Transparency questioned after Ontario school district pulls Cree author’s book

Ontario school board trustees are seeking transparency and clarity after a Winnipeg-based Cree author’s children’s book was temporarily pulled from schools over complaints.

David A. Robertson, an award-winning author and member of the Norway House Cree Nation, discovered his book titled The Great Bear had been temporarily removed from schools in Ontario’s Durham District School Board pending a review.

Robertson told CTV News Tuesday morning he still doesn’t know why the book, which he said is a middle-grade fantasy series meant to empower Indigenous children, was removed.

“If we are now going to start pulling those books, then I think we are taking huge steps backwards on the path that we are trying to walk on in Canada,” he said.

He said several teachers within the district have messaged him privately in support of his book.

During a meeting Tuesday evening, Norah Marsh, Durham District School Board’s director of education, said a review of Robertson’s book was prompted after Indigenous families within the district brought forward concerns about the book.

She did not specify what the concerns were.

“We are therefore conducting a review based on the complaints we have received, but we have made no definitive decision,” she said. “The purpose of the review is to engage with Indigenous students, employees and communities to seek their direction.”

Marsh said the district reached out to set up a meeting with Robertson as well as an Indigenous advisor and members of the Indigenous Education Department. She said it was not the district’s intention to publicly impact anyone’s reputation, and said they did not contact Robertson initially as they were reaching out to the Indigenous community first.

“We did not inform him that there were questions yet because it was premature in terms of drawing any judgment prior to the review process occurring,” she said.

However, the district’s handling of the situation prompted concern from trustees – one of whom told the board she heard from two Indigenous students who said they feel their experience has been invalidated by the decision.

“There are students within our board even that feel hurt by the decision-making or the perceived decision-making that has occurred thus far,” Trustee Niki Lundquist said, calling for more clarity around the process of reviewing resources.

“One of the things we have to be clear about is transparency and who the arbiter of material is and how that works. Because we have charter values still of freedom of speech and I know we certainly don’t want to be involved in censorship and we also don’t want to do things that are harmful to Indigenous communities.”

CTV News has reached out to the DDSB but has not heard back. The district has not said how long the review will take or when a decision may be expected.

“We recognize the sensitivities around making a decision involving an Indigenous author. However it is our duty and responsibility to respond to and address the concerns that Indigenous students and families have raised,” Associate Director Jim Markovski said during the meeting Tuesday evening.

Durham district trustees voted Tuesday evening to have a report presented to the district’s governance committee no later than June explaining the criteria for removing books and include the themes that trigger a book review. 

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