Students at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba pose with their teacher in 1940. Library and Archives Canada

For reconciliation’s sake, education needed

  • July 1, 2021

For educator Vanessa Pinto, the discovery of unmarked graves outside of residential schools has only strengthened her resolve to raise awareness of Indigenous history, culture and perspectives in the classroom.

The traumatic discovery of the remains of as many as 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, and 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential school in Saskatchewan, left many questioning how to approach teaching children this very dark and contemporary part of Canadian history.

As head of the English department at Toronto’s Loretto College School, Pinto has been an advocate for Indigenous education and more than a decade ago helped develop a high school English course which focuses on Indigenous voices. Over the years she has been steadfast in stressing the need to prioritize marginalized perspectives in education.

As Catholic educators, she says it’s teachers’ duty to teach the history as part of building responsible citizens in a reconciliation relationship with Indigenous peoples.

“We subscribe to the Catholic social teachings and that all supports teaching about residential schools,” said Pinto. “We need to know what our country has done and how we can do better. The one way we can do better is to have Indigenous voices in our class and talk about the things that have happened. We need to include their literature and their stories in our classrooms.”

Indigenous communities and academics have always encouraged discussion of residential schools in an age-appropriate manner, Pinto says. While it is necessary to cater to the development stage of the children, today there are children’s books and other resources available to facilitate discussion at any grade level. As Catholics she says teaching about the schools builds the necessary character rooted in the faith. 

“Being a good Catholic means to follow with compassion, to follow with empathy, to follow with truth,” said Pinto. “When I’m teaching students, we’re having just frank and open discussion so that my students in my classroom develop that empathy, develop that knowledge and develop that sense of responsibility too.”

Forms of the Grade 11 course focusing on Indigenous voices have gradually been adopted in several school boards throughout Ontario. Pinto says there has been pushback from some in the public who have taken issue with a high school English course focusing on texts that highlight Indigenous voices as opposed to traditional readings such as Shakespeare.

While that has been disheartening, she says a silver lining of the current climate may be a heightened collective awareness of the history and trauma inflicted on Indigenous peoples and the important role the school system plays in ensuring students are informed and hold well-rounded perspectives.

“I think it’s a trauma for most of the nation because you can’t look away anymore,” said Pinto. “I’ve been involved in teaching Indigenous content now for most of my teaching career so this is a part of the next phase of the things that I have to address in the classroom. The fact that this is the conversation now is indeed helpful because now having an Indigenous text in the classroom, people don’t look at it as unusual anymore.”

Orange Shirt Day, which is observed Sept. 30, calls for Canadians to wear an orange shirt in the spirit of healing and reconciliation. Pinto was one of the first teachers in the Toronto Catholic board to push the special day and says as issues impacting Indigenous peoples have become more salient in the media and culture, she has seen enthusiasm and support for the day increase.

“Everybody wants that orange shirt and wants to do it now; it’s not just another colourful shirt day,” said Pinto. “For me (the latest news about residential schools) doesn’t change my job. It’s the (teaching) that I’ve always been doing, and I will be continuing to do it. It’s just much more acknowledged now by society.”

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