In the 19th century, the government of Canada, like the United States, began a systematic assault on Indigenous People. Land was confiscated. Rules and laws were established that controlled where and when Indigenous People could live, work, and travel. Perhaps the most insidious, disgusting action was the establishment of compulsory schools for Indigenous children, who were removed from their families, starved, abused, and indoctrinated into Christianity and the white way of life.
Concentration Camps of Canada attempts to tell the story of one man who lived through the school system, became a war hero, but still lost his family and everything dear to him. I say “attempts” because this is less of a story and more a collection of vignettes stitched together in a rough story form. We first meet the boy, Migizi, as he arrives at school, completely unprepared for what he will encounter. Several chapters recount his experiences with being beaten by the nuns and priests who ran the school, enduring barely edible food, spartan living conditions, constant exposure to sickness and death, and sexual abuse culminating in the suicide of his one close friend.
The first four chapters focus on Migizi’s life at the school, then suddenly in chapter 5, Migizi is a young man working on a farm, attracted to the farmer’s daughter and ultimately beaten and told to leave her alone. Then he is a drunken husband with three children in the next chapter, then he’s working in a tannery, then he’s in the Army and a brave hero, then he’s remarried, then he’s losing his children…you get the idea. There are no transitions here, no resolutions. The writing is capable enough, and there are parts where it really sings, but there is no cohesive story here, often resulting in wooden dialog and awkward moments. For example, the description of Migizi repairing communication wires in the middle of a field in World War II is presented as dialog between Migizi and a fellow soldier, but it sounds stilted and unnatural, as though the soldier were reading a news story.
I believe the author’s intent to shine a light on the compulsory schools and treatment of Indigenous People in Canada is well-intentioned. However, the mashing up of several true stories has resulted in a muddy, disjointed narrative. There is no authentic storytelling here. It’s a bit like a Kennedy writing The Underground Railroad – the good intent is there, but the authenticity is lacking. The horror of what happened to Migizi comes through, but in a clinical “news story” kind of way.
The author claims that Hitler’s concentration camps were inspired by the compulsory schools; some quick research does not fully support that. It is widely believed that Hitler admired the reservation system used in the United States and Canada, so it’s certainly not a leap to assume he was aware of the schools and their organization. However, by titling this book “Concentration Camps of Canada,” the author attempts to make the connection, but the book itself does not support the theory. This topic is far too serious to be reduced to a sensationalized headline or title.
Despite the shortcomings, I will say that this book, more than any other I’ve read recently, has prompted me to do some research and dig deeper into this shameful piece of history. The story is simple enough that it will appeal to the YA audience, and it would make a decent supplement to a social studies segment on First Nation people, if only to ignite discussion and further research on compulsory schools and concentration camps.