When Did You First Learn About Residential Schools? (Or Have You Yet?)
When did you first learn about residential schools?
I had just turned 12. I was working in my band office as a summer student, and an Elder came in and shared some of his story as a residential school survivor. I’d heard of residential schools before then, but I didn’t truly learn about what the schools were actually like until this dear Elder told me. This was in 1997, the year after the last residential school in Canada closed.
Up until then, my elementary school education didn’t offer much in the way of Indigenous curriculum. In grade 4, we had an American textbook that included a unit on the Plains buffalo hunt. In grade 6 we culturally appropriated Anishinaabe culture by making dreamcatchers. In all of elementary school (K - 6), I can only remember one day, a field trip, to learn about local Sto:lo culture.
I don’t recall any Indigenous-focused curriculum from grades 8 - 10. In social studies 11, we had a Canadian textbook that devoted a whole 2 pages to how helpful the Indigenous peoples were in fur trading during the settlement of Canada. Two pages of a textbook on Canadian history, and no mention of genocidal policy. In grade 12, students could elect to take Indigenous studies instead of English 12. This was unofficially the “easy” class to take for students that didn’t want to take English 12 and needed those credits to graduate, even though if they ever wanted to pursue post-secondary studies they’d eventually need to complete the English 12 credit through upgrading. Indigenous studies was marginalized as “lesser than”, and I didn’t take that course because I needed to use my elective credits to take all the science classes I needed as prerequisites for a BSc. It wasn’t until my third year of undergrad when I was finally able to learn about the colonial, genocidal history of Canada in elective courses (all outside my faculty). At no point in my undergrad or Masters degrees was learning about Indigenous histories, epistemologies, languages, cultures, medicines, or research methodologies required for completion of my credits.
I was apprehensive about my oldest daughter starting kindergarten this past fall. What kind of experience would she have entering into this colonial system? To my surprise, it was much better than I expected. In her truncated K year, she experienced #OrangeShirtDay on September 30, and learned about residential schools. Less than a month into her public school education, she started learning about the history I was never required to know from K - Masters degree. We ordered the book pictured, “When We Were Alone” through her scholastic book order (you bet titles like this weren’t available when I was reading scholastic books!) Her school also received a new Indigenous name shortly before spring break.
Her kindergarten year was cut short due to the pandemic. All the extra time home with my kids provided me with plenty of opportunity to talk about what it means to be Sto:lo, and what it means to have white-passing privilege, and why I’m so damn proud of each generation that is doing the hard work of healing intergenerational trauma to make a better world for the next generation.
Kw’as hoy to all the parents, grandparents, Elders, healers, medicine people, land defenders, birth keepers, and educators out there protecting the next generation.
Thank you to David A. Robertson and Julie Flett for your beautiful book, "When We Were Alone".
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