WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Celia Haig-Brown’s book Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School was one of the first texts to describe the experiences of residential school survivors from their perspectives, particularly those who had been forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It was published in 1988. Since then, many more books have been published by Indigenous writers, academics and survivors detailing those experiences. News outlets have written hundreds of stories. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created, releasing reports and sharing survivors’ experiences.
But when Haig-Brown set out to write her book more than three decades ago, there was very little to compare it with — and that presented its own challenges, including pushback from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers, because the legacy of residential schools had barely been questioned outside of Indigenous communities up to that point.
Haig-Brown, whose England-born father Roderick Haig-Brown was a celebrated writer and conservationist in B.C., is not Indigenous. She says she became interested in residential schools after speaking with Indigenous friends about their time in that system. She interviewed their family members to learn more.
But when she submitted her book to a publisher, Haig-Brown says she was quickly dismissed by an editor, who said she had a friend whose experiences teaching at a residential school were much different from those described in the book.
A persistent person with a drive to share the truth, Haig-Brown found another publisher. Tillicum Library Imprint, a division of Arsenal Pulp Press run by residential school survivor Randy Fred of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, was interested.
Fred said the stories in the book were similar to what he experienced at the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, B.C.
Fred wrote the foreword; he cut his nine years in the residential school system down to 10 pages during the editing process. He detailed the food — or lack thereof — the abuse, and the effect the system had on his family.
“After I finished writing that foreword, I cried for the first time in many, many, many years,” Fred recalled.
About 20,000 copies of the book have been sold since its release — a small number compared to bestsellers, but for a book tackling issues that were not yet mainstream at the time of publishing, not terrible. Haig-Brown said she feels the book has done “very well.”
For the most part, Haig-Brown said, initial reaction was positive. Indigenous people who went to other residential schools contacted her, telling her they had similar experiences.
However, there was some pushback from Indigenous communities; they questioned whether a non-Indigenous person should be sharing Indigenous stories.
“My only response I can come with, I think, is that the residential schools were white people doing their work,” she said. “For me to know about and talk about that was important.”
A newspaper review in Ontario, meanwhile, suggested the book was simply about a school in B.C., which perhaps didn’t represent what happened at residential schools in other parts of the country.
“I thought, wow, this is Ontario, they can’t accept anything that comes out of B.C. as being the truth,” said Haig-Brown, who now lives in Toronto.
33 years later
It’s been 33 years since Haig-Brown’s book was published, but only now are some Canadians acknowledging the atrocities Indigenous people faced at these so-called schools — prompted in part by the locating of about 200 potential burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and similar findings of unmarked graves at other schools across Canada this year.
Haig-Brown and Fred are glad people are paying attention — but they’re frustrated it took so long.
“I do find it incredibly disrespectful to all those Indigenous people who have told these stories again and again and have been ignored or seen to be making up things until we have this ground-penetrating radar,” Haig-Brown said.
“It’s like, if we can have science, then we’ll believe. But if thousands of people are telling these stories, they’re just stories.”
She said she never once questioned the validity of what she was told, unlike the first publisher she approached, because the people she interviewed had no reason to lie.
“The salient details of the palpable sorrow and the persisting horror of those moments — I couldn’t not believe … this was true. There was just no question,” Haig-Brown said.
Arsenal Pulp Press has seen a renewed interest in the text this year. But Haig-Brown said there are many more resources available these days, and focus should be shifted to Indigenous voices.
“I am non-Indigenous, I am a white woman. I think it’s important that we know these stories, but I also think it’s really important to hear what Indigenous people have to say themselves, and particularly at this time.”
Fred believes if the book was published today, it would be a bestseller.
“The discovery in Kamloops, the unmarked graves, I mean, that just totally changed so much … in society in general across Canada. It’s a huge impact,” he said.
That impact has given Haig-Brown hope for the future.
“It’s a really complex sense that comes out of this,” she said. “Sadness, sorrow, recognition … and hope for moving on, a hope for healing.”
Support is available for anyone affected by residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.