By Sunjum Jhaj, Editor, Teacher magazine
“This has been a humbling experience for all of us. As a school district, we will redouble our efforts to interrupt and disrupt racism and all forms of discrimination and remain committed to revealing and correcting miseducation related to Indigenous Peoples. We will work with Indigenous community Elders to move forward together in a manner that honours each of our children and our common humanity.”
– Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools, Abbotsford
In late November, an Indigenous mother from Abbotsford shared a TikTok video documenting her heartbreak and outrage at a school assignment her daughter brought home. The Grade 6 student was asked to list five or more positive stories about residential schools. This assignment, like so much conventional history, drew on colonial narratives that intentionally omit Indigenous perspectives. It is a denial of the central role residential schools played in Canada’s cultural genocide against Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, this assignment was not an isolated incident.
Our schools mirror the racism that exists in society. We’ve repeatedly called for Lynn Beyak’s expulsion from Senate following her inappropriate comments about positive residential school experiences. This Abbotsford incident occurred just as law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond released In Plain Sight, her searing report on the prevalence of anti-Indigenous racism in our healthcare system. We’ve also recently seen widespread police violence against the BIPOC community and learned of our government’s failure to provide Indigenous people with the most basic of necessities: clean drinking water.
Several teachers and district leaders responded to the incident quickly and thoughtfully. They acknowledged the harm caused by this assignment, apologized, and, more importantly, discussed actions to prevent future incidents.
Jessica Richardson, a teacher with Abbotsford’s Indigenous Education Department, noted, “My fear is that this incident will have teachers stepping back from the content to avoid falling into a similar circumstance. Instead, I hope to see teachers reaching out more and building capacity in this area.”
There are several resources and professional development opportunities available for teachers to learn and commit to reconciliation. One of the most valuable resources for settler-teachers are colleagues in district Indigenous education departments.
“I value my relationships with my colleagues, and make sure they know the door in the Indigenous Room is always open should they ever have questions or apprehensions in confronting the topic of residential schools. My hope is that through these professional relationships our staff feel supported and well-informed to deliver content that will correct misinformation on the history of residential schools in Canada,” said Taryn MacDonald, a teacher for Indigenous success in Abbotsford.
Janelle Dick, a teacher from Abbotsford’s Indigenous Education Department, also highlighted the importance of collaborating with Indigenous people. In this way, “Indigenous education is being led by Indigenous people.”
While collaboration is an important first step, it’s essential to recognize that true reconciliation requires deep personal and professional learning, deconstructing stereotypes, and acknowledging privilege. For reconciliation to be meaningful, we must commit to understanding the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and confronting our complicities in anti-Indigenous racism.
The BCTF offers several workshops to help teachers learn how they can participate in reconciliation and work toward antiracism. Some examples include the Gladys We Never Knew workshop and accompanying resource, and other workshops covering the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Sixties Scoop, and antiracism. These and other professional learning modules are available on the BCTF website, under the Social Justice Programs and Workshops tab.
Schools have the power to create societal change by educating future generations. Through the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives across all grades and subject levels, we can work toward creating positive change. “We need to take every opportunity to learn, talk, and share. We need to be open to different perspectives that bring us closer to equity. We need to move forward in a restorative, healing way,” shared Jessica.