Using graphic novels to educate youth
“I would say that I always wanted to be a writer,” said David Alexander Robertson from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “It wasn’t until about 2005 that I started to consider the comic book-graphic novel world, but I never wanted to be anything else other than a writer.”
Robertson is a Swampy Cree graphic novelist. He was raised in the River Heights neighbourhood of Winnipeg. Growing up, he always read a variety of things. “Tom’s Midnight Garden was my favourite book,” he said.
Comic books were always his favourite, though.
“I was into Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Avengers, all of that stuff. Anything I could get my hands on, really,” he explained when it came to comics. His favourite graphic novels, though, were Elfquest, Cosmic Odyssey, The Killing Joke, and Batman: The Cult.
“I first wanted to write my own graphic novels when I decided that I wanted to help change things in terms of how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth learn about Aboriginal history and culture,” he said.
His first graphic novel, The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, was inspired by a real-life event that Robertson felt was important to tell.
“So much of what happened to her is a microcosm of our history here in Canada,” Robertson said of Osborne. Osborne was a young Cree woman from Norway House who left her community to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. She was murdered in The Pas, a town filled with racism and segregation, in 1971 and it took sixteen years for at least one of her four killers to be brought to justice.
“Something like what happened to Helen Betty Osborne was going to happen to somebody there,” Robertson said of The Pas. “It just so happened that it was her, she was the tip of the iceberg. But her spirit was a strong one.”
Robertson said that he has spoken with people who feel that Osborne’s death provided a real opportunity to create change through tragedy. “You see it up there (in The Pas), in some ways but so much work needs to be done.”
Robertson specializes in creating graphic novels geared towards youth for educational purposes.
“I like having an impact, however big or small, on youth,” Robertson said. “I wanted to create positive change for our youth, for all youth. To me, the greatest change can occur from education.”
Robertson and his creative partner, illustrator Scott B. Henderson, have collaborated on two graphic novel projects. The first was a four-part series called 7 Generations. It is comprised of four volumes: Stone, Scars, Ends/Begins, and The Pact.
7 Generations is a story about a young man who attempts suicide. Robertson said that the series teaches truth and history. “It’s important for that we know our history,” Robertson said. “Understanding our past allows us to see our future more clearly.”
7 Generations also encourages First Nations youth to learn their history and to heal, said Robertson.
“The Elders say that what has happened to us will affect the next 7 generations,” Robertson explained. “What we do now to heal will also affect us for the next 7 generations. So we need to do more positive things, and we all need to be contributing to the movement.”
Robertson considers his writing as his contribution to the movement. He hopes to educate not only First Nations youth but all youth in general about residential schools in Canada and how it has impacted even second and third generation survivors.
Robertson’s second graphic novel, Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story, does just that.
Robertson said that residential schools are “imprinted in our youth whether they are aware of it or not.”
Robertson explained that there is a link between where First Nations people are today and where they were yesterday when it comes to the impacts of residential school. “There needs to be awareness of that link by our youth,” Robertson stated. “In revealing that link, we will find that our path becomes much clearer.”
As melancholy and dark as residential schools are in the history of Canada and in the story Sugar Falls, Robertson feels that there is still hope.
“There has to be,” he said. “Hope comes from learning our history, but also in sharing our history. If you read Sugar Falls and then you share that story with somebody else, you are in important part of the change that needs to happen. Sharing your story is change.”
Robertson is quite busy with more stories to tell. He is currently writing for his own television show for Aboriginal People’s Television Network, and is also working on a six-book graphic novel series on historical Aboriginal figures. Even though the graphic novel series is aimed at elementary school children in grades 4 through 6, Robertson is confident that older kids will enjoy it too.
As far as First Nations youth who are interested in becoming graphic novelists, Robertson has only encouragement for those individuals. “If that’s what you want to do, and if that’s what you love to do, then don’t let anything stop you from doing it.”
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