By Cheryl Carlson (she/her), teacher, Fraser Cascade
Every year, my Grade 2/3 class spends several months learning about the lasting legacy of colonization and residential schools in Canada. Many of the conversations we have as a class can be difficult and emotional. As students learn about the atrocities of residential schools, and the experiences of students who attended these schools, they often express empathy for survivors and sadness for the children who were lost. They also express a desire to do something about it.
Truth and reconciliation is about action alongside learning. As settlers, we must actively participate in learning the truth, and then leverage our learning for reconciliation. For my Grade 2/3 students, leveraging their learning means sharing it with their families, friends, and community.
Each year for the past few years, I conclude my unit on truth and recon-ciliation with a field trip. My students and I load up for a bus ride to Spuzzum, the traditional territory of Gladys Chapman, a young girl who was taken from her home and sent to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where she died at the age of 12. We visit Gladys’s grave to clean up the area and place orange hearts as symbols of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and remembrance.
For the past few years, the students have also used the orange hearts to create an art installation in Spuzzum, as a way to educate and inform members of the community about the link between this part of the province and the residential school in Kamloops.
This year, as I talked to parents on the bus ride to Spuzzum, I realized that students take their responsibility to share what they learn very seriously. The learning is like a drop in the water, it has a ripple effect into the community. Learning trickles out into the community, not only through classroom projects like our orange hearts display, but also through conversations at dinner tables in students’ homes.
Many parents of school-aged children were denied the opportunity to learn about the residential school system as part of their own school experience. In this regard, our education system has made good progress. The curriculum and content taught in schools is evolving to reflect calls for decolonization and the integration of Aboriginal Ways of Knowing and Being. In many of my students’ homes, the children are teaching their parents about the truth they were denied around the history of residential schools.
To facilitate conversations about truth and reconciliation in students’ homes, I invite parents to join in their children’s learning. For example, parents join for field trips or larger school events and projects. I also invite students to take some of their work from our class, or books and other resources we use in the school, home so they can share it with their families and use these materials as conversation starters.
One parent shared the following:
I came out [on this field trip] because my daughter asked me to, but more importantly, we are Métis as well, and I like to get some more info from the actual true story. It’s quite an eye-opener. Oakley does bring a lot of it home and informs me of the residential schools and what happened and what she’s learning. I feel like this is the real story of Canada, and it was nice to experience it.
Parents and community members participated in hanging the hearts alongside students and were invited to join us as we listened and learned from members of the Spuzzum Nation on our field trip.
At the BCTF’s Summer Leadership Conference this year, several other colleagues and I collaborated to trans-form the orange hearts lesson idea into a professional development opportunity. In my classroom, the act of designing and creating an orange heart can be therapeutic for students and provide an outlet to process the difficult emotions that may come up as we learn about residential schools. When we head outside to hang the hearts for our art installation, the students have an opportunity to connect with the land and reflect on their learning.
Workshop participants at the conference were given an opportunity to engage in something similar. As we listened to the stories and learned from the experiences of Indigenous colleagues and invited guests, including Chief Jim Hobart (pictured left) from Spô’zêm, Chief Rosanne Casimir from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, and survivors Diane Stewart and Mercy Thomas, we were invited to create orange hearts to express our learning. Not only did we engage our emotions, but we also took time to consider our commitments to truth before reconciliation. Later, we hung the hearts around the UBC campus.
Throughout the day, I was wrapped up witnessing UBC students and other BCTF conference attendees pausing to look at the hearts, inspect what was written on them, and ponder the messages. I hope this moment of pause was an opportunity to reflect on what they know about truth and how that relates to their positionality and responsibility. At the very least, it is a moment for them to acknowledge, remember, and honour the thousands of children who died at residential schools across Canada.
As you prepare for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation this year, I encourage you to reflect on the many ways your students will use what they learn in your classroom to educate and create change in their communities. When my students first told me they wanted to take action and do something about truth and reconciliation, I had no idea their motivation would inspire an activity that continues to bring truth to light a year later. In my many years of teaching, I have seen that children intuitively understand injustice. They have the empathy, passion, and drive to use their learning for positive change. We just need to empower them with the knowledge, and ways of being, to do so.
Books by Indigenous authors for use in the classroom
Sk’ad’a Stories series by Sara Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson
These four books are based on the experiences and memories of the Haida authors. The books focus on the cultural significance of ceremonies and traditions.
Aggie and Mudgy: The Journey of Two Kaska Dena Children by Wendy Proverbs
This book focuses on the 1,600 km journey two sisters are forced to take to a residential school in central BC from their home in the North.
The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad
This book tells the true story of Phyllis Webstad’s experiences that inspired Orange Shirt Day. Visit www.orangeshirtday.org for more teacher resources.
On the Trapline by David Robertson
A story of intergenerational connection, On the Trapline shares the questions and connections between a boy and his grandpa as they visit a trapline.
Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell
This follow-up book to Shi-shi-etko tells the story of Shi-shi-etko’s return to residential school for her second year, and her brother, Shin-chi’s, first experience at residential school.
I’m Finding My Talk by Rebecca Thomas
In this response to Rita Joe’s poem, “I lost my talk,” Rebecca Thomas reflects on reclaiming her language as a second-generation residential school survivor
When We Were Alone by David Robertson
In this story, a Cree grandmother answers her granddaughter’s questions about her culture and experiences at residential school.
Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith
Monique Gray Smith draws on the experiences of survivors to explore the legacy of residential schools, and highlight necessary actions based on the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Spíləx̣m: A Weaving of Recovery, Resilience, and Resurgence by Nicola Campbell
This memoir uses poetry and prose to explore what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
This picture book version of the memoir Fatty Legs makes Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s story accessible for young readers.
A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
This sequel to Fatty Legs follows Margaret’s return home after two years away at residential school. The story deals with the disconnect and struggle for belonging residential school survivors faced when they returned years later to a culture and language they were forced to leave behind.
My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling
In this novel, Shirley Sterling draws on her experiences at the Kamloops Indian Residential School to give readers a thorough understanding of what residential school survivors endured.
Sugar Falls by David Robertson
This story centres on an interview between a child and a residential school survivor. It is based on the true story of Betty Ross, an Elder from Cross Lake First Nation.