Indigenous 'expert' who advised book burnings at Catholic schools in Canada draws scrutiny


A Catholic school district in Canada that decided to burn 30 library books about indigenous people and remove some 4,700 others due to alleged mistakes and insensitive portrayals took advice from a woman whose indigenous status and expertise is now in question.

“We were not aware that Suzy Kies does not have Indian status under (federal law) and sincerely believed that we had the opportunity to work with an experienced Indigenous knowledge keeper,” Lyne Cossette, a spokesperson for the school board in southwest Ontario, told the Toronto Sun.

“These revelations have prompted us to rethink our library review process,” Cossette said. “As such, we are pausing the entire Giving Back to Mother Earth project and reviewing how to move forward with regard to the reconciliation efforts that were at the heart of this endeavor.”

Cosette said the school board had believed Kies’ claims to be “an Indigenous woman from the Wbanaki Confederacy and the Turtle Clan.” Others had made assurances that she was of indigenous descent.

“We regret that we did not research her more thoroughly,” she said.

Kies, who lives in the Barrie area north of Toronto, is an advocate for indigenous Canadians. In 2017 she became co-chair of the Indigenous peoples’ commission in the Liberal Party of Canada, which has held control of the House of Commons since 2015. The announcement of her appointment noted her claims of indigenous ancestry, specifically naming several indigenous bands. 

“Despite the hurtful questioning of my ancestry, identity and culture, I will continue my work to advance reconciliation and honor my family history,” Kies said. In a statement to CBC Radio-Canada, she said she resigned from her position on the Liberal Party commission because “I refuse to have my story used to harm Justin Trudeau and our party.”

Beginning in 2019, Kies advised a library weeding project that included book-burning for the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence. The Catholic school board oversees seven secondary schools and 23 primary schools, which have about 10,000 students total.

Over 4,700 individual books, comprised of several hundred titles, were removed from the shelves or put under review due to alleged outdated, incorrect, or inappropriate depictions of indigenous people. These included encyclopedias, historic works, comic books, and young adult novels. Removed books were buried, burned, or recycled.

Reporters could not confirm Kies’ claims of indigenous ancestry through consulting both civil records and the Abenaki Council of Odanak, which could not find her on its member list. Kies’ father was born in Luxembourg and her mother is of French ancestry. Genealogy expert Dominique Ritchot told Radio-Canada that Kies has no indigenous ancestor “for at least seven generations.”

The school board’s review of library books was conducted by school board members and Native advisors. Kies presented herself as an indigenous “Knowledge keeper” whose memory of oral history was more reliable than written records. In remarks reported by Radio-Canada, she objected to “stories written by Europeans, from a Eurocentric perspective and not by Indigenous people.”

The school board project aimed to hold a reconciliation ceremony which burned books in 30 schools and then use the ashes as fertilizer for a tree. The Ontario Ministry of Education was involved in the ceremony project but not in deciding which books were selected.

The project was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Only about 30 of these books were burned in a purported effort to promote reconciliation and education. The ashes were used as fertilizer for a tree.

“We bury the ashes of racism, discrimination and stereotypes in the hope that we will grow up in an inclusive country where all can live in prosperity and security,” said a video Kies produced for students, Radio-Canada reports. She criticized the presentation of indigenous people as “unreliable, lazy, drunkards, stupid.”

“People are panicking about burning books, but we are talking about millions of books that have negative images of indigenous people, which perpetuate stereotypes, which are really damaging and dangerous,” Kies said.

Cosette, the school board spokesperson, had initially defended removing the books as “a gesture of reconciliation with the First Nations” and “a gesture of openness towards the other communities present in the school and our society.”

Franklin Carter of the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee published a 165-page list of the books concerned. The Book and Periodical Council characterized the treatment of the books and other material as an “act of censorship” that is “one of the worst in recent Canadian history.”

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The list includes dozens of books on First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Native American and Alaska native leaders, cultures and stories, as well as fictional portrayals. Many of the books reviewed were less than two decades old.

The list faulted the removed books for alleged unacceptable language, erroneous information, misrepresentations of indigenous people in drawings, presentations of natives as the villains, or presentation of indigenous cultures as a singular culture rather than identifying their differences.

Cowboy or “Cowboys and Indians”-themed works also drew scrutiny.

A CNA review of the list does not indicate any of the targeted works concerned Catholicism or Catholic history specifically, though works about some European Catholic explorers and colonizers of the Americas were removed. These included books about Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, and the Spanish conquistadors.

Kies had criticized an Asterix comic book’s sexualized portrayal of a buxom young Native American woman, dressed in a miniskirt and shirt with a low neckline.

“Would you run in the woods in a miniskirt? But people think so,” she said, contending that Native women were wrongly depicted as sexually available.

Disney’s portrayal of Pocahontas also came under criticism from Kies.

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“Pocahontas, she’s so sexual and sensual, for us native women it's dangerous,” she said, according to a Sept. 7 Radio-Canada report.  

More than a dozen titles recommended for removal relate to Disney’s Pocahontas and its sequel, both books, music albums and videos. A French-language 2003 book adaptation of the Walt Disney movie Brother Bear should be removed, on the grounds that the Disney perspective “does not privilege the reality of indigenous cultures,” the list said. A 1987 French-language book of Walt Disney’s Hiawatha, should be removed for unacceptable language and “false representation of a native character.” Another 1988 Hiawatha book, apparently based on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, was listed as under evaluation.

Several books about the popular Belgian comic book hero Tintin drew scrutiny. A 2010 novelization of the movie Avatar is under evaluation, as is the 1982 novel The Indian in the Cupboard. Books that featured Native American-inspired crafts for children were criticized for “cultural appropriation.”

Jacques Thériault-Watso, an elected leader with the Council of Abenakis of Odanak band, criticized Kies as “another person who played on the fact that there are few Aboriginals in the political and institutional world.” He told Radio-Canada “the Liberal Party has not done its homework, taking her at her word.”

Marcel Levasseu, a Quebec comic book author, was among those whose books were withdrawn. His comic book series LaFleche, set centuries ago in New France, makes fun of the relationship among Aboriginal peoples, the French, and English soldiers.  Levasseu said the school board’s action made him question whether to continue work on the fourth entry for LaFleche.

“In 10 years, I have gone from almost an award winner to a banned author,” he lamented, according to Radio Canada. “Realizing that it can be so fragile, that it can become an object of shame overnight… Do I want to keep fighting?”

Sylvie Brien, author of the young adult novel The Indian College Affair, said the school board action was “incredible.”

“What right do they have to do such a thing? It's completely ridiculous,” she said. Her book, set in 1920, includes a teenage girl character who defends an indigenous man wrongly accused of setting a fire. Her work addresses the subject of Canada’s residential schools.

Jean-Claude Larocque, co-author of the removed title Le Fils des Hurons, said the authors were “very rigorous in our research” for the book, a biography of the explorer Étienne Brûlé.

Some experts did voice sympathy with the review committee’s claim that shirtless pictures of indigenous people are false representations. While men and women would go shirtless in hot weather, such lack of dress while hunting or fishing would mean vulnerability to fly bites. Shirtless combat is also unrealistic.

Normand Baillargeon, an educational philosopher, said that burning books “seems extremely disturbing to me” and has “historical overtones that I don't like. at all.”

He tended to endorse rethinking and correcting previous portrayals of indigenous people, but said that there is a difference between including a book in a school course and removing it from the library. Faulty drawings are less serious flaws in comic books than they are in encyclopedias. Withdrawing a book would need “very serious” reasons.

Ingrid Anderson, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Education, said school resources must be “free from any prejudice and any form of discrimination” and must also promote inclusion.

For some Indigenous Canadians, tribal enrollment itself can be a contested topic, affected by federal laws which sometimes change. Several groups contend the Canadian governments wrongly ignore their claims to be recognized as a tribe.

The so-called “Sixties Scoop,” 1960s-era adoption and foster programs designed to place indigenous children with non-indigenous families, have come under scrutiny from critics who charge that these programs fractured families and cut off generations from their parents’ culture.

There have also been prominent people who have made false claims of indigenous ancestry, to the point of alleged fraud. In May 2021, the New York Times reported on American academic Andrea Smith, who without evidence claimed to be of Cherokee ancestry and presented herself as such in books, on academic panels, and in Native American activism. She had no identifiable Native American family links. Other academics, activists and political leaders have wrongly or falsely claimed indigenous ancestry.

The Catholic school board’s library review project predates the 2021 renewed controversy over Catholic and Protestant groups’ involvement in running residential schools, which aimed to forcibly assimilate indigenous children in line with the federal government’s goals. The schools were of poor quality, with the students suffering from abuse and poor living conditions. Diseases like tuberculosis were especially deadly, and an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 children died over decades.

The recent rediscovery of hundreds of unmarked graves, an undetermined number of which are of residential school students, resulted in grief from affected communities, renewed apologies from Catholic leaders, and vandalism and arson targeting Catholic and other churches.

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