Charlene Bearhead galvanizes educators to move from 'apology to action'

Charlene Bearhead says localizing teaching materials to where people live matters when it comes to teaching about residential school history and reconciliation. "We can't just look at this as sort of a common, pan-aboriginal, pan-Canadian experience."

Need to recognize people in our daily lives still impacted by effects of residential schools, says Bearhead

Hundreds of kids from the Ottawa area joined residential school survivors to plant a heart garden at Rideau Hall, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's closing ceremonies, June 2015. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) brought together residential school survivors from across the country at its closing events in Ottawa this June.

Now Charlene Bearhead is bringing together educators in response to the TRC's call to move from "apology to action."

Bearhead has worked in education for 30 years. She is now the education coordinator for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) — a job she started on June 4, the day after the final TRC events in Ottawa.

"The TRC painted a very clear picture," she said.

"We have a responsibility as educators, as social workers, as child welfare workers, as corrections workers, as judges, as lawyers, as media people. How are people going to talk about us and this part of our history?"

Charlene Bearhead is education lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. (Sam Martin/CBC )
Since June, Bearhead has been working with ministries of education, universities, teachers, etc. across the country.

Part of her role involves helping people access the right resources from NCTR, which is hosted at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

She says equally important in her role is building networks, connecting people who are developing educational resources across the country.

Provinces, territories respond

"It really ranges," Bearhead said when asked how the provinces and territories are doing in terms of implementing TRC resources in primary and secondary schools.

For example, she says the Northwest Territories is already in its second year of fully implementing a new curriculum, developed in collaboration with Nunavut, for Grade 10 students.  

"They've done teacher professional development in every community in the Northwest Territories," she said.

"Last week they finished a full comprehensive three-day teacher training and orientation for over 40 new teachers to the territory."

B.C. also stands out as a province taking action. Bearhead points to things like teacher training and resource development by organizations like the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) and the BC Teacher's Federation (BCTF).

In late August she presented at an event in Kamloops where an interactive ebook was released. From first-hand stories from survivors, to an outline of key recommendations from the TRC final report, the 40-page document is meant to help teachers promote reconciliation.

Bearhead is well-versed in what's happening across the country. Overall, she's seeing change.

"It's starting in pockets," she said.

"In some cases in school divisions, in some regions it's ministries, in other regions it's in pockets of schools and just even some teachers within schools."

Value of region-by-region approach

While it may seem like a patchwork of action, Bearhead says localizing teaching materials to where people live matters when it comes to teaching about residential school history and reconciliation.

"We can't just look at this as sort of a common, pan-aboriginal, pan-Canadian experience because … that gives people the opportunity to distance themselves."

 'What we're teaching [children] is who we really are … and what our collective history is.'- Charlene Bearhead, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation 

She says we need to recognize that people in our daily lives — at the grocery store, in our classrooms — are still impacted by the intergenerational effects of residential schools.

"And our relationships as aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, living in the same community, or more accurately I think the lack of relationship in many cases is a direct result of that residential school experience."

When asked about the road ahead, Bearhead says this is just the beginning. Echoing the TRC recommendations, she firmly believes education is an important factor in reconciliation.

"Really what we're teaching [children] is who we really are as Canadians and what our collective history is," she said.

"[So] they grow up with that as a part of knowing who they are, who we are collectively, what our truth is, and what our values are now, and where we're heading."