Cross Country Checkup

Teaching residential school history must improve to prevent 'another generation of ignorant deniers': educator

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced on May 26 the discovery of what are believed to be unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops residential school, and that announcement has reignited conversations about how the history of residential schools in this country is taught.

Charlene Bearhead says it's time for non-Indigenous Canadians to 'own our own truth'

Jaret Hamm and his son place flowers beside a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as part of a growing makeshift memorial. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As an Indigenous educator, Chris Scribe was overcome with anger and grief when he dropped his son off at school last Monday.

The two had just discussed the preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., that indicated the remains of an estimated 215 children were on the grounds.

"Everything that came up as my son was walking into that school, I knew that relatives and my ancestors did the same thing — except that they were picked up by cattle cars and they were driven to these schools that were used as weapons against Indigenous children to kill their identity and who they are," said Scribe, director of education for Moosomin First Nation. 

Scribe, whose grandparents survived Canada's residential school system, has dedicated his career to teaching students and Canadians more broadly about what happened in those schools. 

He hopes that Indigenous knowledge and education can be used as a foundation to stopping the trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples.

"The best tool to do that is education," said Scribe.

Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women hold a ceremony in Vancouver on May 28 in honour of the children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced late last month the discovery of what are believed to be unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops residential school. Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir says the investigation is in its early stages, and there is "no roadmap."

The findings have reignited conversations about how the history of residential schools in this country is taught. Mike Bowden, district principal for Aboriginal education at School District 73 in Kamloops, says it starts with teachers.

"When I have conversations with my colleagues — educators — about how to have these conversations, the first thing I say is we need to have them. We can't shy away from them, and we have to be truthful," Bowden said.

Younger generations more knowledgeable

Experts say that since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government to develop and improve curriculum on the history of residential schools and Indigenous peoples, education on the issue has been improving.

But Bowden notes that many educators working today went through a system that didn't share knowledge about residential schools, perhaps making them more apprehensive about the subject.

Older Canadians outside of the education system are also less aware of the history than younger Canadians.

"In many families, it will be the children themselves that will be helping their parents to understand the residential school system," said Charlene Bearhead, director of reconciliation at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. 

Bearhead has worked for decades as a teacher, both in First Nations communities, and in the public school systems in Alberta and Manitoba.

WATCH | Residential school survivors share their experiences:

Residential school survivors on the scars of abuse

The National

2 months ago
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Three former students of residential schools, including the one in Kamloops, B.C., talk about the violent abuse they faced and their reaction to the discovery of Indigenous children's remains. 5:33

She says it's "shocking" how many non-Indigenous adults are ignorant about the history of residential schools.

Politicians' handling of the issue is partly to blame, and a disregard for the lived experiences of survivors also plays a role, she said. Bearhead argues that the recent Kamloops findings are now stoking outrage across the country because they present evidence of a historic horror.

"Tragically, in this country, still, we have to see some sort of evidence collectively. We can't take the word of the experts who are the people who lived these atrocities," she said.

'We need to own our truth'

Bowden anticipates that the work to adequately educate people about residential schools will take generations — but in order to make significant change, he argues the profession needs to alter its approach to the subject.

"I'm going to be frank: education systems have been about fixing, about saving, about talking to [Indigenous peoples] as an education or instructional practice," Bowden said. "I think we really need to flip things now."

"It's about ... taking our lead from our First Nations communities and learning alongside and healing alongside them."

That means being honest about this country's past, including with children in an age-appropriate way. 

Conversations shouldn't be framed around "bad people" who made "bad choices," Bearhead says. Rather young people should be told that Indigenous people in Canada faced human rights violations, and those conversations can start at home.

"Parents need to also be able to speak honestly with their children.… Start out by asking your children, 'What do you know about this?'" she said.

Ground-penetrating radar was used on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Preliminary results indicate that the remains of 215 children could be buried at the site. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

And with a roadmap toward reconciliation provided by Indigenous peoples, Bearhead says reforming education is the responsibility of non-Indigenous educators.

"We need to own our own truth, we need to take that truth forward," she said.

"We need to do that work in education because we cannot afford to raise even one more generation of ignorant deniers, who build their own empires on the unmarked graves of innocent children, and then elect them as leaders."

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

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

Written by Jason Vermes, with files from CBC News and Steve Howard.