It would have been hard to miss the news coverage of the closing days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last week. With the tabling of the Report, any doubt, misinformation or ignorance has been addressed regarding the cruel treatment that Aboriginal children were forced to endure for over 100 years of Canada’s 148 years as a nation. What was also made abundantly clear is that this history was not taught in Canadian schools in the past, and at present is still not expected to be taught by all teachers all across the country. Last week, many Canadians heard for the first time in detail the horrors that over 150,000 children experienced while attending residential schools across Canada between 1840 and 1996. Throughout the 360 pages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report, the accounts of 7,000 Survivors document the hunger, sickness, physical and sexual abuse, torture, humiliation and fear perpetrated by their educators and guardians in these schools. And if there was ever any doubt about the severity of the effects of the residential school system on Aboriginal children and families, this legacy in Canadian history was so calculated and so thorough in its aims that it is now considered a “cultural genocide”.
None the less, a week has passed, and the media has turned to other timely events. Where does that leave us? The talk of reconciliation is becoming distant, along with the concern of the general public. As teachers at this critical time we have the opportunity, responsibility even, to not let reconciliation become just another passing news item. Taking to heart what Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair said in his closing remarks, there must be “reconciliation through education”. As Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation inquiry into the terrible legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential School System, Justice Sinclair urged educators to close the gap in our understanding about this shared history and walk with the Survivors and their families towards reconciliation. There is no better time than the present. Regardless of the fact that curricula across the country will take time to change, there are many ways that teachers can start the learning right now: beginning in the primary grades, by reading and discussing books like; Shi Shi Etko, Shin Chi’s Canoe, When I was Eight, Not my Girl, Arctic Stories, to name a few, or, following the lead of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society’s initiative, by planting a Heart Garden at your school to commemorate the children lost and those who survived.
Now that it is over, it is not enough to simply have acknowledged the testimony of the Survivors and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and we cannot honour the lives of the generations of Aboriginal children and families who were affected by the residential school system if we wait for other teachers to teach this history. It is our responsibility as educators to open the dialogue now and to learn and grow in this new chapter of reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has admitted that “for reconciliation to succeed, we must also renew our commitment to educating Ontarians on the role that treaties and the residential school legacy play in Canada’s past, present and future.” So, although many teachers in the past may have faced scrutiny or a lack of support from colleagues and administration as they endeavoured to teach the truth about the Aboriginal residential school system in Canada, we can now consider Premier Wynne’s statement and Justice Sinclair’s words of ‘reconciliation through education’ as a rallying call to all educators to do what is right not just once, but every year we teach.


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