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By Carol Arnold (she/her), teacher, Salt Spring Island

Ever since the BCTF published the resource Project of Heart: Illuminating the hidden history of Indian Residential Schools in BC, I have been using it in my various social studies classes to teach about residential schools. In May, the news about the locating of 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops Residential School added poignancy as well as timely importance for this unit of study. 

My practice had been to teach this unit at the very end of the semester (or last quarter during COVID), so the lessons learned about residential schools would stay with students longer. This year, well ahead of the usual schedule, I began the unit the Monday after the first revelation of previously undocumented graves shocked the nation.

I introduced the unit by starting with the Blanket Exercise for each of my two Grade 9 Social Studies classes. The Blanket Exercise is an excellent and interactive means of providing students a sense of historical context and helping them understand that the creation of Indian Residential Schools was part of the colonization of Canada, a chapter written in the 20th century but part of a process that began long before the Indian Act of 1876.

As a class, we examined the 94 Calls to Action and summarized the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I included the fact that Justice Murray Sinclair had always stated that the number of recorded deaths, over 6,000 lost lives, was underreported and could easily be three times greater. I shared with the students that those of us who participated in these hearings and closely followed the work of the TRC had believed the “official” number was low, because many survivors had reported witnessing events resulting in student deaths as well as unexplained and sudden disappearances.

The next step in our classroom learning was the Project of Heart resource. The resource can be broken up into five topics, each supported by a short video and together they lend themselves as an effective means of study using a modified jigsaw method. The class is divided into five groups and their task is to learn the material in their assigned section of the book, view the video, create a poster, and then teach the class about it. The week-long study culminates in student presentations, a gallery walk, and an essay responding to the following prompt: “Discuss the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada.”

The essay served to support deep learning and provided students with an opportunity to express their empathy for survivors and their children. It was also important that students understood and reflected in their essays the lesson that residential schools never defeated the spirits of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Resistance and resilience were demonstrated in many ways by the children throughout the history of residential schools, and they continue to be a force for healing, justice, and change today. As one student put it, “They can’t just get over it [the experience of residential schools] because of all the abuse, and it amazes me how much they had to go through and their resilience to keep on fighting.” (Jacqueline W., Social Studies 9 student)

Students worked in class for over three days on their final essays, and the resulting papers were far beyond my expectations. The essays were well written and detailed, and more importantly, demonstrated a sense of connection to the children subjected to the cruelties of the residential school system.

The gravity of the unmarked graves “hit home” with the same kind of impact as the 2020 murder of George Floyd. There are events that suddenly become a tipping point for the collective imagination, a moment when people can no longer bear the degree of injustice without responding. This was the case for my students.

In preparation for Orange Shirt Day on September 30, I will share the students’ essays with colleagues in my school. The lessons they provide on the history and legacy of residential schools will be helpful in teaching staff and students in other classes as preparation for the commemoration activities we are sure to have in my school district. 

One of the Calls to Action reads, “We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, to establish, as a statutory holiday, a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process.” While we now have the statutory holiday, more work is needed to ensure everyone understands the truth about the genocidal policies that created residential schools. Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity to learn and reckon with the history of this nation that resulted in thousands of unrecorded deaths of children at residential schools. We are reminded, too, that we still haven’t learned everything there is to know about this history.

Watch Justice Murray Sinclair’s response to the news about the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops in this 10-minute video that addresses the connection to the work of the TRC: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=189562956275355

Student reflections of residential schools
Residential schools are a chapter in our history; however, viewing them as such can be problematic because it dismisses them and the effect they had on innocent people as events of the past, and not something that is still causing pain today. …With all of this on the forefront of our minds, there is still the divine resistance. The resilience Aboriginal people show after being pushed into all this mud, they come out soaking but alive. Alive with stories to tell, evidence to expose, art to create, traditions and ceremonies to uphold. They have so much culture being awakened. Aboriginal people in Canada show more resilience than anything we have ever seen. They pass on their teachings, they tell us their stories. They still stand, they still fight for those who they have lost. – Stephanie C., Social Studies 9

Concluding on a personal note, my grandmother was a residential school survivor. It aggravates me to see the extent people have to go to just be listened to. First Nations people have to die, and not only a few but an entire genocide must be conducted for any change to happen. This is not right, this is not humane, this is evil. – Clementine D., Social studies 9

Residential schools have haunted our minds for as long as people of this century can remember. Our favourite saying seems to be, “It was a dark chapter,” as though a chapter could be ripped out or forgiven and forgotten. Despite our efforts to push it into the past and reconcile for the future, it resurfaces every time. This is no chapter we’re talking about, this is the whole damn book. This is the story of the ones who never got to tell theirs. This is the story of the ones who will never be forgotten. – Sophia H-G, Social Studies 9

In Kamloops, BC, people have recently uncovered remains of 215 children buried at the site, when the school only recorded 52 deaths. It goes to show how truly evil these schools were, and why we need to learn the truths about them. …Gladys was one of these children. This 12-year-old died alone in a hospital with no one to comfort her, bleeding and struggling for breath. Her parents never got to see her before her death, know where she was buried, nor what the cause of her death was until somewhat recently. Gladys was only one of many children who experienced a terrible way to part this world. – Lucie L., Social Studies 9

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