Some Canadian teachers still avoid including Indian residential schools in history lessons


Residential schools history not always mandatory in class

Justice Murray Sinclair called for mandatory learning but results mixed

Posted: Mar 26, 2014

Teaching residential schools history

Teaching residential schools history 2:49

Teaching students about residential schools

Teaching students about residential schools 2:18


Two years ago Justice Murray Sinclair schooled provincial education ministers at a meeting in Halifax.

"We reminded them the very same message that was being taught in residential schools was the very same message being given in the public schools of this country," said Sinclair.

"We told them to change the way they teach about aboriginal people, to ensure all children going into public schools learn what the government did to young aboriginal children for 130 years."

Sinclair, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has asked every province and territory to rewrite their curriculum on Indian residential schools and make it mandatory learning for every student.

He also wants the text of Canada's formal 2008 apology displayed in every school.

Justice Murray Sinclair Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Justice Murray Sinclair heads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (CBC)

A survey by CBC News finds most Canadian students will be exposed to some lessons on the topic of residential schools, but it's not mandatory learning across the country and there are questions about exactly what students are being taught.

Jackson Lafferty, the education minister in the Northwest Territories, was the first to take up the challenge.

"This is our story, throughout N.W.T. and all of Canada," Lafferty said.

Saskatchewan teacher Doug Panko thinks this is such an important lesson, he's teaching it to all his high school students - even though he doesn't have to.

"It's a start within Saskatchewan education that finally we're bringing an important aboriginal perspective on their own history," Panko said, 

'It didn't matter if they were from aboriginal background, big cities, small towns, there was a shocking lack of knowledge about the residential schools part of our history.'- Terry Godwaldt, Edmonton teacher

In Alberta, it isn't until Grade 10 that the history of residential schools becomes part of the curriculum.

Edmonton teacher Terry Godwaldt started an after-school program for students interested in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"It didn't matter if they were from aboriginal background, big cities, small towns - there was a shocking lack of knowledge about the residential schools part of our history," Godwaldt said.

Zeynep Ozdemir is one of his students.

"My perspective changed. I didn't know it was a recent situation, It's not just in the past, we're still getting impacted by it and people are being influenced by what has happened," Ozdemir said.

"It's very impactful and very sensitive so you need a mature understanding of what's happening,"

The students will present some suggestions to the commission in Edmonton on Thursday.

Manitoba Education Minister James Allum says treaty and residential schools education is mandatory for students in middle and high school.

"Our children are already getting a good education when it comes to the history of those issues, their relevance today and how we can continue to work with our aboriginal citizenship in order to make sure all citizens of Manitoba are equal."

Meanwhile, Sinclair will ask education ministers for a report card this summer on how well they've responded to his call to ensure Indian residential schools education is part of class discussion.

But in some provinces, such as Quebec, none of the mandatory courses include lessons focusing on the residential schools experience, although teachers have the option to cover the subject.

"Sometimes we've heard that they have a mandatory content and what it turns out to be is simply mention the fact that the government sent Indian children to residential schools and that's the end of the lesson," he said. 

Sinclair said he hopes he doesn't have to give out any failing grades.



First Nations education must include language, culture


Efforts to improve First Nations education have met with varied results over the years.

Wednesday night at the Lethbridge Public Library, at a special session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs, a group of panelists discussed that history, and the development of a First Nations Education Act in Canada.

One of those panelists was Brenda Gail Fox, a Grade 1 teacher at Aahsaopi Elementary School, is teaching Blackfoot language and culture while also working to complete her master's degree in education.

Not only has she researched the impacts residential and industrial schools have had on our native populations, but she has first-hand knowledge of how the systems affected her family.

"I never went to a residential school but my two older sisters did," said Fox, whose family lived in a remote community in northern Alberta when her parents decided to send her sister down south, where they attended schools in Siksika and the Blood Reserve.

Residential school separated families, and in her case, Fox said her sisters felt alone and isolated.

"It really did a number on them," she said, as they only visited her parents on special occasions. "It was a very lonely time for my sisters."

Fox, for her part, never received any of her education at schools on a reserve, and instead spent time in the public system in various communities, including Lethbridge. But whether it was a residential, industrial or public school, Fox added the motive was always the same when it came to First Nations children - assimilation.

"I feel the education system for First Nations students was always geared towards creating the perfect citizens," said Fox, who added often times, it meant those students got caught between two worlds and two societies ended up in limbo.

According to Fox, whatever education system is implemented, a buy-in must be in place with those the system is designed to educate. Otherwise, she said, it's simply another mechanism of social control.

With that in mind, Fox said any changes to First Nations education must include one very important aspect.

"I find that with the inclusion of First Nations language and culture, it really makes the students more grounded and makes them feel good about themselves," said Fox, who added in the past, education systems imposed on First Nations had the opposite impact.

Wednesday night's panel discussion also included Kanakii Mekaisto, a resource worker at Crowfoot Elementary School in the Siksika Nation, and Genevieve Bruised Head, a Grade 5 teacher a Chiila Elementary School in the Tsuu T'ina Nation.