Despite a discussion that lasted about 90 minutes, the 240-plus people that tuned into the livestream for the first part of the Durham District School Board (DDSB) meeting Tuesday evening are still in the dark as to why The Great Bear by David A. Robertson was pulled from DDSB’s library collection for review.
Over the weekend, news that DDSB in Ontario had pulled the Swampy Cree author’s second book in a middle-grade level Misewa Saga trilogy raised a storm on social media with cries of censorship.
Censorship, although mentioned only once by a trustee, was also a common topic of the 21 written questions from the public that the board received.
“Why are you acting as gatekeepers and not educators?” asked one person.
In response to the questions, DDSB director Norah Marsh said, “This is a complex time for us as a district. It’s not easy work. It’s very challenging in terms of wanting to make sure that every child who picks up a book sees themselves reflected positively and from an asset-based lens. That is the goal in terms of making sure we start addressing disproportionate outcomes by making sure that we start by reflecting in a culturally-relevant and reflective way.”
To that end, the Indigenous Education Policy and Procedures came into effect in September 2021 to guide the school board’s work and “in recognition that Indigenous Peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations, which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.”
However, “Indigenous Peoples” appears to be defined narrowly when it comes to the work of the DDSB and administration.
Marsh stressed the land acknowledgement that was made at the beginning of the meeting recognized the board’s treaty partners and were who the board was accountable to: the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, the Mississauga peoples and the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.
“We became aware of the concern about a book from some Indigenous families within our district and them wanting to hold us accountable to the policy in terms of ensuring that we don’t impact their children negatively and cause harm,” said Marsh.
“When these concerns are brought forward, swift action will always be taken in protection of Indigenous students and families which may, as it does in this case, include a review of resources to ensure they align with the Indigenous Education Policy and Procedures,” said Superintendent Erin Elmhurst, who also leads the Indigenous education department.
However, the concerns of the Indigenous families were not detailed nor was the number of Indigenous families that complained quantified.
Marsh pointed out that Robertson had not been contacted initially because the “first contact was going to be with treaty holders on whose lands we’re on.”
However, trustee Linda Stone did speak to Robertson, emphasizing it was not on behalf of the board.
She said Robertson, who was disappointed with what had happened, told her he had gone to Cree knowledge keepers and was given approval for the book.
“I know that Indigenous peoples are not a single identity. There’s many different cultures,” said Stone. “So are these cultures clashing at this point? How does the board figure out what is acceptable and what isn’t when knowledge keepers have given him approval for this book? … Are we contacting Crees for their input on this?” said Stone.
Trustee Michael Barrett said that while he “appreciate(d) very much the connectivity and the connections we’ve made with our Indigenous community … there has been indeed a great deal of pain that has been caused across this country” with how the publicity of the issue was handled by the administration.
Marsh was critical that Penguin Random House, the book’s publisher, had gone public with the situation. She said that two emails from Penguin had improper filters and were not received by those they were addressed to. She added that Penguin had not pursued the situation with a phone call.
She said it had not been administration’s intentions to go public with the review of the book as the process had only begun. She also noted that the review was not at the point to involve either the author or the publisher. However, she said that they had “reached out” on Tuesday to set up a meeting with Robertson.
Associate Director Jim Markovski said a review of the complaints will include engaging with Indigenous students and families and the Indigenous Education Advisory Committee, which includes treaty partners, the Keenanow Indigenous Employee Network, and Indigenous expertise.
“This is a full and thorough consultation process … to make sure all system resources are properly vetted to prevent harm,” said Markovski.
Initially, Stone introduced a motion asking that the board be presented with a list of all books that had been removed from the library in the past two years, as well as books that were now being reviewed. However, concerns were raised by a number of trustees that such a list could result in “similar angst” of the past weekend.
The board eventually passed a motion directing DDSB staff to present trustees by the end of May with “a report … around the removal of books, including the policy explaining the criteria for doing so, and the report include a chart with the themes that trigger a book review and that the report be presented to the governance committee no later than June 1, 2022.”
Robertson is no stranger to having his books viewed critically by school boards. His graphic novels 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga and Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story were both included on “not recommended” lists by the Edmonton Public School Board in Alberta in 2018.
In 2021, Robertson was recipient of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Freedom to Read award. The annual award recognizes work “in support of freedom of expression.”
In the 2020 edition of the Freedom to Read magazine, Robertson wrote, “A growing number of Indigenous creators are writing important own voices stories that help make a teacher’s job (for example, having pre- and post-conversations with students) a bit easier. Own voices refers to marginalized characters who are written by authors from the marginalized group; they have lived experience. It’s counterproductive to have administrative bodies ostensibly take these valuable resources away.”
Robertson has written more than 20 books and has won the Governor General’s award for Young People’s Literature – Illustrated Books twice. He is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg.
Windspeaker.com reached out to Robertson for comment. However, in an email from Penguin Random House, representative Evan Munday said Robertson “is taking a break from speaking publicly on this matter at the moment …This situation has caused a significant amount of mental distress, especially in light of at least one staff member of the DDSB accusing him of harassing indigenous families on social media.”