British Columbia

How to talk to your kids about residential schools

Explaining how residential schools came to be, what happened there and the lasting impacts of those experiences requires both delicacy and honesty, according to experts.

Experts offer tips on having tough but important conversations

A mother hugs her daughter during a vigil in Toronto on May 30 after remains of children in unmarked burial sites were detected by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.'s southern Interior. The discovery is based on surveys using ground-penetrating radar and oral history of the school. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Conversations are happening in homes and classrooms across the country following the announcement from Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc that preliminary survey results found the remains of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. 

Explaining that Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and put into residential schools where they were abused and prohibited from speaking their languages or expressing their culture requires both delicacy and honesty, according to experts.

Ted Cadwallader, director of instruction in Indigenous learning for the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district, said that parents need to be involved in educating their children at home, especially after the recent news from B.C.'s southern Interior.

"Not only in our province, but nationally and internationally, people are talking about it, and so we do have to address it," he told All Points West host Kathryn Marlow. 

Educate yourself

Before starting these conversations with children, Cadwallader said parents must first educate themselves on reconciliation and the lasting impact of residential schools. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings are a great place to start, he said. 

Symbia Barnaby, who helps lead a Facebook group called Moms Against Racism, said parents should continue to educate themselves alongside their children.

"That journey has to start inside yourself before you have a chance to have a conversation," she said. 

"Start that journey, start to look at your own biases, look at your own misconceptions, look at what kind of courses that you can do."

Listen to Ted Cadwallader's interview on All Points West here: 

Start young

Kerry Cavers founded Moms Against Racism to help educate parents about how to raise anti-racist children. The group now has nearly 1,800 members and they hold regular meetings and information sessions for parents to talk about the conversations they're having with their children.

"There's a lot of core concepts that we can discuss with our kids," she said. 

Symbia Barnaby, at right, has been teaching her children about residential schools for years, and now helps lead a Facebook group that encourages other parents to do the same. (Submitted by Symbia Barnaby)

Concepts like friendship and justice can be easily understood by young children, Barnaby added, and starting there can help them understand discrimination and injustice 

"It's important to be able to acknowledge that, yes, we are all different in that we live in a world where that means that people are going to have different experiences," Cavers said. 

"Talking to our kids about that from a very early age helps them work that into their core value system and to be able to discern things faster than we can as adults."

Hear more from Symbia Barnaby and Kerry Cavers:

Approach conversations with compassion and gratitude

Ensuring children aren't afraid during or after these conversations is critical, Cadwallader said, so parents should incorporate safety into the discussion.

"I would say, you know, there was a time not so long ago when this happened, when children from families were taken away to a school and some of those children did not come home," Cadwallader said. 

"Some of them died in those schools. And it was sad and it was awful. But I would also move on to say that's not going to happen now."

He said incorporating themes of love and gratitude help both adults and children feel like they are in a place to make a change. 

"They know what social justice is," he said. "They have an innate sense of what's right and wrong. When children are ready to say 'what are we going to do about that' then it's important that our adults stand beside them and help them come up with solutions about how to change the world to be a better place."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at


With files from All Points West