Teaching children about the history of residential schools

Indigenous parents urge everyone to listen and learn so our children will know the full truth about Canada’s residential schools.

How can we shed light on one of our country’s darkest histories?

Staff, students and parents take part in a powwow at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School in Gatineau, Que., on May 14, 2016. (CBC)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition. 

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

National Indigenous Heritage month is supposed to be a time of celebration and reflection but this year, it's been overshadowed by grief following the announcement that preliminary scans had detected the remains of as many as 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, and 715 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential school in Saskatchewan.  

'It's important that the story is told'

For Indigenous parents, it's incredibly difficult to process all the trauma that's being revisited while staying strong and supportive for their kids and their communities. For Alison Tedford, a mother, author and a member of the Kwakiutl First Nation, it is both exhausting and stressful to be grieving while educating non-Indigenous people about Canada's past, but she does appreciate that there are people willing to listen.

"It's important that the story is told," said Tedford." I am grateful for the people who want to make a change and want to know how to raise kids who are supportive of Indigenous children and Indigenous families." 

Tedford also encourages non-Indigenous parents to do more work. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, expose their children to Indigenous literature and explore the various communities that surround them. 

A mother hugs her daughter during a vigil in Toronto on Sunday, May 30, 2021, for the remains of Indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia. The announcement was made by the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc who said preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey had uncovered the remains. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

"It's about participating in community events with Indigenous people. Expanding their world view on the kinds of people who are in the community and their neighbourhood so that they understand what they are helping to protect. So they can relate and come to a place of support and friendship with Indigenous children and families."

Education is important at any age

And education is important, both in life and in school. 

In the past, very little was taught when it came to residential schools in Canada and the ways Indigenous children suffered there. While updated curriculums now include a much more in-depth and accurate portrayal of how Indigenous people were treated, there is still much more to be learned. And there are still some people who are uncomfortable recognizing such a horrific part of our country's past.

Chas Desjarlais, who is the district principal of Indigenous Education at the Vancouver School Board and a member of the Cold Lake First Nations, hopes these recent discoveries will continue to inform future generations.  

"This history has been visible, but it has not been seen by large segments of Canadian society, " explained Desjarlais.

"We have a responsibility to our young people to do that learning. My hope is that people will not see this as a one-time thing.  That you can continue to learn the true history of this nation whether you are three years old or whether you're 91."

'Every Child Matters' badge displayed in front of orange ribbons at the Native Women's Resource Centre,191 Gerrard St E, Toronto. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

For Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, while it's painful to process his own family's experience with residential schools he's thankful the horrific past which he says has long been dismissed or minimized by many non-Indigenous Canadians is finally being discussed in a more concrete and accepting way. Smith also hopes this momentum continues while the spotlight is trained on Indigenous voices and our country as a whole.

"Finding the right people to tell the story properly is something that a lot of communities are focusing on right now. Unfortunately, that's led to... cancelling some Canada Day events and things like that, " explained Smith.

"Unfortunately, I think that is the greatest time because more people are paying attention and are more willing to listen to a bit of a longer conversation about it when they're reflecting about all that Canada truly is." 

I am grateful for the ways Indigenous people have shared their histories and hopes with me. At my children's schools, Indigenous artists have graciously shared their talents and Indigenous support workers have invited students into sharing circles to communicate better with their peers. 

But those are the most joyful aspects of Indigenous culture, and that's not enough or fair. Non-Indigenous children, and adults, need to collectively and constantly learn and acknowledge the pain and trauma Indigenous people have had inflicted on them and continue to bear the scars of.

We need to be outraged and uncomfortable by what we learn. But we can also be hopeful that in the future, the history of our country will be one of honest reckoning and change, and our next steps won't just be marked by just tragedy and pain, but also elevated by true understanding and allyship.

Amy Bell speaks with Stephen Quinn about the best way to address one of Canada's darkest histories. 9:23

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.