On the morning of September 30, 2016 I wore an orange shirt to school. I had received an e-mail about Orange Shirt Day, including a short video, and I decided to wear orange and talk to my students about residential schools and reconciliation during our Social Studies time. I showed them the video, and the looks on their faces told me that they had questions. They asked me things like, “Is this for real?” and “Did this really happen in Canada?” They had legitimate questions and the desire to learn and pursue them was evident in our classroom conversation.
Watch the video montage documenting this Truth and Reconciliation project
I teach at Stavely Elementary School, a very small rural school in Southern Alberta. There are less than 100 students in our K-6 school and we teach multiage classrooms. I teach a Grade 5/6 split. We are about a 40-minute drive from the nearest First Nation reserve.
I had been looking to do some problem-based learning within our Social Studies that year and I decided that this would be our topic. We listed our questions, and ultimately defined our guiding question as, “How do we find out the truth about residential schools in Canada and make reconciliation with this part of our history?” This was a big question with lots to unpack for a class of Grade 5’s and 6’s. We began by doing research, using books and the Internet, but found that we were struggling to find appropriate resources. I then approached
our Livingstone Range FNMI (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) Success Coordinator, Georgina Henderson, who became an integral part of our work. She helped connect our class to residential school survivors and the Project of Heart.1 It was clear to me early on that this was a big project, with a lot of important thinking. It was not going to be done in one day or even a week. It became a thread that ran through our entire school year. I think this allowed us to begin to engage in some real reconciliation – you see, I don’t think reconciliation is something to be checked off a list as completed; it is a continual work in progress.
For me, the story of reconciliation starts a long time ago. I grew up on a ranch on the Milk River Ridge that has been in my family for generations. I know places by the names that have been passed down through my family, and I appreciate the necessity of stewardship of the land. I also know that my family were not the first ones there. I remember being a very little girl and riding with my dad. We stopped to close a gate, and when I looked down from my saddle, I saw a rock that looked to be a hammerhead. From where we sat on our horses that day we could see the tipi rings in the grass and the river close by. Someone had clearly lost that rock long before I walked there.
I love the land, and I am a treaty person. It starts there for me. Home is a special and sacred place; I would hate to lose it. I know that it became my home through homesteading, which was made possible because of treaties signed with First Nations. Because of my presence on the land today I, too, am a treaty person. This story resonated for many of my students, many of whom come from farms and ranches and have strong a connection to the land in our area. I think in some ways this provided a point of connection for our investigation and project. We discussed what it would feel like to have special and important pieces of our land taken from us. Students could identify with this; they responded with anger and sadness. Then we started to talk about what it would be like to be taken away from our families, separated from our brothers and sisters, and placed in a school where everything was different. The students truly felt empathy for the students who attended residential schools. They questioned how it was even possible. We looked at the point of view of the government of the time. This angered and saddened my students. We learned a lot about how and why residential schools were used in Canada.
Our Project of Heart
Project of Heart is a collaborative journey of learning about residential schools in Canada from those who survived them. It includes general research about residential schools in Canada, then a more narrowed research journey into a specific residential school, including meeting with a residential school survivor, and then finally an artistic act of reconciliation. We had already done general research when I learned about this opportunity, and were ready to begin a more detailed look at a residential school that was near to us. Mrs. Henderson connected us with Ira Provost and the Piikani Traditional Knowledge Services centre in Brocket, and we felt that St. Cyprian’s Indian Residential School would be a good place for the class to focus our attention. Mrs. Henderson set out to find a survivor who would be able to work with our class. We found this in Mrs. Betty-Anne Little Wolf. I was thrilleto have her join our journey, as we had worked together previously at F. P. Walshe School, where she had been the Native Liaison Worker prior to her retirement.
As we were moving into Project of Heart, we had a launch in our classroom. Each student wrote about their thoughts, feelings, and the things they had learned through our research so far. We then shared them with our audience, which included residential school survivors, members of the Piikani Nation, parents, our superintendent, and our school principal. It was a big day; the sincerity of the students was palpable in the room. Some of the words that students shared that day were:
“Our learning is important because it has touched our hearts.”
“This project made me think how sad it must have been for parents that had to let go of their children… and how awful it must have been to go to residential schools.”
“I was saddened to learn about residential schools and the grief that they brought First Nations, but I also saw hope when I learned more about Orange Shirt Day.”
“Why would Canadians think of taking other families’ kids without their permission and trying to change their culture?”
At the end of our launch day I recorded the following reflection:
I was overwhelmed by the power of the student voices, their sincerity and true heart. I am thankful that I have the opportunity to work with such amazing students each day. I am reminded of the gravity of my job and position on days such as these; I have the chance to impact children in real ways. The lessons I choose, the areas we focus on, they matter – like really matter. I am not sure that five or ten years from now students will remember all of the geographic regions of Canada, but I do hope, with some confidence, that they have become better, more engaged, more knowledgeable, thoughtful, kind human beings because of this project. I can tell that they have really connected and I am honoured that I get to go along their learning and growing journey, for just as they are learning and growing, so am I.
Betty-Anne came to visit our class and speak of her experiences, which was a very powerful day for my students. They listened with so much respect and interest that I know that they will remember this experience for a long time. They innately seemed to understand the sacredness of the sharing they were part of. In addition they were able to take the information that we learned from her first-hand experiences and integrate it with the research that we had done. It also brought us opportunities to look at historical perspectives: after our visit, one of my students reflectively commented, “I learned a lot about what it was like to attend a residential school, but wouldn’t it be neat if we could also hear from a boy, because I bet that boys had a different experience from girls?” In that single comment I knew that my students were connecting the skills set out in the curriculum with the journey we were on. I also knew that they were coming to understand the depth and diversity of this area of history.
We defined reconciliation as the restoration of friendly relationships. As a class we worked with Mrs. Henderson, and survivors of St. Cyprian Indian Residential School, to try to learn more and really understand the residential school experience. We also worked through the Blanket Exercise2 as a way to deepen our knowledge and understanding. These were powerful experiences for the students, and everyone involved.
Throughout the process I always encouraged students to be honest with their questions and I promised to be honest with my answers. In the beginning some of the students talked a bit about being scared when they went to play hockey on local First Nations Reserves. I appreciated their honesty but I also wanted them to learn and appreciate that the teams they played there were just kids like them – this is where I think reconciliation really can grow. The more that we can all see that people are just people, regardless of where we live, the better off we will all be.
Our community is very small; most of the students have known each other their entire lives and spent all of their school years in the same class. This year, for the first time, a few of them openly spoke of their First Nations heritage, and even of their grandparents being residential school students. As a teacher, this change felt like a big deal for me.
It was amazing for me to see students really own what they were learning and apply it in new contexts. One day one of my students came and said, “I heard something about a bridge in Calgary being renamed because of residential schools.” As a class we researched, based on the information that we had, and learned about the renaming of the Langevin Bridge to Reconciliation Bridge. We had a great discussion about how we name things and then the way that the passing of time may change our views on those names. Another student asked if our work on residential schools was related to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Students were taking the learning and our conversations in the classroom and extending them beyond our walls.
The impact of the project
While there are many areas that we did not explore in great depth in our classroom work and Project of Heart, I did acknowledge them as places that students may look into further as they get older. I acknowledged that sexual abuse also took place within the residential school system, but we did not delve deeply into this area. The same held true when I was asked about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. I did say that I believe that there may be connections through history to the things that we were learning about, but we did not explore it in depth. Students get this. This was made most clear to me this past September when I asked my Grade 6’s, the Grade 5’s from last year, to go talk to each of our other elementary classes about Orange Shirt Day. As we planned our presentations, they were thoughtful of the age of people they were presenting to. They were determined to be honest, to teach them about the impact of residential schools, but also to do it in an age-appropriate way. I believe that this can be done. Kids are more capable that we often give them credit for.
Our concluding act of reconciliation was visiting the St. Cyprian Indian Residential School site near Brocket, Alta. Surrounded by the physical context of where the school once stood, we were guided through the site by Albert Prairie Chicken, a former student who explained more about what it was like to attend St. Cyprian’s Indian Residential School. This was a powerful day for many students. Perhaps one of the most striking things that resonated with me was when he showed us a picture of himself and eight other boys, at about the same age as my students, and then told us that only two of them are still alive. This really struck me and caused me to reflect even further on the depth of the impact of the residential school system. As a part of Project of Heart, students need to make and present an item to represent the reconciliation to the survivor who has worked along with them in the process, in this case Betty-Anne Little Wolf. Given our connection to the land, our class opted to paint a large rock from a local field, and place our fingerprints upon it to show that we are forever changed by this experience, that we are people committed to the process of reconciliation. We decided to take this one step further and each student chose a small rock from our community to paint and leave at the St. Cyprian Residential School site. It was our personal marking of reconciliation.
While there were many heavy parts as we worked through our Project of Heart, we also found ways to have fun. As we concluded our school year we celebrated with some of the people who had helped us along they way by having Mrs. Lorraine Morning Bull and Mrs. Georgina Henderson make fry bread with us, and sharing a meal together. We also held a closing activity where we invited all of the guests from the launch back again. We sat together in a circle on National Indigenous Peoples Day and talked about what we had learned and how it had changed us. It was during this time we presented our rock of reconciliation to Mrs. Betty-Anne Little Wolf. Here are some of the things that my students had to share that day:
“This has changed the way I see First Nations, I now see them as heartbroken people from our past, I see them now as people who have been through so much. It also made me a different person, because since I learned so much I feel their sadness inside.”
“I have changed because I felt like our classroom changed the world in a way.”
“This project has changed me in so many ways. It has shown me the truth about residential schools and the harsh treatment of our Canadian government. Residential schools have brought sorrow, hardship, and a deep wound that might not recover for many generations.”
“Even though I am going to a different school next year I will bring all that I have learned with me.”
As a teacher, I always hope that my students learn but, more than that, I hope that my students leave my classroom better people. I know that they will not remember each of my lessons, but I do hope that this project has imprinted upon their hearts and has changed the way that they look at First Nations people. I hope that it has cracked the door to reconciliation for them. I hope that one day, when they are parents, they will raise a more aware and reconciled generation of children.
Photo: Courtesy Julaine Guitton
First published in Education Canada, June 2018