By Cheryl Carlson (she/her), teacher, Hope
For the past five years, I have been teaching my Grade 2/3 classes at Silver Creek Elementary about residential schools using the modules from the BCTF resource Gladys We Never Knew: The life of a child in a BC Indian Residential School. When the 215 unmarked graves were located on the grounds of Kamloops Residential School, I felt it was time to extend our learning in order to understand the significance of the recent revelation. Our students were very saddened by the news, but also eager to do something to let the world know about the atrocities that occurred at residential “schools” and honour the children who attended these so-called schools.
As a class, we discussed what we could do to let the truth of what happened in residential schools be known. The children thought it was important for the entire school to learn about residential schools, so we planned a project that would involve everyone in Grades K–7. I asked all the teachers if they would be interested in making orange t-shirts (made of paper and laminated) that we could attach to the schoolyard fence. Everyone was on board! With help from Alicia James, the First Nations support worker at our school, every child designed an orange shirt, incorporating illustrations and powerful phrases. The shirts were later hung on the fence of Silver Creek Elementary for all to see.
The second project we took on was to decorate 215 wooden hearts. The hearts were taken to Spuzzum and hung on the traditional grounds where Gladys Chapman was from. The children took a great deal of pride in creating the hearts and worked lovingly to decorate and include heartfelt, personal messages. Some of the messages were, “I care for you” and “I want to go home.” This project was completed by the Grade 1/2 and Grade 2/3 classes.
While creating their hearts, we had many discussions about residential schools and some of the abuses and atrocities that took place there. Throughout the lessons and heart-decorating activity the students were very engaged. They understood that this project was a meaningful way to honour and remember all the children who lost their lives at Canadian residential schools.
On June 18, we held a commemoration event at Spuzzum First Nation. The gathering included members of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, Chief Jim Hobart, teachers from across BC, social workers from Xyolhemeylh First Nations Child Services, BCTF staff, and the superintendent of School District 78. After a moving message and welcoming by Chief Jim Hobart, we all walked together along the trail leading to the historic Alexandra Bridge, decorating the trees along the way with the 215 hearts. We chose this trail to hang the hearts because hundreds of people walk along it every summer, so the location provided an opportunity for public dialogue about residential schools. This trail is also located in the traditional territory of Gladys Chapman, whom the students spent the entire year learning about.
This fall my class will be following up on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action. In order to seek ways to implement them into the classroom, we will be looking at module six of the Gladys resource, titled “Life at Residential School,” discussing the way the children were treated at the Kamloops school, looking at Gladys’s death certificate, and examining how it was written. As a class, we will then connect our learning to the TRC’s Calls to Action to better understand how to move forward with reconciliation.
At the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, Justice Murray Sinclair stated that, while approximately 6,000 deaths formed part of the official record, the actual number of deaths could be much higher. For those of us who have been teaching about residential schools—and those who experienced the horrors or live with the intergenerational trauma—the recent revelations did not come as a surprise. However, it has brought to light the responsibility teachers hold in ensuring the next generation understands the genocide that took place in Canada. We need to do more than just learn the history that was intentionally ignored; we need to actively participate in reconciliation and heed the TRC’s Calls to Action.
Gladys’s older sister Maggie also attended Kamloops Indian Residential School. Maggie vanished while attending the school; there is no record of her disappearance or death. It is possible Maggie is one of the 215 children laying in unmarked graves at the school.