Canada’s missing history

Experts say we have far to go when it comes to teaching reconciliation in schools

When it comes to teaching reconciliation, most schools are off to a good start, but there must be more purpose and intention, says the director of reconciliation at the Canadian Geographic Society.

“There’s always more to be done,” says Charlene Bearhead. “We’re finally opening hearts and minds to what has happened to Indigenous peoples in this country, but we have to go further to fill that gap of what is missing in the telling of Canada’s history. And it’s a huge gap.”

Charlene Bearhead. Photo Courtesy Charlene Bearhead

The role of parents is important, and they have to be supportive while learning along with their children. “This is not history that most parents will know or understand,” says Bearhead, “so having them learn these truths is important because coming together at home for these conversations is where real change happens.” Education is key and the way to make significant change to understanding what this is, what it was and what it continues to be. “When it comes to truth seeking, this is about educating everyone,” says Bearhead, “and learning how to support and amplify Indigenous voice, creating space for the telling of their own stories and getting the truth out there in all communities.”

Lisa Howell, a part-time professor, Ph.D candidate and researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education has embraced Project of Heart in her teaching. Initiated by Sylvia Smith and her high school students, Project of Heart is a hands-on art project to learn the history of residential schools and to take social justice actions to stand up against inequity and discrimination towards First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples. “Project of Heart goes beyond the why and what of residential schools were and learns from elders and survivors to listen and learn truths,” says Howell. She says students have created artistic tiles, created songs, and written numerous letters to elected representatives to work toward reconciliation. “Are schools doing a better job?” asks Howell. “Yes, but right now my research is focusing on the areas teachers don’t know enough about and how to unlearn what they have learned. It’s a huge task, a vast area and a steep learning curve.” The key for Howell is to keep talking and learning. “There has to be a reckoning of what it means to be Canadian, and faculties of education have a big role to play on what to teach in the classroom, she says. “We have to change our focus from learning ‘about’ First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples to ‘learning from’ and with them.”

Lisa Howell. Photo Courtesy Lisa Howell

Reconciliation is a responsibility for all, says Madelaine McCracken, education and public engagement coordinator for the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (Caring Society). “For educators, they need to learn about, teach, and truthfully commemorate intergenerational residential schooling experience of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, so we can all contribute to reconciliation in meaningful ways.”

Madelaine McCracken and Spirit Bear. Photo Courtesy Madelaine McCracken

The Caring Society’s campaigns like Shannen’s Dream works to ensure that First Nations children and youth have the same educational opportunities as other children that respect their language and culture by way of providing free educational resources for teachers. The Caring Society’s mascot, Spirit Bear, is featured in literature to teach students about reconciliation in child friendly language. Free books are also available online, a way for elementary school students to learn about reconciliation and social justice in actionable ways. McCracken says it’s also important for parents and guardians to have ongoing dialogue about their responsibilities in reconciliation. Spirit Bear has learning guides to support these conversations too. 

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education echoes McCracken’s view that reconciliation involves everybody. “Many things have to change,” says Kidder, for example, “learning about this and understanding it has to be imbedded in early grades. We must learn about Indigenous culture as well as the history of residential schools and their impact through all grades.” Kidder says there are still many teachers who feel uncomfortable teaching native history. “My children are adults, and they were never taught this,” says Kidder. “We have to take this seriously — and you know what? Kids are aware. It’s a wake-up call for all of us as Canadians to understand what really happened.”

Annie Kidder. Photo Courtesy Annie Kidder

Last September, as part of its recognition of the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Turnbull School unveiled the Turnbull School Land Acknowledgement, says the school’s director, Gareth Reid. Read during the morning announcements, followed by the National Anthem, Turnbull’s Land Acknowledgement was printed on a winter photo of the school and now hangs in both buildings.” Turnbull students also experienced virtual presentations about Inuit culture and life in the north.

“We’ve really moved away from a completely Euro-centric approach to history and have tried to make it more balanced,” says Reid. “We try to find places to insert Indigenous knowledge, and several of our teachers have taken courses on Indigenous studies.” Reid says they are doing things that weren’t even thought of 10 years ago. “Our students are being introduced to and are beginning to understand cultural appropriation and learning to be more respectful of other cultures. We know this is important to teach our students,” he says, “and we know they are sharing what they learn with their parents about the Indigenous perspective. It’s a step forward for everyone.”

At St. Laurent Academy, there is an ongoing dialogue in teaching, says principal of the high school Tim Mook Sang, who says that the academy has reviewed its curriculum to change systemic barriers that are the result of the residential school system. “Understanding reconciliation is a big topic and a sensitive one,” says Mook Sang. Students understand that to promote positive social change, they have to be active citizens, he says, adding that the school has worked to weave recognition throughout their curriculum with the understanding that awareness is key. “We’re sensitive to what the issues are across all grade levels,” he says, “so even the youngest students are involved. The message has to be ongoing through every course, throughout every year.” Mook Sang says the recognition has to be constant and not just some token event. “We know there is no ‘right’ path, so we are moving forward with caution, ensuring that what happened doesn’t happen again.” 

All schools with the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE) follow the Ministry of Education of Ontario’s curriculum on Indigenous education. They also encourage pupils and staff to highlight important days throughout the school year, such as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by wearing orange shirts on September 30; Treaties Recognition Week during the first week of November; Inuit Day on November 7; National Indigenous Languages Day on March 31; and National Indigenous History Month throughout June. They have also shared numerous resources to their employees for them to further their education as well as offered staff training on the matter.


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