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Canada: Schools destroy 5,000 books deemed harmful to Indigenous people, including Tintin and Asterix

They were dumped, some burned and buried, by an Ontario school board that accuses them of propagating stereotypes. The authors are appalled.

A great literary clean-up took place in the libraries of the Providence Catholic School Board, which brings together 30 French-language schools throughout southwestern Ontario. Nearly 5,000 children's books on Aboriginal people were destroyed in an effort to reconcile with the First Nations, Radio-Canada has learned.

A flame purification ceremony was held in 2019 to burn around thirty banned books, for educational purposes. The ashes were used as fertilizer to plant a tree and thus turn from negative to positive.

A video for students explains the process: "We bury the ashes of racism, discrimination and stereotypes in the hope that we will grow up in an inclusive country where all can live in prosperity and security."

Similar ceremonies were to be held in each of the schools, but the pandemic postponed them until later. The initial idea of ​​burning all the books was also dismissed, fearing an outcry from parents and teachers.

"These books have been or are in the process of being recycled," explains School Board spokesperson Lyne Cossette. She adds that "the books removed from libraries had outdated and inappropriate content."

The Providence Catholic School Board welcomes nearly 10,000 students in 23 elementary schools and 7 French-language secondary schools, located mainly in the regions of Windsor, London and Sarnia.

A 165-page document, which we obtained, details all of the titles eliminated, as well as the reasons given. There are comics, novels and encyclopedias.

A committee of school board members and Aboriginal guides analyzed hundreds of children's books about First Nations. The Ontario Ministry of Education was involved in the ceremony project, but not in the selection of books.

The author of the student video is Suzy Kies, presented as an "Indigenous Knowledge Keeper". She is one of those who have supported the school board in its process, from 2019 in its case.

She denounces the indigenous characters presented in children's books as "unreliable, lazy, drunkards, stupid..." "When we perpetuate this kind of image in the minds of young people, it's difficult to get rid of it.

Who is Suzy Kies?

Suzy Kies presents herself as an independent researcher. She offers training to schools across Ontario. The Providence School Board notes that she has extensive knowledge of several different Aboriginal nations.

She has also been co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada since 2016. Justin Trudeau's party website presents her as an urban Aboriginal of Abenaki and Montagnais descent .

According to the Providence School Board, "this Aboriginal committee [is] consulted by the Prime Minister of Canada" Justin Trudeau.

Suzy Kies says she works with other Ontario school boards who want to learn from the project.

Tintin in America, a racist book?
The School Board criticizes the comic Tintin in America for having "an unacceptable language", "the incorrect information", "a negative portrayal of indigenous peoples" and "offending Aboriginal representation in the drawings."

In Hergé's comic book, published in 1932, one of the author's best-selling books in the world, we notably find the appellation Peau-Rouge. Prisoners of the Sun has also been removed.

The book Les Esquimaux, published in 1981, was withdrawn because it uses a now pejorative term to describe the Inuit. The use of the word "Indian" has also been a reason for withdrawal from many books. A book is even being evaluated because it uses the word "Amerindian".

Three Lucky Luke albums have been retired. One of the criticisms often made by the committee is the "power imbalance" with whites and "Aboriginals seen as the bad guys".

The Conquest of the West: Native Americans, Settlers and Settlers was withdrawn because of the word "conquest" in the title. "We want to [r] lower a population," writes the evaluation committee to justify the withdrawal.

The School Board criticizes the book Living Like the American Indians for not identifying the different Aboriginal cultures, but for presenting them as a whole.

Books that featured crafts described as "cultural appropriation" were also withdrawn. A book was considered a "lack of respect for the culture" because it offered an activity called "eat, write, dress like the Indians."

Dismayed authors denounce censorship
Quebec comic book author Marcel Levasseur is devastated when we learn that his character Laflèche has been withdrawn from school libraries. "He feels a lot of sadness, a lot of incomprehension."

In 2011, the book was a finalist for the Tamarac Prize, awarded by the Ontario Library Association. In 10 years, I have gone from almost an award winner to a banned author.

The humorous comic book takes place during the War of the Conquest, at the time of New France, and makes fun of the relations between the Aboriginals and the French and English soldiers. The school board accuses him of "unacceptable language" and a "faulty representation of the Natives in the drawings."

"This is not a history book", defends Marcel Levasseur. "We use History as a backdrop and we have fun with it, a bit like Asterix. In humorous comics, we turn the corners."

Marcel Levasseur is so devastated by the news of the withdrawal of his comic that he calls into question the production of the 4th album, in preparation. "Realizing that it can be so fragile, that it can become an object of shame overnight… Do I want to keep fighting?"

The author says he has already faced criticism, even from those close to him, because one of his native characters is an alcoholic. Other soldier characters are thick bullies, the author explains.

The book Trafic chez les Hurons, by journalist André Noël, was also eliminated from the shelves, among other things because the school board noticed alcoholism there.

No author has been informed of the withdrawal of their books.

"It's incredible. What right do they have to do such a thing? It's completely ridiculous," denounces Sylvie Brien, whose children's novel The Indian College Affair has been withdrawn. The school board does not specify the reason for this withdrawal.

This is a story that takes place in 1920 with fictional characters and places. In the story, a teenage girl defends an Aboriginal man wrongly accused of causing a fire.

The author rejects any prejudice: "On the contrary, I denounced things that we did not say." She claims to be one of the first among youth writers to address the horrors of residential schools based on period documents.

Libraries and Archives Canada has already written about this book that "Sylvie Brien rightly addresses the subject of boarding schools where young indigenous people, torn from their families, were educated far from their parents and their traditions."

Biographies thrown for recycling
Two biographies of Jacques Cartier published in the 1980s have been withdrawn for information deemed outdated and false.

The biography of explorer Étienne Brûlé, Le Fils des Hurons, also paid the price of the committee, in particular for false historical information. Among other things, the committee did not like the painting used on the cover of the book.

The authors are two history graduates from the University of Ottawa who have taught in French-language schools in Ontario, Jean-Claude Larocque and Denis Sauvé. Their work has received several distinctions.

"We were very rigorous in our research and we find that very disappointing," reacts Jean-Claude Larocque. Le Fils des Hurons was inspired by the doctoral thesis of archaeologist Bruce G. Trigger. The latter's work was so appreciated and recognized that he received the title of honorary member of the Huron-Wendat Nation.

"Are we going back to the Index?," asks Jean-Claude Larocque, referring to the list of books banned in Catholic schools until the 1960s.

Suzy Kies judges that these are "stories written by Europeans, from a Euro-centric perspective and not by Indigenous people." She asserts that "knowledge keepers" like her, who memorize orally transmitted knowledge, are more reliable than written records.

The review committee also criticizes Étienne Brûlé's biography for a faulty representation in the drawings. Their book has only one illustration, on the cover page where Aboriginal people are shirtless.

The naked torso of the natives cannot be accepted

According to the committee formed by the School Board, drawing shirtless Aboriginals constitutes "a misrepresentation" and justifies eliminating a children's book from the shelves.

On this question, the opinion of specialists is less clear-cut.

"Yes, if it was hot, the men were shirtless. Women too, on occasion," says UQAM sociology professor Leila Inksetter, member of the Interuniversity Center for Native Studies and Research.

We asked for the opinion of anthropologist Nicole O'Bomsawin, member of the community of Odanak and former director of the Musée des Abénakis from 1984 to 2006.

"It's a little embarrassing to see the depiction of shirtless aboriginals in children's stories," she explains. "I can't imagine shirtless warriors."

The sexualization of Indigenous women also disturbed the Providence Catholic School Board.

Suzi Kies deplores the sexualization of the Native who falls in love with Obelix in Asterix and the Indians. The young woman is represented with a plunging neckline and a mini-skirt.

"Would you run in the woods in a miniskirt? But people think so," she regrets. "We developed what is called sexual savagery, an image of native women as easy women."

"What should we do with all these books? We cannot remove them. I'm not sure it's the right thing to do. It's part of an era," responds Indigenous anthropologist Nicole O'Bomsawin.

During her career, she visited hundreds of schools and met thousands of students in Quebec to share another version of history, to break down prejudices and stereotypes and also to update the image of the Native American.

According to Ms. O'Bomsawin, librarians should still be advised to watch out for stereotypes.

Nicole O'Bomsawin draws a parallel with people who want to debunk statues. "There would be a way to put the place in context and ensure that there is an explanation for talking about History, rather than erasing History."

Quebec school librarians agree. "Our values ​​are to go as little as possible towards censorship, because some teachers may decide to approach controversial books as a counter-example educational choice," says Ariane Régnier, president of the Association for the promotion of school documentary services.

Quebec schools have reportedly decided to keep controversial books, but to store them in a special place. According to Ariane Régnier, there is no school service center in Quebec that has started a process similar to that in southwestern Ontario.

The representative of Quebec school librarians explains that "each teacher is free to decide whether or not to remove a book from his class." According to her, "it is also the responsibility to support the student in his reading, to put it in context."

Suzy Kies disagrees. "In an ideal world, we could take the time to explain the situation to each child, with each book, but we don't live in that world."

According to the "knowledge keeper", we can very well talk about the books in question without asking the children to go and read them. "When the children are in college, they will be able to make the distinction."

Can a non-native write a book about native people?
A legend that tells of the creation of Prince Edward Island and the lives of the Mi'kmaq has been removed from the libraries of the Providence School Board, under the pretext that the authors are not Mi'kmaq.

Another book entitled Les Indiens, published in 2000, was thrown for recycling, among other things because it is a product of France, without consultation of the indigenous communities of Canada.

According to Suzy Kies, "a book about Indigenous people cannot be written by a non-Indigenous person unless an Indigenous person has edited or contributed to the work. Never about us without us," she says, citing a principle that is gaining ground.

Recently, Prize de parole, a publishing house in Ontario, has had Native peoples perform a cultural review of books on Native subjects. Some publishing houses also do it in Quebec.

Indigenous authors have also been removed
Even native writers have been sent for recycling because of the use of words deemed inappropriate.

The youth novel Indian Winter, Michael Noel, was dismissed for racial remarks, more acceptable language, misinformation, white power on Aboriginal people, and inability to operate without Aboriginal whites.

This unflattering portrait surprises the vice-president of the Hurtubise publishing house, Arnaud Foulon. He recalls that the author, who died in April, was of Algonquin descent. Ethnologist, Michel Noël worked for the government of Quebec  for the defense and enhancement of indigenous culture, particularly in schools.

According to Arnaud Foulon, who is also president of the National Association of Book Publishers, "the use of the word Indian in the novel echoes the reality of an era."

The publishers' representative recognizes, however, that "old books may have errors, or even no longer have their place. But you have to be careful," he adds. One of the goals of schools is to open up students to a variety of points of view and knowledge.

The philosopher specializing in education Normand Baillargeon brings a nuanced reflection on the subject.

"That the time has come to rethink what we teach about Indigenous history is normal and healthy, but that we burn books seems extremely disturbing to me, it has historical overtones that I don't like at all."

According to him, there may be reasons to withdraw a book, for example if it contains objectively ascertainable falsehoods. But the philosopher specifies that the reasons should be very serious, studied very carefully.

Normand Baillargeon adds other nuances: "It is not the same thing to have unacceptable language in a fantastic story, with a character, as in a history book."

Likewise, it is not the same to have a faulty drawing when it comes to a comic book, as when it comes to an encyclopedia.

The Ontario Ministry of Education explains that the choice of books in libraries is the responsibility of each school board.

"They must ensure that an effective process is in place to proceed with the selection and approval of resources to be used in schools and that the resources selected are free from any prejudice and any form of discrimination and that they promote inclusion," explains ministry spokesperson Ingrid Anderson.

Source: Radio Canada
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