Jun. 27, 2012 - Issue #871: Edmonton 2012
Truth in education
Alberta schools join a grassroots project to educate students on residential schools
The history and legacy of residential schools is almost a footnote in the Canadian history taught in public schools across the country. But along with grassroots initiatives, two territorial governments in Northern Canada are working to incorporate that history into elementary and high school curriculum.
Most students in Alberta and other provinces learn next to nothing about the residential school system that was in place for over a century, with lasting impacts on First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities across the country. Now over halfway through its five-year mandate to document the history of Indian Residential Schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada seeks to change that.
The commission held an Education Day last Friday, part of its four-day national event in Saskatoon. Nearly 2000 Grade 7 and 8 students from the Saskatoon public and Catholic school divisions as well as First Nations schools throughout Saskatchewan participated in educational activities about residential schools and heard from residential school survivors.
For over a century, more than 150 000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were sent to residential schools across the country. Many suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Most were taught that their languages, cultures and traditional teachings were uncivilized and inferior. "All children being taught in public schools were told the exact same thing," said head commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair at the Saskatoon event. "And as a result, every single Canadian in this country has been impacted by the same policy."
The commission gathers statements and documents to ensure that a national memory about the residential school system is created. Community, regional and national events are also held to raise awareness in the general public. Many non-Indigenous people tell the commission "I did not know," said Justice Sinclair. "That is a constant refrain that we hear as we travel across the country," said Sinclair. "For the future, people should never be able to say 'we did not know.'"
In February, the commission issued a series of recommendations along with an interim report about its activities. It urged all provincial and territorial governments to review their curriculum and to work with the commission to develop age-appropriate curriculum about the residential school system.
The Northwest Territories and Nunavut have announced that residential school history will be included in their public school curriculum. While no province has yet made a firm commitment in response to the commission's recommendations, a number of grassroots initiatives across the country engage in educational activities on the subject.
Charlene Bearhead has worked in the Alberta public education system as a teacher, principal and superintendent. She is currently a Program Manager at National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, an Edmonton-based non-profit that is now the umbrella organization for Project of Heart. The project engages students and teachers across the country in learning about the history and impacts of the residential school system in Canada. A display about the project was set up as part of the "Learning Place" at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Saskatoon. "This is an important part of history for all students, not just First Nations students, Aboriginal students. This is Canadian history," says Bearhead, echoing a point often expressed by the commission.
Project of Heart was started by Sylvia Smith, a teacher in Ottawa. When she was assigned a high school-level social studies class, Smith read through the textbook to see what information about residential school history was included. "She was appalled. There were 60 words in there," said Bearhead. "She decided that she was going to create a project for her own students."
The project begun by Smith for her own class has become a national grassroots initiative. To date, more than 150 public, private and religious schools across the country have hosted Project of Heart. Youth groups, church groups, treatment centres, corrections facilities and families have also participated. The project has also developed age-appropriate material for teachers and other facilitators to first become familiar with residential school history themselves and to then engage children and youth in active learning. "The students research, learn about and discover what happened generally in the residential school system," says Bearhead. They learn about its development in Canada, the intent and strategy behind policies and practices, and the ongoing impacts on individuals, families and communities.
Students are then assigned a particular residential school and research its location, its operators and its impacts on the students and their communities. A residential school survivor is invited into the classroom to talk about their own experiences and students then choose a social justice activity to act on the history they have learned. "And of course, when learning about residential schools, one of the most difficult things to learn is how many children died in residential schools," says Bearhead.
Every participating student decorates a small tile to honour a child who died in residential school. The initial target of 60 000 tiles has already been met for a heart-shaped mosaic at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. Project of Heart hopes to create similar memorials for public display in each province and territory with the thousands of tiles that continue to be returned. "At the beginning of this school year, 2011/2012, no schools in Alberta had participated in Project of Heart," says Bearhead.
But 12 schools in the province took part in the initiative this past year and 35 more are planning to do so in the fall. The closest curriculum fit in Alberta is the Historical Globalization course in Grade 10, but the project can be incorporated into the classroom as early as Grades 3 and 4, said Bearhead. "I think what's exciting is the number of teachers taking this on across the country," says Bearhead. "The schools are really excited about it."
Bearhead hopes to have a huge exhibit of Project of Heart tiles and work at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Alberta, for which the dates and location have yet to be announced. In the meantime, the Commission urges provinces to follow the lead of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and commit to engaging with the Commission in order to include residential school history in their public school curriculum. "We lost our childhood. We lost our families, the joy of our spirits and our innocence," Northwest Territories Minister of Education, Culture and Employment Jackson Lafferty, himself a residential school survivor, told reporters at a press conference in Vancouver this past February. "Though we have a long road ahead of us," continued Lafferty, "it is only by shining bright lights into the darkest corners of our history that we will ensure that the history will never be repeated."
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