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'Convenient ignorance:' Canadians' knowledge of residential schools woefully lacking

Last Updated Jun 6, 2021 at 11:14 am EDT

TORONTO — Widespread shock at the discovery of what are believed to be the buried remains of 215 Indigenous children has highlighted the pervasive ignorance among many Canadians of one of the most sordid, and as yet incomplete, chapters in Canada’s national story, experts and observers say. 

The lack of understanding, they say, is largely due to an education system that has shown a profound reluctance to come to grips with the horrors of the Indian residential school system. Some, however, see the collective shudder at the grim find in British Columbia as evidence of a tipping point toward long overdue change. 

“The ‘discovery’ in Kamloops would only be a true discovery or revelation for most ‘mainstream’ Canadians that are non-Indigenous,” said Sean Monteith, an Indigenous education adviser with the Ontario Public School Boards Association. “Most Canadians are ignorant of this shared history. It may not be as wilful as it is convenient ignorance.”

Monteith, director of an eastern Ontario school board who has spent decades pushing reconciliation through education, said teaching about residential schools has inevitably been a spotty check-box exercise that failed to address their still-living legacy of trauma and dislocation. There is no national or even consistent provincial curriculum, he said. 

In a recent statement to the British Columbia legislature, Premier John Horgan alluded to the dismal state of teaching about the schools, which he said he only learned about when he heard a survivor speak at a high school gymnasium. Changing what is taught, he said, is crucial.

“It would start by ensuring that our K-to-12 system does a comprehensive job of telling the story of Canada, not with rose-coloured glasses, but with the reality which it deserves,” Horgan said. “I have two degrees in history from two universities and I did not know about the atrocities of residential schools from our public education system.”

A passing reference in Canada’s Citizenship Guide for would-be Canadians is another example of how the ugly reality of residential schools has been glossed over. While the guide refers to “hardship,” it makes no mention of sexual abuse, the thousands of child deaths, or the ongoing trauma passed down through generations like a toxic heirloom.

“In today’s Canada, Aboriginal peoples enjoy renewed pride and confidence,” the guide states.

Norman Yakeleya, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Northwest Territories and himself a residential school survivor, said that just doesn’t cut it. A “strong chapter” that tells the truth about the schools and their impact is needed, he said.

“I feel very, very, very sad and very angry,” Yakeleya said. “A shaking up needs to happen in Canada that needs to be more than one paragraph.”

The Canadian School Boards Association has called for the development – with survivor and Aboriginal input – of a nationwide curriculum on the schools and related topics from kindergarten to Grade 12. Doing so, it said, means funding post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on integrating Indigenous knowledge.

Darren McKee, executive director of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, said he learned about the Treaty of Versailles or Treaty of Utrecht growing up in the province but not about his own treaty.

“There was this sense of displacement of history, that there was a need to push forward with the history that the majority felt was important,” McKee said. “We do have to acknowledge that the truth wasn’t being taught.”

While many Canadians learned little or noting about residential schools, provinces and territories have recently made changes to their curriculums in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or are working to do so.

Alberta, for example, which has a single reference to the schools in Grade 10, will include the “dark, deplorable part of Canada’s history” and its legacy in every grade of a proposed Kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum. Topics would include disease, malnutrition, and neglect that contributed to thousands of child deaths.

“What we are proposing is a huge increase in content,” Premier Jason Kenney said.

Similarly, other provinces and territories, which offer some lessons on Indigenous peoples at various grades, have recently made changes to focus more on residential schools and their legacy. Most say they are also working to offer yet more content to a wider range of age groups.

One foreigner who knows more than many Canadians about the residential schools is Veronika Heinl, who wrote a 40-page paper on the subject in 2018 at her high school in Germany, where the country’s role in the Second World War is widely taught. She found no shortage of reference material, ranging from The Canadian Encyclopedia and several books to media reports.

“It’s a very intense topic,” Heinl said. “You could compare it to the kind of dark part of history in Germany.”

Yakeleya said students need to know the realities of Canada and what was done to her Indigenous people.

“They have read the history books of what happened in Germany. The camps. They have read the history of other nations doing this to their own people,” Yakeleya said. “Right on the ground they are standing called Canada, it also happened to their own people.”

Given jurisdictional complexities, developing a consistent curriculum would be tricky. Different political ideologies get in the way of a more standardized approach,” McKee said.

As flags fly at half mast and pint-sized shoes pop up at makeshift memorials across the country, McKee said children appear to grasp the enormity of what happened.

“Kids are looking at this and they seem to get it,” McKee said. “They seem to be open to understanding these wrongs and making a difference going forward, but we still got a lot of work.”

Regardless, observers said no Canadian can now ignore — through ignorance or attitude — what has been a blistering, self-evident truth to Indigenous people past and present. There’s been an unprecedented awakening, Monteith said, although most expect more finds such as in Kamloops.

“You’re going to likely see a movement now that will see this shared history required to be taught in all classrooms,” Monteith said. “That’s how we’re going to start to get at informing and moving reconciliation forward, not just in our schools and in our classrooms, but in our homes and in our communities.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 6, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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