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‘People have to know’: Children’s book focuses on residential school experience

Mission teacher Peggy Janicki wrote ‘The Secret Pocket’ from mother’s time at Lejac Residential School
Mission Public School District Indigenous mentor teacher Peggy Janicki presented her book, The Secret Pocket, to roughly 100 school district staff in March. /Mission Public School District Photo

It started with a napkin.

Mission Public School District Indigenous Mentor teacher Peggy Janicki and her brother were visiting their mother, Mary O’Connal, at the hospital.

O’Connal was a survivor of Lejac Residential School in Fort Saint James and was at Abbotsford Hospital with a broken hip.

While workers were taking a dinner tray away, O’Connal asked Janicki to grab a napkin — a nicer one that felt like fabric — and she obeyed. When Janicki looked back a fraction of a second later, the napkin was long gone.

“My brother said, ‘Oh, that’s mom and her Lejac ways,” Janicki said.

Afterwards, O’Connal’s story of secret pockets at the residential school came up.

“They secured their food by sewing secret pockets in their petticoats — the underskirts — to hide food,” Janicki “They were able to do quite a bit. And it was always … their top secret missions to feed the younger girls and themselves.”

Janicki has since turned the story into a children’s book called “The Secret Pocket”, illustrated by Carrielynn Victor. She wrote it after her mother passed away.

For over 20 years, Janicki has been teaching about residential schools from the elementary level to the post-secondary level. She first shared the story in the classroom with the permission of her mother.

“People have to know,” her mother told her.

Janicki thinks The Secret Pocket is the first children’s book to use the term genocide. During the writing process, she weighed using it but decided to leave it in.

“The book is for grade three. Like, how do you how do you describe that word?,” she said.

The editors asked if she would consider a different word but Janicki stayed firm and they decided to put it in the glossary.

The first draft was written from Janicki’s point of view — going to the hospital with her brother where the story comes out. However, publishers requested the story from her mother’s perspective.

Janicki calls for readers to counter emerging residential school denialism. She says its importance is made clear by the recent findings announced by Stó:lō Nation on Sept. 21 after research into former residential schools in Mission, Chilliwack and Yale.

“That call to action, call to justice is still important — and to always protect the voices that are trying to bring the truth,” Janicki said. “That’s one of my biggest worries right now. We’re trying to create a world where this doesn’t happen again and if this goes out of memory, then I think it will not be a wonderful world at all.”

After Stó:lō Nation’s announcement, Janicki says she is still processing and quite angry. She says the findings have a wide impact because of the reach of St. Mary’s Residential School and Coqualeetza Indian Hospital into homes across Canada.

“St. Mary’s is a bit of an epicentre for all of the nations and so it has a really large impact,” Janicki said.

“I think the main call is to make sure, as difficult as it is, that the truth continues to be centred in all of this because we’re looking for transformational change.”

The Secret Pocket is available for purchase online at Ninety per cent of Janicki’s author contract goes towards the Nak’azdli Elders Society.

RELATED: Stó:lō Nation residential school probe finds 158 child deaths, potential unmarked graves

Dillon White

About the Author: Dillon White

I joined the Mission Record in November of 2022 after moving to B.C. from Nova Scotia earlier in the year.
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