A middle school assignment asking kids to identify five positive stories about residential schools has gone viral. It happened in my school district but not at my kid’s school. What I can say is our district is very inclusive and works very hard to help kids feel at home in their educational environment. Quite simply this isn’t who we are.

But the fact is it happened and now it has to be dealt with. Harm was done.  The district has apologized. There will be an investigation. Things will be learned. It prompted a conversation with my son about what kids need to know about residential schools, and more specifically, what Indigenous kids need in this situation. This is what we discussed that students need:

They Need to Hear “What happened wasn’t okay.”

The assignment. The residential school system. It wasn’t okay. From a cultural safety perspective, Indigenous kids need to feel safe knowing their teacher doesn’t endorse a horrific educational model that saw children being abused, starved, experimented on, killed and alienated from their language and culture. There is no upside to genocide. 

“Some things need to be said.” That’s what my son told me. This isn’t something you can sit on the fence about. When someone whose family was impacted by residential schools hears others discussing what they went through and whether it was all bad, it’s oppressive. It’s violent. It’s harmful. This isn’t something you can be neutral on and retain the confidence of your Indigenous students. They need to know you’re not okay with it.

The legacy of residential schools has been well documented. They were open far too long because of assumption of competence that was unfounded, the fact that they served “disposable people”, White supremacy “killing the Indian in the child” and they don’t need any help with PR now. It was wrong and it’s over, but it’s only been 24 years since the last school closed and for some people the impacts will never be over.

They Need To Benefit From Lived Experiences

Decolonize your resources and look to survivors for their perspectives to teach what happened. This was a cornerstone of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My son talked about how he wants to learn from people who were there, not from resources made from someone else’s interpretation of historical events.

Take Your Time

Consider how long you spend on the topic and if it’s proportional to the importance of events that happened. Think about how you would feel if the genocide of your people was treated like a footnote. This is worth taking time to discuss. It’s a lot to process and unpack.

Lead With Love

Guide conversations with a view to increasing empathy in your non-Indigenous students. Be cognizant that conversations about residential schools can bring up big feelings. Hearing the suffering of your family and your people discussed in detached, academic terms can be surreal. Having it minimized with a “look on the bright side” can be painful which is why this assignment was so harmful.

Check in with your Indigenous students after these kinds of conversations and see how they are doing. Liaise with your Indigenous support team to make sure support is available. Be aware of vicarious trauma and make sure that things that have been opened can be closed up again and not left oozing.

Assess Your Resources

Look at what you use in your classroom and see if it’s appropriate. Just because someone published it doesn’t make it a good resource. Look from the perspective of an Indigenous kid reading about things that affected their own families. Indian Horse’s website has some great resources. Bev Sellar’s memoir “They Called Me Number One” is quite good. “He Moved A Mountain” by Joan Harper is good too.

For your own education, “Unsettling the Settler Within” was written by my colleague Paulette Regan, we worked together for a number of years. “Heartsong” by Rupert Ross explores the emotional legacy of residential schools. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

I’m not a teacher, but I’ve worked on residential school issues my whole career. I’m an Indigenous mom of an Indigenous kid and the granddaughter of a survivor. I’ve spent my professional career educating people about this. This is my perspective:

If you want to look on the bright side, share stories of resilient survivors who triumphed despite horrific circumstances. Find stories of reconciliation. Talk about building relationships and finding common ground in the After. But don’t try to find the upside of genocide. It doesn’t exist. 

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