When should Canadians start learning about residential schools? Experts say kindergarten

Shannon Leddy doesn’t remember learning about the history of residential schools in classrooms as a child.

It wasn’t until she attended university that Leddy, a member of the Metis Nation and an assistant professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia, began to learn the awful truth about those schools and other aspects of Indigenous history.

“I think that’s really typical” of many Canadians’ experiences in the education system, said Leddy, who specializes in finding ways to integrate Indigenous education into teachers’ training.

“Often, when I started my work, … I started by asking student teachers, ‘What do you remember learning about Indigenous people in your own K-12 experience?’ They come in feeling a lot of anxiety (that) they don’t know anything about it, but are still expected to teach it.”

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The discovery of the bodies of 215 children on the site of the former Kamloops Residential School last week has opened a larger conversation about the legacy of the residential school system and how many Canadians truly know about it.

In particular, it’s forced a re-examination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 2015 call for residential school education to be mandatory from kindergarten through Grade 12 — a goal for which some provinces are still falling short.

Leddy and other experts say more education is needed not just in schools but at home as well, and are calling for parents and provincial and territorial curriculums to begin that education at an early age.

“Kids are critical thinkers, and they can see injustice and they can recognize it — often times, even more than adults can,” said Gabrielle Lindstrom, an educational development consultant in Indigenous ways of knowing at the University of Calgary.

“What I would like to see is that we get to a point in society where the colonial history — such as the Indian residential schools — when that is normalized, when that is common knowledge.”

Click to play video: 'Talking to your kids about the tragic discovery in Kamloops'

Talking to your kids about the tragic discovery in Kamloops

When do students begin learning about residential schools?

A 2017 poll by Insights West suggested 47 per cent of Canadians did not recall learning about residential schools during their K-12 education. The number dropped to 21 per cent among millennials aged 18 to 34.

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In 2015, Angus Reid found high support for making the teaching of residential schools part of the standard K-12 curriculum, with nearly seven in 10 Canadians supporting the idea.

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Yet the point at which K-12 students begin learning about Canada’s residential school system differs by province and territory.

Starting in 2019, Ontario made it mandatory for residential school history to be taught beginning in Grade 4, the earliest of any jurisdiction in Canada. British Columbia began teaching the history of residential schools starting in Grade 5 that same year, while that education now begins in Grade 6 in Saskatchewan.

Students in every other province and territory still don’t begin actively engaging with the history and legacy of residential schools until high school, although some provinces like Manitoba include passing references in younger grades.

The northern territories also include guidance for teachers to begin exploring the history at a young age, before diving in more depth, starting in Grade 10.

Provinces who responded to Global News said they are continuing to work with Indigenous leaders and groups to improve their curricula with more Indigenous history and perspectives.

Lindstrom agrees with the TRC that education should begin as soon as kindergarten, arguing it’s important to lay the groundwork for Canada’s complicated history as soon as possible.

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“By the time kids are in Grade 5, they’ve already learned a history of Canada that is based in settler, colonial views,” she said.

“Now to introduce the residential schools and say, ‘OK, here’s another part of Canada that we didn’t think was important enough to explore with you because we didn’t think you were ready,’ I mean, what kind of message does that send to kids? And it doesn’t give kids enough credit.”

Leddy agrees. She says there are several resources for kindergarten-age children to begin to learn about residential schools from a place of empathy and compassion, rather than immediately diving into the violence and cruelty of the system.

“You’re assuming that children that young have not already experienced trauma,” she said.

“Making space to talk about it is actually also a way of being inclusive and letting those children know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have experienced these things and that you can survive these things.”

Click to play video: 'Talking to children about residential schools'

Talking to children about residential schools

Alberta’s new draft curriculum, which is still under review, introduces the residential school system at Grade 5. Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday highlighted several references to Indigenous history and the injustices the people faced during Canada’s founding that are spread throughout K-12 in the draft curriculum.

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Kenney said his government is proposing a “huge increase in content” over the current curriculum about residential schools.

“If there are suggestions for more age-appropriate content, this is a draft curriculum. We’re open to additional suggestions,” Kenney said.

Alberta First Nations leaders have said that they cannot support the draft curriculum as written, saying it’s still missing large parts of Indigenous history and that the government’s consultation with Indigenous groups was not substantive.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on Tuesday urged Albertans to pressure the government for further changes to the curriculum.

“If your heart was broken this week, if you are educating yourself, if you are teaching your children, it’s also time to take political action and it’s time to reach out to the provincial government and tell them to scrap the curriculum and to start with something more respectful,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Talking to kids about Canada's residential schools'

Talking to kids about Canada’s residential schools

More to be done

Lindstrom and Leddy say education will continue to improve as more conversations are had about the pain and suffering residential school children and their families endure, as well as Canada’s role in allowing it to happen.

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Like Leddy, Lindstrom also didn’t learn about that history until university, even though her own parents were survivors of the school.

“We knew that the older generation had gone through this,” she said. “We knew that there was a lot of deep pain associated with that, and so we didn’t want to ask about it.”

Once she learned, however, she said she talked about it with her own kids “right from when they were very little.”

“It was about imagining what it might feel like to be taken away from your parents,” she explained of how she presented the idea to her children. “You see, we don’t just learn through cognitive pathways. We learn through relationships. … That’s a powerful way of learning, to put yourself in the shoes of another person.”

Leddy says bringing more Indigenous teachers into the education system is also part of the solution, a goal she pursues through the Indigenous Teachers Education Program at UBC.

“There are also more and more resources available that can empower non-Indigenous educators to find what they need to tell these stories properly,” she said.

“These teachers can position themselves as learners along with their students, because it’s OK for you not to know all of this history and it’s OK for you to be uncomfortable with the history. But we need to keep going.”

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Leddy says continuing that work and starting the education process early will be beneficial for all Canadians.

“So much of the curriculum about Indigenous people has been profoundly dehumanizing or has misrepresented Indigenous people,” she said.

“We need to be able to tell our stories in ways that speak to our actual history. That includes the bad and the good. And it will hopefully allow other Canadians to tell their stories, too.”

— with files from Global’s Kaylen Small