A children’s book that explores the history and effects of Canada’s residential schools has won the Governor General’s Award.
The book, When We Were Alone, was written by Winnipeg author David Robertson, a member of Norway House Cree Nation, and illustrated by Julie Flett, a Cree-Métis author, illustrator and artist. When We Were Alone is published by Portage & Main Press.
Robertson is well known for his graphic novels about Indigenous people and their history, as well as for his novel The Evolution of Alice. He is the winner of the 2015 John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer. His most recent book is the YA novel Strangers, the first of a trilogy.
It is the first Governor General’s Award nomination and win for Robertson; Flett was previously nominated for Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alphabet di Michif).
In We Were Alone, a young girl helping her kókom (grandmother) tend her garden asks about things that make her curious: why her kókom wears long braids, speaks another language and spends so much time with family. Her kókom tells her about her experiences in a residential school, where such things were not permitted, and why she celebrates them now that she is able.
“This win is an important step in moving towards reconciliation,” said Catherine Gerbasi, publisher of HighWater Press, an imprint of Portage & Main Press. “This is a thrilling and well-deserved recognition for David and Julie. Thanks to their work, generations of Canadians will continue to learn about residential school history in the classroom and beyond.”
Founded in 1936, the Governor General’s Literary Awards are one of Canada’s oldest and most prestigious literary awards programs. Finalists are chosen by peer assessment committees per category, per language (7 in English and 7 in French); each winner receives $25,000 and the publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to support promotional activities.
Other finalists in the award category Young People’s Literature — Illustrated Books were Short Stories for Little Monsters by Marie-Louise Gay, The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill, Town Is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith and When the Moon Comes by Paul Harbridge and Matt James.
The awards will be presented by Governor General Julie Payette on Nov. 29 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.