Shin-chi’s Canoe is the sequel to Nicola Campbell and Kim LaFave’s Shi-shi-etko, a Canadian picturebook classic set in the last days before Shi-shi-etko goes to residential school. In Shin-chi’s Canoe, Shi-shi-etko’s younger brother, now six years old, joins her at school.
Seemingly at once slow but swift like the water near the surface of a broad river, the narration and pacing pick up the tempo from the meditative Shi-shi-etko, mirroring the family’s experience of loss and change as first one child, then another is forcibly pulled from home to a hostile and abusive environment. The text introduces the horrors of residential school without dwelling on them, using concrete language.
In the dinner hall the boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room, brothers and sisters not allowed to talk to one another. They made up sign language to say, “Hi,” or “I miss you.”
For breakfast the children ate porridge and burnt toast. Through the doors they could see their teachers carrying steaming plates of bacon, eggs and potatoes from the farm.
[…] The children were never given enough food.
The story is also marvelously subtle, particularly the page describing Shin-chi and Shi-shi-etko’s studies. Good things can be turned to cruel use and punishment.
As with Shi-shi-etko, the narrative of Shin-chi’s Canoe centralizes family, connection to the land, and memory. It strikes a fine balance between hope and sorrow, maintaining a reflective tone echoed by the illustrations.