Early Literacy | Jun 28, 2017
I’d seen it before in the dentist’s office - a mural-sized scene, mounted and hung on the wall to amuse young patients awaiting their checkups. The cartoon picture has a “Where’s Waldo” quality about it with multitudinous sheep, bears and vehicles filling the canvas to all edges of the picture. I noticed the sheep first, then a dragon on the side of transport truck. I saw trucks, cars, bicycles, trains and traffic jams. Eventually I noticed that the central traffic jam had been caused by a family of ducks crossing an intersection. It was only much later that I noted the facial expressions of all those bears snarled in the traffic jam. They looked happy or surprised. Where were the feelings of impatience, frustration or anger? As I studied the picture I wondered what else might be part of this story that was simply left out.
My early morning musing at the dentist’s triggered thinking about the image Canadians hold in their minds and hearts about Canada. From coast to coast to coast we are celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, yet our image of Canada is dependent on our experiences of life in Canada. Can any picture of Canada be complete?
To commemorate Canada’s 150th, well-known Canadian illustrators of children’s books were asked to express their feelings about Canada through art. Each illustrator interpreted one page of a new picture book called “I Am Canada: A Celebration” written by Heather Patterson. In addition to the fascinating images children see as they read the story, the illustrators’ written views of Canada are highlighted in the end pages. The illustrators’ unique perspectives about Canada shine through in the details of their art as well as in their words.
Another new board book called “A Northern Alphabet” shows images of Canada through the artwork of Group of Seven painter Ted Harrison. This alphabet book shows the significance of place and of Inuit life and culture in the far north.
“C is for Canada: Celebrating our Nation” by Mike Ulmer is also newly published. This beautifully illustrated book for preschool and primary school-aged children offers children an opportunity to think, talk about, and make connections between its pictures and text with their knowledge and experiences as young Canadians from various regions in Canada.
And yet, as I held these beautiful, celebratory books for children in my hands, I found myself wondering, what am I not seeing about Canada in these books? Just like the picture in the dental office, I realized that I could easily choose to see only what I looked for. And then my eyes fell upon a picture book for young children called “Shi-shi-etko” by Nicola I. Campbell. This exquisitely illustrated and gently told story is about a young child at the end of summer preparing to go to school for the first time. Shi-shi-etko, whose name means “she loves to play in the water”, doesn’t know what school will be like. What she knows is her life at home. She loves playing and exploring, listening to the stories and teachings of her parents and grandparents. The days before school shorten and Shi-shi-etko uses her fingers to count the number of sleeps left before she must leave all that is familiar. Shi-shi-etko is Indigenous and going to school for her means leaving her family and community for most of a year to attend a residential school. The story focuses on the strength and love of Shi-shi-etko’s family, and is told with sensitivity and authenticity.
The story of Canada is complex and filled to each edge of the picture frame with truths that are hard to reconcile. Where should I focus my gaze on Canada Day in 2017? What part of the story will I choose to see? The depth and meaning of Canada’s story with Indigenous Peoples, I think, will never be static for me. As Indigenous stories of both past and present gain greater visibility, I feel the shame and sorrow of colonialism. But I also feel joy, privilege, and respect in knowing those whose ancestors were here long before my ancestors arrived on Turtle Island/North America. On Canada Day I will be celebrating friendship and hope for Canada’s future - a future that looks carefully at what has been missing in our collective story so that we can truly embrace justice, understanding and opportunity for all Peoples who call Canada home.