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School Board Burns Books Containing Harmful Representations of Indigenous People
March 1, 2022
Phuong Ngo, Grade 12

According to a report published by Radio-Canada in September 2021, the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, a francophone school board in Ontario, disposed of books deemed to contain inappropriate portrayals of Indigenous people in 2019. Among the list of works removed were novels, comic books, and encyclopedias. Almost 5000 books were discarded, and 30 were burned in a flame purification ceremony. The ashes from the ceremony were then used as fertilizer to plant a tree.

According to Lyne Cossette, the spokesperson of the school board, “many Aboriginal knowledge keepers and elders participated and were consulted at various stages, from the conceptualization to the evaluation of the books, to the tree planting initiative.”

The initiative, titled Redonnons à Mère Terre (Give Back to Mother Earth, in English), hoped “to make a gesture of openness and reconciliation by replacing books in [...] libraries that had outdated content and carried negative stereotypes about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.”

Notable works that were disposed of include certain Lucky Luke comics and Tintin in America due to the “negative portrayal of indigenous peoples and offending Aboriginal representation in the drawings.” 

Suzy Kies, the former co-chair of the Indigenous people’s commission of the Liberal Party, was one of the leaders involved in the project. She has since resigned from her position due to allegations of her not having status with Indigenous Services Canada. However, Kies maintains that she is of Indigenous descent. “Despite the hurtful questioning of my ancestry, identity and culture, I will continue my work to advance reconciliation and honour my family history," Kies said. 

Cossette said the following in a statement: “We were not aware that Suzy Kies does not have Indian status under the act and sincerely believed that we had the opportunity to work with an experienced Indigenous knowledge keeper.”

This project was met with condemnation by many party leaders during the election campaign. “On a personal level, I would never agree to the burning of books,” Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, said. However, he also acknowledged that non-Indigenous people should not “tell Indigenous people how they should feel or act to advance reconciliation.”

Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, said that “reconciliation is important for all Canadians and we have to have a system that does not discriminate.” 

O’Toole later tweeted the following: “A Conservative government will be committed to reconciliation. But the road to reconciliation does not mean tearing down Canada. I strongly condemn the burning of books.”

In a press conference, Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, was quoted saying “we don’t burn books. We expose ourselves to history, we explain it, we demonstrate how society has evolved or must evolve.”

The leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, encouraged Canadians to reflect on the news. “I have seen negative images, cartoons, and presentations that do not respect the dignity of Indigenous communities. So I think we really need to change our approach to teaching our children,” Singh stated. 

The school board has since released the following statement: “We regret that we did not intervene to ensure a more appropriate plan for the commemorative ceremony and that it was offensive to some members of the community. We sincerely regret the negative impact of this initiative intended as a gesture of reconciliation.