As Canadian students return to class, educators are scrambling to add an important new element to the curriculum - the history and impact of residential schools.

Ensuring that school children hear about the legacy of physical and sexual abuse, and attempts to strip First Nations people of their language and culture is a key call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report on June 2.

Charlene Bearhead

Charlene Bearhead is education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. (Sam Martin/CBC )

The residential school story is already integrated into the curriculum in northern Canada where many students are directly affected by the experiences of parents, grandparents and other relatives. Schools in other parts of Canada, particularly those with large aboriginal populations, have also included sections discussing the legacy.

However, it will be many students' first look into the dark side of Canada's history.

"The goal is that students will become citizens, active healthy contributing citizens in society with a high degree of empathy," Brad Burns, principal at Highlands School in Edmonton, told CBC News.

The century-old red brick building has 200 junior high school students, with 42 per cent of aboriginal or Métis origin. Burns was alarmed when one parent said it looked like a residential school, many of which were built in the same era.

That led Burns to transform both the school and curriculum into one that embraces First Nations culture and bluntly acknowledges the wounds left behind by Canada's residential school system.

Burns said the goal is to focus "on the healing part and fully accepting that hurts have happened and lives have been fractured through history and decisions made through history, and recognizing that we can't repair that but we can teach and help our students and our community."

However, applying that philosophy across the country is proving somewhat daunting. A survey of provincial education ministries shows vast differences in incorporating the material into classrooms.

In Quebec, for example, a ministry spokesperson would only say a new high school curriculum "is being developed."

By contrast, Nova Scotia has a fully formed program that includes residential school studies in its Grade 7 and 9 social studies curriculum. A resource guide has been sent to all high schools "to ensure this dark chapter in our history is taught," according to a statement from the province.

Different speeds

"I am actually really happy at what's happening in the ministries," said Charlene Bearhead, the education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

She acknowledged the provinces are moving at different speeds, but at least, she said, they are all moving in the same direction.

Right now some of the greatest successes are being found in individual schools, school boards and through organizations such as Project of Heart, which is making learning resources available to teachers, schools and families.

Brad Burns

Brad Burns is principal of Highlands School in Edmonton, which is already moving toward teaching about residential schools. (Sam Martin/CBC )

However, Bearhead conceded there is some resistance to teaching the material, which she said was not out of of ignorance but from fear.    

"It's that they're uncomfortable, that they're nervous, that they feel that they're not well prepared if they feel they don't have that background," Bearhead said.

Bearhead believes a lack of understanding between Aboriginal People and non-aboriginals is rooted in misinformation.

"You've got kids in communities that are carrying forward stereotypes and misconceptions and, really, myths about people because they are carrying forward what they have heard, and … what they've been taught," she said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that travelled Canada has created a historic opportunity to better understand how residential schools damaged not just the generations who went to them, but subsequent generations as well, she said.

The stories and records gathered by the commission over seven years forms a wealth of material that can be used in the development of new teaching materials and tools, Bearhead said, adding that needs to happen now, before the stories are forgotten and records start gathering dust.

"We all have a responsibility to teach truth, and that's all we're asking people to do is teach the truth," Bearhead said.