May 25, 2021

Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story (10th Anniversary Edition)

Written by David A. Robertson
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson
Colours by Donovan Yaciuk
HighWater Press
48 pp.
Ages 14-18
May 2021 

In my family, silence has been the currency of injustice.
~ Senator Murray Sinclair, Foreword to Sugar Falls
Too many of the truths about injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples have been hidden, suppressed and ignored. With the original publication of Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story in 2011, some of those truths were told, based on the true story of Betty Ross, Elder at Cross Lake First Nation. Today with the release of this tenth anniversary edition of Sugar Falls, I hope even more readers are ready to hear those truths.
When a present-day class is given an assignment to look at the residential school system, with strict instructions to approach Elders with respect and an offering, Cree student April offers to introduce Daniel to her Kōkom, an Elder who survived it but whose story even April had not heard.
From Sugar Falls by David A. Robertson, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, colours by Donovan Yaciuk
April's Kōkom takes them into her round room "with all the sacred medicines and within the star blanket of the four directions" (pg. 4) where she would be safe. She prepares by wearing traditional attire, holding an eagle feather and doing a cleansing before she begins her story.

Abandoned at age five into the winter's cold by her own mother who had survived the residential school system, she is found and brought up as a daughter and sister in a loving family. A few years later, after he has a vision of darkness in her future, her father takes her to Sugar Falls where he teaches her to feel the beat of their hearts as drums in rhythm with that of the falls, and that "The beat of the drum represents the strengths of our relationships, between our ancestors, our traditions with Mother Earth, and with each other" (pg. 13) and that remembering this would keep her strong.
From Sugar Falls by David A. Robertson, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, colours by Donovan Yaciuk
Strength is what she will need when soon a grim priest comes and drags her away from that love and comfort to an ominously-large institution where Sister Marie scrubs at her skin and cuts her long hair. There Betsy meets Flora and begins an endless routine that includes prayer and chores and classes. Sadly there is also the abuse, a crack against the knuckles, a slap or a kick for speaking Cree, and the sexual abuse by the priest to whom the girls would close their minds and numb their bodies and pretend the visits were nightmares to be left in the night.

From Sugar Falls by David A. Robertson, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, colours by Donovan Yaciuk
Though Betsy can see across the water and envision home, she has made a promise to her father to be good and listen, so when Flora and a couple of other girls escape across the water, she remains behind. But Flora's death steels Betsy until one day "All I wanted to see was my family again, to wake up from the nightmare and have them by my side." (pg. 34) She walks into the water and remembers Sugar Falls. She is dragged back from the water but her resolve has returned and "no matter what they did to me, I held onto myself, my language and my spirit." (pg. 38)
From Sugar Falls by David A. Robertson, illus. by Scott B. Henderson, colours by Donovan Yaciuk
Betsy endured that place for several more years, and later attended high school in Winnipeg. She also changed her name to Betty to honour her friend Helen Betty Osborne who would be murdered.
I did it to keep her memory alive. My story, her story are stories that we should never forget, no matter who we are, they are important to all of us. (pg. 39)
Governor-General award-winning author David A. Robertson does so much in the telling of Sugar Falls. He honours Betty Ross by giving her story new life so that more will know of her courage and resilience and that of so many who endured and those who did not at the hands of a brutal system that never should have happened. Generations later, Indigenous people continue to live in the aftermath of that horrific injustice and with each story told, the silence is broken a little more, allowing an opportunity for justice to manifest.  By giving voice to Betty to speak of her past, from abandonment to loving family and residential school nightmare, and those of her granddaughter and non-Indigenous friend to hear her story from their own perspectives, David A. Robertson lets us see Betty as a survivor with heart, strength and compassion.

Because this is a graphic novel, less needs to be said in text and more can be carried by the artwork, and illustrator Scott B. Henderson and colourist Donovan Yaciuk take on their task with reverence and empathy. The despair of life at the residential school is clear in the starkness and gloom of the shapes, lines and colours of those scenes, with Scott B. Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk saving the brightness for outdoor scenes with family and the contemporary settings of school and Kōkom's home. It was clear where the lightness in Betty's life is, past and present.

Today, with the release of David A. Robertson's tenth anniversary edition of Sugar Falls, there is a new opportunity for the world to listen and see this story, to silence the silence and give survivors of the residential school system, both those who lived it and those whose legacy it is, a chance to tell their stories and have them remembered.


  1. Such a sad and shameful part of Canadian history. These stories need to be told.