Montreal

What Quebec could learn from Indigenous school boards on how to better teach residential school history

The Quebec government says it's open to the idea of expanding what high school students are taught about residential schools. Indigenous school boards have already done that and say they are willing to share what they've learned.

The Cree and Nunavik school boards are changing their curriculums to teach more about residential schools

High school graduates celebrate in the Cree community of Chisasibi, Que., in 2020. The Cree School Board has changed the way it teaches the history of residential schools, and the board says Quebec could learn from its experience. (Cree School Board)

With the Quebec government saying it wants to do a better job of educating high school students about residential schools, Indigenous school boards who've already done some of that work say they're willing to help.

"In general in Quebec, it isn't a priority,  and it's something that needs to be put into the history programs across Canada," Sherry Weistche, instructional services co-ordinator with the Cree School Board, told CBC.

The board runs schools in James Bay Cree communities in northern Quebec.

Weistche says it's important to work with non-Indigenous allies, "to share the knowledge that we have. We have to help them to understand where we're coming from."

"But they need to listen,"  Weistche said.

Sarah Aloupa, president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board serving Inuit communities in Nunavik, said better understanding is key.

"History must be known about our own region, and of who we are, so that racism will decrease," Aloupa said.

Quebec open to making changes

Quebec's history curriculum has been widely criticized for downplaying or ignoring Indigenous history in the province.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2015 recommended that Indigenous peoples' history, and in particular, the legacy of residential schools, be emphasized in school curriculums across Canada.

Quebec's government at the time made some changes, but many said they didn't go far enough.

In 2018, the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec government said it wouldn't make any more changes, saying history was always "subject to debate."

The current curriculum makes only a passing reference to residential schools, noting they "helped accelerate the decline of certain Indigenous languages and weaken the social fabric in a number of communities."

In the wake of the discovery of an unmarked burial site with the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., the Quebec government is showing some openness to making more changes.

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said Thursday Quebecers need to know more about the history of residential schools. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"We don't know our history enough. Residential schools — this is a dark episode of our history, but we need to know more about it," Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere said at a news conference Thursday.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Wednesday the province is currently reviewing the curriculum for its ethics and religion high school course, and that it would look at incorporating more material about residential schools.

Indigenous boards can help

Both Weistche and Aloupa said that even in Indigenous communities with their own school boards, there was very little taught about residential schools before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

"When I was in school, I never heard anything about residential schools," Aloupa said.

Sherry Weistche, co-ordinator of instructional services for the Cree School Board, spent three years revising the history curriculum to better reflect the legacy of residential schools. (CBC)

Weistche said that, after the Truth and Reconciliation report, the Cree board launched a full review of its history curriculum and added a new unit of study on residential schools. This past school year was the first year it was used.

Weistche, who played a major role in developing the new curriculum, said it goes much further than what's currently being taught in non-Indigenous schools in Quebec.

"Not only does it talk about the history of it, it gives the impacts, the generational trauma, the racism. It talks about how these schools had started up," Weistche said.

"It gives stories: stories of people from the territory who have gone to residential schools and it brings the students full circle to empowering them," she continued.

Many of the teachers at schools in the Cree Board aren't Indigenous, and Weistche said the new curriculum includes training for them and a toolkit geared specifically toward non-Indigenous educators.

She said that toolkit could be a valuable resource for the provincial Education Ministry to use on a wider scale.

Weistche said she just got an email this week from a teacher who's wrapping up teaching the new curriculum.

"She just said 'thank you so much for this program' and how much it's meant to to her and her students," Weistche said.

Aloupa said Kativik Ilisarniliriniq is currently working on a similar revision of its curriculum which should be ready soon.

Skepticism, but some hope

Weistche and Aloupa said they welcome the opening from the province to add more material about residential schools, but they're skeptical.

Weistche said the idea of adding the material to the ethics and religion curriculum instead of the history curriculum is a mistake.

"Isn't that ironic — ethics and religion? Sorry, I have to chuckle at that one," Weistche said.

Aloupa said she has difficulty trusting a government that won't even acknowledge systemic racism is a problem in Quebec.

She said a prime example of systemic racism in action in her community is that non-Indigenous teachers who come to Nunavik to work receive several incentives and travel and housing benefits — benefits that aren't available to Indigenous teachers who are from Nunavik.

She said she's been requesting a meeting with the government to discuss this, but so far hasn't heard back.

Weistche said she hopes the time is ripe for real change.

"I feel like we're in a time and a space now where people will begin to open up. There will be a whole rumble or mixture of feelings coming out. However, it's a start," she said. "This is going to take a few generations to come to a place of renewal and healing."

She added, "Canada, be patient. And help us too."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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