Indigenous Counter-Stories in Truth and Reconciliation Education

Equity, Indigenous Learning, Promising Practices

Indigenous Counter-Stories in Truth and Reconciliation Education

Moving beyond the single story of victimhood

What stories are educators drawing on as they engage truth and reconciliation education? Madden argues that T&R education should not centre solely around stories of the residential school experience and portrayals of Indigenous people as victims. “Counter-stories” of refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying resurgence are also needed, to shine “light on community processes that challenge historical and contemporary colonial relationships with Canada.”

In my position as an assistant professor of Indigenous teacher education at the University of Alberta, I serve two main teaching roles. The first is contributing to an initial teacher qualification program designed specifically to prepare Indigenous teacher candidates from both urban and reserve communities to centre Indigenous knowledges, pedagogies, and priorities. The second is developing and implementing coursework for all pre-service and in-service teachers that explores how colonial beliefs (e.g. terra nullius), systems (e.g. formal schooling), and strategies (e.g. legislation like The Indian Act) continue to differently impact those who live in the place we now know as Canada. Across both of these teaching contexts, I have noted general confidence among educators that truth and reconciliation education offers a new framework to heal Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships, and to pursue school improvement for Indigenous students and communities. My observations suggest the most common starting place recommended to, and taken up by, educators is classroom inclusion of non-fiction and fiction books that introduce Canada’s Indian residential school system and related topics (such as Spirit Bear and Children Make History, by Dr. Cindy Blackstock and Eddy Robinson, and the accompanying learning guide that outlines the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations Child Welfare for an elementary-level readership).

In response to the popularity of this approach, I have found myself asking: What stories are educators drawing on as they engage truth and reconciliation education? Why are some resources more widely used than others? And how are Indian residential school narratives shaping popular images of Indigenous peoples, educators, and Canadians? In this article, I delve deeper into these questions and present a framework for educational leaders and teachers to evaluate and enhance the types of Indian residential school accounts they include in the education for reconciliation curricula they design.

Perhaps it is useful to take a step back and consider why the questions I pose in the previous paragraph are significant. In her 2009 TED talk, The Danger of A Single Story, the award-winning Nigerian author and feminist activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes the case that single stories – those that show a people as one thing and are told over and over again, typically by outsiders – create stereotypes and result in one story becoming the only story. She argues that single stories have both symbolic and real-world consequences. They flatten experience, obscure humanity, exploit difference, establish deficit views, and negatively define and constrain who those at the centre can become.

Prior to what is being called the “era of reconciliation,” Potawatomi-Lenapé scholar of education Dr. Susan Dion explored the danger of a single story in the context of school-based teaching about Indian residential schools. Her research showed that the single story of hopeless Indigenous victims shaped how non-Indigenous teachers and students taught and learned about Canada’s Indian residential school system. She noted an overreliance on teaching methods intended to foster empathy, such as letter writing to former residential school students. Dr. Dion demonstrates that pedagogies of empathy ensured that the single story, as well as associated images and outcomes, went unchallenged. Students remained preoccupied with feeling sorry for the “pitiful” Indigenous victim at the expense of exploring numerous examples of Indigenous strength and agency that were also present in the stories used. By contrast, they learned to see themselves as compassionate and honourable, in that they were able to demonstrate understanding of the “right” rules of moral behaviour, develop “appropriate” attitudes regarding the suffering of Indigenous peoples, and arrive at “fair” judgments about “historic” wrongdoings. Further, this approach cultivated the conditions wherein students were able to view settler colonialism – the ongoing physical occupation of Indigenous land by a colonial state and non-Indigenous settlers and violent and legislative dispossession of Indigenous peoples through established structures and everyday actions – as a thing of the past. Overemphasis on developing empathy for residential school victims overshadowed fostering students’ understanding of how they were impacted by and participated in ongoing colonial logics and effects. Engagement with difficult knowledge and unpleasant but necessary conflict was hindered.

Both Adiche and Dion suggest that while stories can be used to dispossess and change, they can also be used to humanize, empower, and heal. Counter-storytelling is proposed as a method for exposing, analyzing, and challenging narrow accounts. Counter-stories make space for multiple, nuanced stories of under- and misrepresented peoples and experiences. Counter-stories and -storytelling also provide a platform to interrogate privilege and views of Indigenous peoples and groups, to illuminate how we are all are produced within interconnected systems of oppression.

I organize Indian residential school counter-stories according to narratives of: refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying and resurgence. To appeal to a wide range of learners and tailor to current and local contexts, I suggest including young adult and children’s literature, as well as additional texts such as primary documents, newspaper articles, film, and museum exhibits. Below I offer examples of each type of counter-story, as well as questions to guide teachers’ practices; educators are encouraged to adapt questions for their education context (e.g. level, discipline) and based on the unique gifts they possess, their geographical location, and local Indigenous priorities and guidance. Figure 1 offers examples of ways to adapt questions for younger students.


Counter-stories of refusal reveal the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been refusing participation in colonial systems since contact, despite ongoing threat to their safety and wellness as a result. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report details a variety of strategies that include parents’ refusal to enrol their children in Indian residential schools, as well as refusal to return escapees or children at the end of summer “holidays.” Numerous accounts of students who escaped from an institution to return to their community despite the risk of death, injury, or being caught, returned, and punished are available for inclusion across grade levels. For example, Secret Path is a multi-media text that combines ten songs by Gord Downie with the graphic and animated illustrations of Jeff Lemire to tell the story of 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy Chanie Wenjack. Wenjack died on October 22, 1966 while fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, with the intention to return to his home on the Marten Falls Reservation over 400 miles away.

When preparing to use these print and video resources, teachers might draw inspiration from the following questions: What colonial systems is Chanie Wenjack refusing participation in? What form(s) does refusal take beyond explicitly saying “no”? What knowledge is needed in order to engage in refusal? What is at stake in refusing? What are current examples of Indigenous counter-stories of refusal?


Counter-stories of resistance demonstrate how Indigenous communities and collectives organize and act to resist dispossession, disenfranchisement, and dismissal by the colonial state and demand recognition of human, Indigenous, and treaty rights. For example, in 1970 a sit-in at the Blue Quills Residential School in Alberta resulted in the operation of the school being turned over to the newly formed Blue Quills Native Education Council. The sit-in was led by Stanley Redcrow, a former Blue Quills student and maintenance worker at the school, and Alice Makokis, a school counsellor who worked for the Department of Indian Affairs. It involved over 300 school staff and parents and lasted 17 days, culminating in the Department of Indian Affairs flying 20 Blue Quills community members to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Indian Affairs (and future Prime Minister) Jean Chrétien. Founded in Nēhiyaw centred curriculum, Blue Quills reopened as an elementary school and junior high in 1971 and expanded to include high school in 1976. The building now houses University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, the first Indigenous-controlled university in Canada.

The legal campaigns initiated by former residential school students that led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the largest class action settlement in Canadian history – is an additional example of a narrative of resistance that I suggest deserves space in truth and reconciliation education. In creating classroom space for counter-stories of resistance, teachers could consider how they will invite students to explore: What injustices are being resisted by Indigenous communities and/or collectives? What rights are being asserted? What strategies support organization, capacity building, decision-making, and action? (How) Is Indigenous activism unique in the example(s) being studied?


Counter-stories of resilience highlight the incredible ability of Indigenous peoples and Nations to overcome systematic assault on ways-of-knowing and ways-of-being. Resilience is often nurtured through drawing on the strength of communities and traditional teachings, both of which are comprised of human, other-than-human (e.g. plants, animals) and more-than-human (e.g. ancestors in the spirit world) relations rooted in land and honoured through protocol, ethical practice, and ceremony. The testimony of former residential school survivors who went on to work as residential school staff because they felt their presence made an important difference in the lives of students stood out in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as a particularly moving example of resilience.

Children’s and young adult literature, as well as graphic novels, often illuminate processes and possibilities of resilience. For example, Shi-shi-etko, written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim Lafave, chronicles the four days a young girl spends learning with her family in her community before leaving to attend residential school. Shi-shi-etko bathes in the creek with her mother, canoes on the lake with her father, collects medicines on the land with her grandmother, and privately offers tobacco to Grandfather Tree to keep her memories and family safe until she returns home in the spring. The reader infers that she will draw strength from the ways of her people and the land she is from during her time at residential school. A video adaptation was also directed by Kate Kroll and produced by Marilyn Thomas in collaboration with the author.

Prompts that can be adapted to encourage classroom connections through literature may include: How do the characters relate to humans, plants, animals, and other beings in the story? How do we know? How are characters’ identities connected to land? What is the significance of protocol and/or ceremony in the story? What and how do these ethical practices teach those in the story?

Restorying and resurgence

Counter-stories of restorying and resurgence emphasize the healing and reclamation of Indigenous peoples and places who have experienced trauma as a result of Canada’s Indian residential school system. In many cases, restorying is marked by physical change that mirrors symbolic recovery. For example, survivors, their families, and community members participated in an organized demolition of Peake Hall, the dormitory of the Alberni Indian Residential School that was located on the traditional territory of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C. The demolition was conducted in a ceremonial way and included sacred burning, smudging, and a feast, offering participants the chance to heal and free the spirits of their relatives from the former school. In addition to the demolition, the community constructed a traditional-style long house on the site and raised a pole and installed a sculpture made by local artists.

The exhibit Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School is an additional example of restorying and resurgence. It hung on the exterior of the school building at Alert Bay, B.C. transforming the space; a representation of the project was also exhibited at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

Guiding questions to activate analysis of counter-stories of restorying and resurgence include: What traumas have specific peoples and places experienced as a result of Canada’s Indian residential school system? What forms and processes of healing are needed? What is the relationship between reclamation and healing? Between physical change and symbolic recovery? (How) Is Indigenous restorying unique in the example(s) being studied? What does Indigenous resurgence look like?

To be clear, I do support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s view that truth telling in the form of survivors’ testimony about the abuses they suffered is an integral aspect of education for reconciliation. I do not intend to suggest that stories that shine light on former students’ lived experiences of being abused by priests, nuns, residential school staff, and/or other students should be excluded because they risk positioning Indigenous peoples as victims. Following the Commission, I hold that without truth there is no possibility of reconciliation. I recognize the potential of truth telling to restore dignity, aid in healing for victims, and pursue justice through calling perpetrators, governments, and citizens to account.

Indigenous counter-stories of refusal, resistance, resilience, and restorying and resurgence enhance this oral history by shining light on community processes that challenge historical and contemporary colonial relationships with Canada. They also make it more difficult to take up colonial positions and ways of being in relationship (e.g. rescuer/victim) that reduce Indigenous agency. As educators, the inclusion of Indigenous counter-stories in truth and reconciliation education allows us to imagine reconciliation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples, where the latter are not characterized by the singularizing image of victimhood.

Recommended Resources

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Teaching Resources.

Spirit Bear and Children Make History, by Dr. Cindy Blackstock and Eddy Robinson, illustrated by Amanda Strong (First Nations Child & Caring Society of Canada, 2017).

Spirit Bear and Children Make History Learning Guide, by Ottawa Teachers for Social Justice and the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society (2017).

“The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (TED talk, 2009).

Secret Path, by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire (music, book, and film, book published by Simon & Schuster, 2016).

Shi shi etko (video directed by Kate Kroll and produced by Marilyn Thomas, 2011).


Photo: John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

First published in Education Canada, March 2019

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Brooke Madden

Assistant Professor, Department of Secondary Education, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta

Dr. Brooke Madden is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education and the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on the relationship between teacher identity and teacher education on the topics of Indigenous education and Truth and Reconciliation education.

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