One of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that the history of Indian residential schools must be taught in Canadian schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Reconciliation must begin in the classrooms

  • June 2, 2015

Catholic schools are ready for reconciliation, ready to equip the next generation with an honest history of Canada, but there’s work to be done.

Among the most prominent recommendations in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, released in Ottawa June 2, is an insistence that the history of residential schools must be taught in schools across Canada.

“We certainly have the pedagogy to do so. Where we need to help teachers is with the content,” said Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president James Ryan.

Teachers are anxious to teach about residential schools in both history and religion classes, according to Ryan.

“They always want to teach about issues that are related to justice, social justice,” he said. “And this would be no different. It obviously is a painful period of Canada’s past, but I think, just like teaching about the Holocaust would be a painful part of the past in world history, these are the most important things that can’t be ignored.”

The term “cultural genocide” has to be confronted when speaking about a government policy which aimed to assimilate native Canadians to the point where treaties between Canada and First Nations would become irrelevant, said Carlie Chase, Legacy of Hope Foundation executive director.

The Legacy of Hope Foundation — which like the TRC was created as part of the settlement agreement between residential school survivors, the Government of Canada and Church entities that ran the schools — provides curriculum support to schools across Canada.

“It (cultural genocide) isn’t our platform. It’s not what we focus on,” said Chase. “Right now we focus on the facts, about what we know. The fact is they existed, that our children went. The fact is that it has impacts today… This term of cultural genocide is an important one.”

In the run-up to the close of the TRC the words “cultural genocide” have been used by Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and others. The term is also part of the final report from the TRC.

Not all historians are comfortable with the term.

“I don’t use the term cultural genocide just because I’m culturally aware that it’s too close to genocide,” said University of Saskatchewan historian James Miller. “I don’t think what happened in our history was genocide, without the modifier. I’ve always used terms like aggressive and coercive assimilation.”

Miller was one of the first Canadian historians to tackle the history of residential schools back in the 1970s and produced a seminal book on the subject called Shingwauk’s Vision. He acknowledges that other historians believe cultural genocide is an accurate description of the residential schools and associated policies under the Indian Act.

“Lots of perfectly respectable people think that it was cultural genocide. If people are uncomfortable with it, it might have something to do with that unjustifiably rosy view of our history,” he said. 

In today’s universities, the history of residential schools is central to any syllabus of Canadian history, not so much in grade schools and high schools.

“In Ontario, for example, they have actually done an amazing job of developing some aboriginal studies curricula. The issue is that it’s only in aboriginal studies classes, which are an elective,” said Chase.

Incorporating residential schools into all aspects and grade levels has been a topic of discussion at the Institute for Catholic Education (ICE) which customizes curriculum materials for Ontario’s Catholic schools, said Ryan.

“We do have an ICE meeting coming up and I suspect it will be a major issue on the table at our next ICE board of directors meeting,” he said. 

At the Legacy of Hope, Chase encourages teachers to reach out to aboriginal communities for help in teaching aboriginal history.

“It’s equally important to ensure aboriginal people are part of this conversation,” she said. “So you are using elders and special teachers to be the ones to teach this… We have amazing capacity within the aboriginal community to support (teachers) when that’s valued appropriately.”

Just as American students have to learn about the history of slavery, Canadian students must learn about the ways this country was colonized, Chase said.

“History has to include not just the glorious parts. It has to include the shameful parts as well if it is to be honest and if we’re to learn anything from history,” said Ryan. 

Just as work of reconciliation fell to South African teachers in the post-apartheid era, Ryan expects reconciliation in Canada will happen in classrooms forming the next generation.

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