Fifty years ago, when I studied Canadian history in elementary and then secondary school, the Indigenous experience was not part of the curriculum.
In grade four, we did projects about the explorers who “found” the new world. In grade eight, we studied Confederation. In grade ten, we learned more about various battles fought on Canadian soil. What we did not learn much about, however, was the way the Indigenous people of this land were handled by the European colonizers. We didn’t hear about treaties that were not honoured. We did not learn about the scandalous policies that led to the residential school system and its horrors for Indigenous children.
In 2018, I was writing a major paper for my Catholic theology degree, and I was researching the sexual abuse crisis and the Canadian church. My academic advisor pointed me to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the residential schools. It wasn’t an easy document to find at that time. In fact, my university did not even have a copy of it! I had to order the book which summarized the findings through an interlibrary loan from another school.
It was a harrowing read. In it were summaries of first-person accounts of Indigenous children being taken from their family homes to schools far away, where they were not permitted to speak their language, wear their traditional clothes, or even spend time with their siblings who were at the schools. All of this was done to fulfill a government policy to “take the Indian out of the child.” Most of these schools were run by religious orders of the Catholic church, although there were some Protestant Christian churches involved. The schools were shabby, drafty, and served a skimpy diet to the children because they were underfunded by the Canadian government and seemingly not subsidized by the churches either. Children were physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. The report acknowledges deaths at the schools as well. So, although there was a media frenzy when the 215 unmarked graves were found in 2021 at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, I was not surprised. The report clearly states that many children never returned home after being sent to the schools and were presumed dead.
My degree is on the wall now, but I’ve continued to learn more about the injustice of the Indigenous experience in our country. An entertaining and highly informative book that I have read is “An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by Thomas King, which was published in 2013. King won’t call his account a history book, but it does offer those of us who are not Indigenous information and perspective on the past that we have never learned in school.
Today I am semi–retired from a career in business, and I sit on the board at Nova Mutual. We’ve been having robust discussions about how we honour the recommendations to business from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Education is one of those recommendations. Myself, I am taking a free online course now at the University of Manitoba called Indigenous Canada. It’s a 12-lesson course “that explores the different histories and contemporary perspectives of Indigenous peoples living in Canada.”
There are online government websites that also provide information about the First Nations Learn about First Nations across Canada (rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca), Inuit Learn about Inuit across Canada (rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca), and Metis Learn about Métis across Canada (rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca).
Hopefully our school curriculum has progressed since I was a young girl. I know that one of my adult daughters who is a schoolteacher in Nova Scotia incorporates the Indigenous experience into her lessons. A colleague of mine who works as an Indigenous Community Liaison Officer with Correctional Services Canada where I am a part time prison chaplain sent me a list of books compiled by a teacher that can be used with children to explain the residential schools:
- When We Were Alone – David Alexander Robertson illustrated by Julie Flett (ages 4-8)
- Secret Path – Gord Downie & Jeff Lemire (ages 10+ graphic novel)
- Shi-shi-etko – Nicola I. Campbell, Kim Lafave (4-7)
- Shin-chi’s Canoe – Nicola I. Campbell, Kim Lafave (4-7)
- No Time to Say Goodbye – Sylvia Olsen, Rita Morris and Ann Sam (8+)
- As Long as the Rivers Flow – Larry Loyie, Constance Brissenden (6-8)
- A Stranger at Home – Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (9-12)
- When I was Eight – Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (6-9).
Whether we are child or adult, there is much for all of us to learn about the Indigenous experience and perspective. I encourage everyone to answer the TRC calls to action. Look them up here: Delivering on Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action (rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca). Find out more at the website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: NCTR – National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Begin with education, or as it is in my case and perhaps yours, re-education.
The Inconvenient Indian
A Knock on the Door
University of Manitoba Press