The co-author of a book mentioned as part of the controversy surrounding an Abbotsford school’s assignment on residential schools is speaking out.
Christy Jordan-Fenton said it is upsetting to hear that the book Fatty Legs – written by her and her mother-in-law Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton – may have been misinterpreted and taught in a way that minimizes the traumatic impacts of residential schools.
Last week, Abbotsford mom Krista Macinnis went public with her anger over her daughter’s class being assigned to write five positive stories or facts about residential schools. Her daughter is in Grade 6 at W.A. Fraser Middle School.
The controversy resulted in an apology from the Abbotsford school district and a written statement from superintendent Kevin Godden posted on the district website.
Macinnis, who is Metis with Cree and Blackfoot heritage, said the students had been reading Fatty Legs, a memoir about Pokiak-Fenton’s two years at a religious residential school.
Macinnis said her understanding was that the book was being used in the context that there is a positive side to residential schools, and that those stories should be heard.
Jordan-Fenton said she and her mother-in-law are in support of Macinnis in speaking out.
“The assignment given by this teacher is disturbing and harmful. We are appalled that Margaret-Olemaun’s experiences would be used in this way,” she said.
Jordan-Fenton said Fatty Legs focuses on how a traditional upbringing and a strong spirit helped Pokiak-Fenton “to endure the most horrific time of her life.”
“We did not choose to give the power in her story to the abusive staff at the school, and the abusive system of residential schools, but to focus on how a very young girl saved herself as her own hero, day after day,” she said.
“That does not mean the school she went to wasn’t that bad. It was, and just how bad it was is probably something that will remain locked away with … Olemaun forever.”
Jordan-Fenton said Pokiak-Fenton has a light-hearted story about slipping and sliding up and down the recreation room floor in wool stockings, to polish the floor.
But, she said, beneath that story is the hours and hours spent on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor with harsh chemicals.
She said her mother-in-law likes to tell the story of slipping and sliding because it feels better than talking about how many chores were given to her as a form of abuse.
Jordan-Fenton said the book also shares other terrible things, in age-appropriate ways. She said that when Pokiak-Fenton returned home after two years of no contact with her family, her mother didn’t recognize her and they no longer shared a common language.
“She could no longer speak to her mother, who could no longer see her little girl in the skinny, gaunt, and traumatized child brought back to her.”
Jordan-Fenton said for survivors to focus only on what was good helps them remain resilient and cope with trauma. But that doesn’t mean they had a good experience.
“Respecting the right to silence, or the right to share only what a survivor wants to share, does not absolve us from the factual knowledge that the residential school system was an act of genocide,” she said.
The school assignment listed two web links to help students in their research of positive experiences about residential schools. One of the links was to a 2008 news article that quoted the late Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese, who was a mentor to Jordan-Fenton.
She said it was disturbing that his words were being used to support the teacher’s “revisionist agenda.”
Jordan-Fenton said that when Wagamese stated that his mom liked to focus on the good things – like learning to sew – he was not saying residential schools weren’t bad places.
“He was saying survivors have a right to frame their own stories how they want to,” she said.
She said Wagamese wrote extensively about the generational impacts, including how the residential school experience left his mom and dad “completely incapable of parenting him or his siblings.”
Jordan-Fenton said for a teacher to use his words out of context is “irresponsible at best, and intentionally or unintentionally, it is revisionism and the perpetuation of a falsehood.”
She said she stands behind Macinnis and any other parent in a similar situation.
“We also stand behind survivors being allowed to determine what of their own stories they want to share, and respecting those stories as their stories, not tools for a colonial agenda.”