Why our kids need to learn about residential schools

For more than a century, kids were systematically removed from their homes and sent to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practise their culture. But how do you talk about Canada’s cultural genocide with kids today? Teachers are finding some effective ways.

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Beadwork: Catherine Blackburn, Archive Photo: The General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada

How would you feel, if this happened in your kid’s class? Last fall, a grade 6 social studies class outside of Edmonton was learning about residential schools. A student put up her hand and said, “I don’t have anything against Indigenous people, but my grandpa told me we had to put the Indians in residential schools because they were killing each other and we had to civilize them.”

Her words hung in the air for a moment. And then her teacher responded, “Well, I don’t have anything against your grandpa, but people who are your grandpa’s age and your parents’ age and even my age didn’t have the opportunity to learn the truth. So, we have a responsibility, because we’re learning the truth now.”

For generations, the full history of Canada’s residential schools, which existed for more than a century and housed 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit kids with the flat-out mission of assimilation into white society, was suppressed and ignored. If you’re non-Indigenous, you may have had some hazy idea of “Indian schools,” but the kind of nightmarish abuse, bullying, deprivation and death that went on? It was rarely acknowledged and never discussed. I can remember first hearing about the schools only about 10 years ago in one of those free-ranging discussions that go on at noisy book club meetings, and thinking, “I have a history degree…how is it even possible I’ve never heard of residential schools?”

Today, however, Canadians—kids, adults, everybody—have that opportunity to learn that really difficult truth. And we have a responsibility to acknowledge the truth and fight untruths, just like that teacher told her class.

Two years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 calls to action to address the legacy of residential schools and move toward reconciliation. I still can’t quite figure out what reconciliation could or should look like in everyday life; it’s one of those slippery words that can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Maybe, then, we should pay attention to the truth part first. As Pamala Agawa, a curriculum coordinator for First Nation, Métis and Inuit education (FNMI) at York Region District School Board in Ontario, told me, we need to figure out the truth for ourselves: “What biases do we carry; what learning do we need to do to better understand the true history of the country?”

Chances are, your own kids are learning about residential schools in class this year. In the TRC’s calls to action, points 62 and 63 specifically call on schools to deliver age-appropriate curriculum about residential schools, as well as Indigenous culture and treaty education, to students in kindergarten to grade 12. It’s not a quick and easy item on a to-do list. How do we talk about Canada’s cultural genocide with our kids? How do we tell them about what our country did to families? Our world still has racist grandpas and internet trolls and prejudices that have built up over decades. We owe it to our kids to learn more and do better.

historic photo of indigenous residential school children in Canada 11 books to teach kids about residential schoolsGrowing up with the truth
As parents, we worry about our kids learning scary information. Sexual and physical abuse went on at some residential schools—what age should kids learn about that? We may ask, is my kid going to feel guilty now? Or, how could our church have been involved in that? I know I stuttered out a garbled explanation when my seven-year-old asked why kids had to go away to school when it made them and their families so sad. Still, I’m glad she asked me, even if I didn’t have a polished answer. Talking honestly about hard things in a way kids can understand helps open a door to the empathy that’s part of being a decent human being.

For some Indigenous parents, there may be added worry about classroom lessons. Will their child feel singled out? Will they be anxious they’ll be taken away, too? For others, the lessons are welcome. Julie Mallon of Port Dover, Ont., who is Anishinaabe and the daughter of a residential school survivor, says she didn’t have any concerns. “I absolutely think it’s important for kids to learn it in school. It’s been a hidden part of our history,” she says. “For this to be taught is just another layer of becoming more emotionally aware and learning how to deal with their feelings.” While Mallon’s mom rarely talked about her experiences when Mallon was a kid, she didn’t want it to be a taboo subject with her own kids.

Charlene Bearhead, the former education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, has thought about those parent-kid conversations a lot. “Our children are going to grow up with this truth, whether we’re ready or not,” she says. “The best thing we can do as parents is find the courage, and know that it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be things that we want to hear. But it’s things that we need to hear, and we can learn with our children.”

Our kids are going to be paying attention to how we talk about this, too. “There’s nothing in the calls to action that calls on parents, and yet parents are among the most important people in a child’s life. They are their children’s first teachers,” she says. “When a child goes home from school and talks to a parent, their response is really going to have a major influence on how that child moves forward with what they’ve learned.”

Teaching the teachers
That can feel daunting as parents, but we’re all in this learning curve together—teachers, board trustees and superintendents are learning this along with the kids. “Educators have to relearn what they think they know about Canada,” says Melissa Wilson, coordinator of Indigenous education at the Peel District School Board in Ontario. “For instance, we talk about what it means to be Canadian: We’re multicultural, everyone is welcome to this country, we believe in spreading human rights around the world. It’s not that that story is incorrect; the problem is that story is very incomplete. It doesn’t speak to the story of how Indigenous peoples have been treated in Canada.” At the Peel board, Wilson and her colleagues offer teachers two years of Indigenous education training. They learn from Indigenous educators, elders and knowledge keepers, tour a former residential school and meet with school survivors. Teachers then pass on what they’ve learned to teachers and students in their own schools.

There’s no national standard for curriculum, and quality and content vary a great deal. It’s vital that Indigenous educators take a lead role in both developing curriculum and visiting schools. One Indigenous educator who’s deeply involved in creating curriculum is Rachel Mishenene, who is Ojibway from Eabametoong First Nation, and works as an executive at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. She’s excited about the possibilities of expanding FNMI curriculum. “I want to make sure we highlight the positive and innovative contributions Indigenous peoples have made or continue to make in arts, music, sports, science, anthropology, media, and as storytellers,” she says. “Residential schools made their mark, and teaching that history is important. We also need to share stories of strength, resilience and excellence.” Parents can play a key role here, too—Bearhead encourages parents to talk to teachers and principals about the curriculum and what else can be added.

Helping kids get it
Talking about resilience is really powerful—and it’s something that kids can identify with. Janet Porter, a reconciliation education consultant in the Nova Scotia department of education, which works with the education group Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, says Mi’kmaw community members were very clear they wanted any representation of residential schools to be combined with the idea of resilience. In one of the school programs, for example, kids make their own dolls after learning how Magit Poulette, now an elder, secretly created a doll with rags and sticks after her baby doll was taken from her when she arrived at Shubenacadie Residential School as a four-year-old.

It’s essential, too, to deal with the tough stuff in age-appropriate ways. “If a child’s primary reaction to a book or video or illustration is one of upset or fear, then those emotions may become a barrier to learning,” explains Porter. To that end, in the younger grades, teachers introduce the topic through books and stories, and then ask kids about something special to them and how they’d feel if it was taken from them, using phrases that kids can understand, like “not right” and “not fair.” (In older grades, students talk more in depth about the devastating ripple effect that the abuse and loss of culture has on Indigenous communities.)

By making stories about residential schools relatable, kids can understand in their hearts, as well as their brains. “It’s overwhelming when you hear that 150,000 kids were taken from their families, so it was really important to us to connect the students with one child,” says Gail Stromquist, assistant director of Aboriginal education at the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Along with her sister, Janet Stromquist, who’s also a teacher, Gail created the e-book and teaching module Gladys We Never Knew, about the life of their aunt Gladys Chapman, who fell ill with tuberculosis while at residential school and died in 1931 at the age of 12. Jean Moir, a grade 4/5 teacher in Langley, BC, who helped develop the lessons and piloted the project with her class two years ago, says that learning about a child who lived fairly close by made Gladys real to her students. “They cared what happened to her and absolutely ‘got’ how horribly she and so many others were treated.”

On a cool fall day, her grade 4/5 class got on a school bus and went on a field trip to Spuzzum, B.C. to visit the territory of the Nlaka’pamux Nation, where Gladys grew up and was buried. Danny Ferguson went with his son Joe on the field trip and saw how the kids reacted after they decorated the mossy headstone with handmade hearts and flowers. “It’s not just about the information; there’s definitely a teaching to the heart there,” he says. “Even today, Joe really connects with Gladys’ story. He still talks about it and gets a bit emotional. Gladys is basically a hero to those kids.

Another personal story that resonates with kids is about Phyllis Webstad—and it sparked the national movement of Orange Shirt Day, held annually on September 30. In 1973, six-year-old Phyllis was excited about going away to school and she picked out a new orange shirt. When she arrived at school, all her clothes, including her orange shirt, were taken from her. “The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” explains Webstad. Orange Shirt Day’s message is that every child matters.

My daughter Jane, who’s in grade 2, is fully on board with theme days of any sort and picked out orange hair elastics to go with her shirt when the note about Orange Shirt Day at her school here in Thunder Bay, Ont., came home in her backpack this past fall. I don’t remember her telling us about her day at dinner—I’m pretty sure she was in a hurry to go trampolining at the neighbours. But more than two months later, we were at her school for an event and I spotted the mini-essays she and her classmates had written on Orange Shirt Day, still taped up in the foyer. As we walked over to the display, she matter-of-factly told me all about it. “We learned about those really mean schools they used to have, mom,” she said.  “It was real, you know, not just in a book. And there was this girl who had an orange shirt she really liked and they took it away and she never got it back, so that’s why we wear orange shirts, to remember those kids who had to go away to school.”

When Bearhead told me about that grade 6 student repeating her grandpa’s comment, I flinched, thinking my daughter could hear something that casually cruel in her classroom, too. The legacy of residential schools—those strained and broken threads of relationships and culture and identity—is like a widening tear in a piece of fabric. If we have any hope of patching it, we’ve got to listen, really listen, to Indigenous stories and experiences, and then talk to our kids. “The biggest measure of success for me is about how families are talking about reconciliation at the dinner table, when no one else is listening,” says Bearhead. “When we see that shift happening there, that’s when I believe we’ll be on the road to reconciliation as a country.”

Read more:
Kids shouldn’t go to schools named after John A. Macdonald
When will they stop acting like our children are disposable?

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