though. Through the efforts of people like Margaret, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the aboriginal renewal has been underway for the past several years and now many languages have been retrieved and spoken, old customs have been returned, although now updated.

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