A book that shook me to the core. A tale of the survivors of the Canadian residential school system, written by a European immigrant to the country. It renders an outsider’s perspective on the story. Written with an open mind and willingness to understand the culture and society that on the surface feels so tolerant and welcoming but yet generated such perversion as the residential school’s system. But also a country that tries to face the past, heal and find a new path forward. Nothing is perfect in this book, it shatters and rebuilds the way we look at Canada.
As always let’s start with the title: The 27 Deaths of Toby Obed. I read this book during our beach week just outside Barcelona. It is not an obvious choice for a beach read, but I swallowed it within a single day. Joanna Gierak-Onoszko is a Polish journalist. She moved to Canada for several years, because of her husband’s work. She used this time as an opportunity to learn more about Canada and explore the stories of the survivors of the residential schools. The book focuses on their stories, the suffering they went through but also on their fight for justice.
It is amazing how many years it took to surface the atrocities that took place. The statements of indigenous people were easily dismissed because they didn’t fit the narrative. It took many brave people speaking out about their ordeal for it to finally sink into the common consciousness. Only then the state and courts could start dealing with it.
It is a story about the people who survived and those who died. But also a story about a society living in denial and now waking up and trying to make amends. With Gierak-Onoszko being an outsider we also get a story of the education of a person who arrived from a different environment. A person from Europe who on one hand was not directly involved, but on the other is a product of a culture that colonized Canada. A culture that aimed to wipe out the indigenous cultures. It is an introspection into the whole idea of the ‘west’ and colonialism and how it makes such things possible even today.
What was shocking for me is that the last residential schools closed in 1998. This is not so long ago. And it’s not like Canada is the only place where such things happened (in 2020 I read a book about Finland, that touched on the persecution of the Saami people). This is not something we can chalk up to the past and ‘olden ways’. This is something that continued happening when the father of the current Canadian PM was in power, for example.
I am fascinated by the approach of the Canadian state to giving justice to the people who suffered. It is far from perfect, but at least they try to find a way and heal. Whereas countries like Spain or Poland went more down the path, forget and rebuild. Which really doesn’t work either. There is no ideal solution, but I much prefer the Canadian way of at least having the courage to talk about it, to try and find a solution.
The only thing I have to say about the approach of the Catholic church to the matter (the majority of the schools were run by it) is that it is shameful. As everything they do.
I very much regret that this book has not been translated into English yet, but I do hope it’ll happen. It is one that really shook me deeply.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska