Mom’s Residential School Experience
(time 2:59) Big Ideas:
Educators are encouraged to focus on four dominant themes throughout their planning and study of the story. The themes integral to the story are 1) the role of education; 2) friendship, loyalty, survival; 3) privilege and responsibility; and 4) historical accuracy and dangerous memories. The following are suggestions and information that will assist educators in preparing for the presentation and meeting their learning objectives for their students.
Teachers are encouraged to read the summaries and reflections found in the book Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way that reference and relate to this tragic story. Several important topics and concepts are mentioned, such as:
Mass graves at residential schools.
Code of silence…for both victims and perpetrators.
The vigil, holding a candle, wearing the t-shirt…to feel good, or affect change?
Education – its role in oppression, whitewashing history, forced assimilation, and cultural genocide. (…with a comparison to Germany’s approach to the Holocaust and the ‘choice’ to be ignorant.)
Lifelong effects of trauma.
Diminishment of the residential school experience.
The Tulsa Oklahoma massacre…a hub of Black prosperity destroyed.
The way change happens….through the children.
Reparations, unjust settlements.
With privilege comes responsibility.
In order to maintain both the integrity of the story and the respect and solemnity the subject matter deserves, the curriculum developers request that educators refrain from turning this story into a creative arts or entertainment project, whether through performance arts, skits, plays, and puppetry, or ‘imagining’ or pretending to be an Indigenous child in a residential school setting, etc. These types of projects may serve to diminish rather than enhance the learning experiences we hope to achieve.
An Uncomfortable Story
This story, told with raw emotion along with some raw language, is not an easy one to hear. There may be some critics who feel strongly that this story should have been altered or toned down to make it more palatable for students, easier to digest…so they won’t feel guilt, shame, or discomfort as a result. But isn’t this exactly what Marilyn James is speaking out against…. the rewriting of history, or in this case the rewriting of Marilyn’s story of her mother’s history, so members of the settler culture can continue to idle in their comfort zones? How could it be told any other way? As Marilyn James asserts in the book, the time of the comfort zone is passed.
We are recommending that educators progress through several phases when presenting this story as follows:
Self-evaluation for the educator.
Knowing your students.
Preparation for opposition and confrontation rather than validation.
Presenting the story with dignity, respect, and integrity.
Where do we go from here?
1) Self-evaluation for the Educator
In the beginning phase of this lesson guide, the educator is strongly encouraged to become the learner and do the research. There is a wealth of information to know and understand, not only in regards to the history of residential schools, but also the lasting impacts on survivors and their descendants. Many websites set up by different groups, organizations, and governments are available to help inform and advise educators as to their professional practice. Information, resources, and lesson plans suitable for students from Kindergarten through Grade 12 are offered for consideration on several of the websites.
Throughout the teachers’ guide for the Not Extinct book, the term ‘teachers of dangerous memories’ has been referenced multiple times. The following checklist will determine if the educator meets the standards of practice for a teacher of dangerous memories. It will also help to zero in on areas that may need more attention or development in one’s professional practice.
Teachers of dangerous memories are critical thinkers who are working to….
understand, practise, and promote critical pedagogy.
teach history as a mode of thought, not as a memorization of names, places, and dates.
advocate for social justice through their work, helping students to connect the dots from the awful events of the past to the current issues that face human society.
take the risks involved, risks such as being unpopular with students, peers, parents, or Ministry officials, and are willing to deal with disagreements, conflict, and confrontation.
surrender their need for immediate obvious affirmation from students.
understand that effective change takes time and happens over time.
acknowledge that not everyone is open to changing historical perspectives. Regardless, the symptoms and causes of the ignorance, resistance and indifference to historical accuracy that prevail in mainstream society and serve to maintain a racist status quo need to be exposed.
2) Know your Students
If one of the goals of an educator is to have important and necessary conversations about residential schools with their students in a safe learning environment, then knowing one’s students is a critical component to achieving success.
Are there supports in place to help students who are triggered? Is your Aboriginal Educator on board with the learning opportunities you are trying to create? Students who may be triggered by such conversations are:
Indigenous children who are adopted;
Indigenous children in foster care;
students who are related to, are friends with, or play on a sport’s team with people who have Indigenous heritage;
students who only know of Indigenous people through cartoon characters, stereotypes, and Halloween costumes;
non-Indigenous students who are experiencing abuse at home;
children from other minority groups such as Black, Asian, et al.
3) Prepare for opposition
Some students may arrive at school heavily influenced by the biases of their parents, by the pervasive stereotypes seen in ads and at sports events, or from lack of exposure to historical accuracy. It is not unusual to hear the following comments and questions in relation to Native Rights from other educators, officials, students, and parents or caregivers:
This has nothing to do with me. I didn’t do anything to them.
Why am I supposed to feel bad or guilty?
I’m not helping to perpetuate the wrongs of the past. We don’t have residential schools any more.
Why don’t they just move on? That’s all in the past.
Why didn’t they just speak up and say something, or fight back?
Don’t make my kid feel uncomfortable just for being white!!!
Get off the soapbox!
To be clear, diversity and historical truth in education are not about indoctrinating children or shaming members of the settler culture for the wrongs of the past. What we are asking is an acceptance of responsibility to generate action based on compassion and help right the wrongs of the past. The stories of the settler culture have been heard and taught for generations. All that’s being asked is to help the stories of Indigenous Peoples (as well as other minority groups) to also be heard and taught through honest, equitable education practices.
4) The Story
Issues and topics that relate to this story are too numerous to summarize in their entirety here. Refer to the last section of this lesson guide for suggestions and websites to help gather additional information. The following are a few suggestions to get started.
Friendship, Loyalty, Survival
Developing friendships during childhood is essential for healthy emotional development in a child. Lavina’s friendship with the boy is an integral part of the story.
Discuss friendship and loyalty and what that means to students.
Why would friendships be so important to students in a residential school? – to help survive abusive situations; for support; to share secrets; to provide some element of love, caring, sharing; to offer elements missing from family interactions; to keep practising their traditions in secret such as using their language.
Lavina was a loyal friend but was not allowed to help the boy in the story. Why didn’t she disobey the rule to remain seated and help him anyway? – Talk about the seriousness of the situation and being in survival mode. If you resist you can be severely punished for even a slight mistake, or killed through abuse, neglect, starvation, or disease. Lavina can be of more help later if she survives. The story shows that Lavina never forgot about her friend.
There is a big machine or infrastructure in place at a residential school to threaten and control the students. The children would not be able to understand what the components of that infrastructure were. The machine serves to threaten and put everyone on notice. It keeps students in their place. Talk about what Lavina could have done later to secretly support her friend when she had the chance.
Several assignments or projects relating to family stories can be given to the students. Several websites have suggestions and ideas to help educators with this topic.
What do students know about their own families through the stories they’ve heard about the past? i.e. stories about war, relationships, moving to a new country, faraway adventures, escapes from danger, starting up a family business, survival, etc. Why would some stories not be passed along? Why do they think Lavina never talked about her residential school experiences until she was older?
My Grandmother’s Country – depending on the community in which the students live, this can be a fascinating assignment. (Be prepared for situations where a child is adopted or in foster care.) One grade six class had very successful interactions with their families as they learned about a grandparent through pictures, stories, and newspaper articles. One girl’s grandmother had been a pilot in a war…the student had never heard that story before. This type of assignment sets the stage for such dialogue to occur.
In traditional times, stories passed down through the generations were to help, advise, instruct, and influence. Review the concept of the oral tradition and its importance and influence. Older students could research how the oral tradition has influenced legal cases in court, i.e. is oral history considered admissible as evidence?
Medical reasons are an important issue as some diseases and syndromes are hereditary.
On being educated – the public school experience
In an educational setting students engage in meaningful learning, develop critical thinking skills, and learn to adapt self-regulation processes, skills, and strategies in order to function as a contributing member of society. Recall the second most important Sinixt cultural law states that one must live a life of service. In other words, take care of your own responsibilities first, and then contribute to the community by helping and taking care of others.
Start with what the students know and understand. Why do they go to school? How far from the school do the children live? Graph their modes of transportation to attend school (include Lavina’s). What are the high points and low points of being able to go to school? Do they feel safe and cared for? Are there things they would like to see changed? One young student said she liked school because it was the only place where she could enjoy being with all her friends at the same time.
Why are some schools labeled ‘residential’? What is the difference between a boarding school and a residential school? Clarify with the students why Lavina was in a residential school. Did she go there to be educated? Did she live there? Was it her home?
Are there any checks and balances in place to ensure the children receive quality education and care in a normal school setting? PTA, parental visits, school boards, school trustees, the media, report cards, school/class newsletters, open houses, and so on.
Would Lavina feel safe in their school? Younger students could suggest ideas to welcome Lavina (or a new student) and help them feel comfortable, safe, and cared for.
How is the role of education today different from that of more traditional times? Review the role of traditional education for Sinixt children. Children were mentored in a most natural way by living within the cultural laws. They learned through experience, by doing, by observing, through storytelling, and through ritual, ceremony, and spiritual practise while being cared for by their families. Today some families choose to home school their children for a variety of reasons. More mature students could discuss the pros and cons of becoming a free thinker and debate the argument that “home schooling is democratically dangerous.”
On being educated – the residential school experience
In a residential school, students were constantly watched. Their thinking was done for them as they were programmed to feel worthless and untrustworthy. Students were told what to do, when to do it, and what to think; controlled with commands, threats, and abuse. Severe punishments such as flogging and solitary confinement were meted out in many of the residential schools for even the slightest mistake, including speaking their mother tongue. Children carried heavy workloads through regular chores and additional punishment. It was made clear to the children what behaviours were disallowed during mealtimes as demonstrated by the incident in the story. Documents have shown that most meals lacked adequate nourishment for healthy child development. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and skin infections ran rampant throughout many of these institutions causing debilitating results, even death.
Does education in a residential school foster critical thinking? Would a student in a residential school situation learn to think for themselves, or develop and practice good problem-solving strategies?
Assess the learning capabilities of a child in a residential school who most likely lived in a chronic state of fear. Scientific studies have shown that a child’s brain absorbs more information or data when the child feels respected, happy, worthy, and is engaged in enjoyable activities. Will the residential school students develop the capacity to be responsive, to be able to ‘see in the moment’ after years of deprivation, distrust, denials and the lack of adequate care? Older students may be interested in researching the hippocampus, that region of the brain so important for learning.
Research Duncan Campbell Scott, a civil servant who ran the residential school system for several years. He stated that the aim of a residential school would be to ‘kill the Indian in the child” and termed it The Final Solution. The Nazis used the same term many years later for their dehumanization and extermination of Jewish people. (Note: Ward Churchill in his book Struggle for the Land which was initially banned in the U.S. documented the reference in Mein Kampf to Hitler’s research of the treatment and subjugation of an ‘inferior race’ in North America when planning Nazi genocide, namely The Final Solution.)
Mature students could research and define cultural genocide, cultural cleansing, and ethnocide. Assess the role of Duncan Scott and residential schools as part of a genocidal process.
It is encumbent on educators to understand and assume their role in advocating for social justice and to assist students in understanding and acknowledging how what happened in the past affects the present. How do children grow up to become nurturing parents themselves when they were raised in an environment where punishment, abuse, and control were normalized; where parenting knowledge, parenting role models, and parenting behaviours were lacking; where expressions of love and caring were absent; and, where relationships lacked trust, truth, and reliability?
Resistance by Indigenous Families and Students
Why didn’t they just resist, defend themselves, or do something about their situation? Some documented instances of resistance included:
hiding children from Indian agents. (Research Marguerite Kioke Wabano, the oldest known survivor of residential school who was born in 1904. During an interview Marguerite told stories of her parents moving farther out into the bush to hide their children.)
holding secret ceremonies to keep their spirits up and their spiritual traditions alive;
speaking their mother tongue secretly for both comfort and practice;
mentally withdrawing during classes;
misbehaving and making it difficult for staff to function efficiently;
setting fires to cause disruption;
stealing food for sick children and trying to get extra nourishment for themselves;
keeping secrets with other children; supporting each other;
attempting to run away (only to be captured, killed, or die along the way).
Resistance by non-Indigenous Witnesses
It is difficult to imagine the severe trauma caused to Lavina, her friend, and possibly the staff who witnessed the horrific incident related in the story. Some non-Indigenous people tried to voice their opposition to what they witnessed in the residential school system. Two notable antagonists are worth researching as they both provide ample evidence in their writings which were largely ignored.
Dr. Peter Bryce – Dr. Bryce was the Chief Medical Office for the Department of Indian Affairs who undertook a study in 1907 on the health of students in residential schools. He wrote a scathing report which was never released by the government (part of that infrastructure mentioned earlier). Today he would be considered a ‘whistleblower’. In 1922 Dr. Bryce published his information and wrote a book entitled The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada.
Elizabeth Shaw – Elizabeth worked at residential schools for several months and was horrified by what she witnessed. Although her document from 1898, available on the web, is racist in its tone, the descriptions of what she witnessed are shocking to read as she called for changes to be made. A video on YouTube is also available called “The Awakening of Elizabeth Shaw”. (Previewing the video is strongly recommended.)
5. Privilege and Responsibility – Where do we go from here?
To help take students beyond meaningful remembrance and reflection, educators are encouraged to research the various projects they may join or initiate with their students. Stress the concept that this is important for ‘healing’ to occur and that response-ability is a place of strength and honour. Hope lies with the children.
Advocate for social justice.
Start a leadership program to help embolden students to confront injustice and call for change.
Understand the term ‘reconciliation’ and ‘decolonization’. What do these mean to youth? Many reconciliation projects are listed on the web.
Highlight Indigenous voices, filmmakers, writers, and artists in your programming.
Empower Indigenous youth.
Initiate letter writing campaigns.
Lobby churches to release records so families may know what happened to their children who never made it home.
Become classroom allies.
Help organize workshops – treaty rights, history of colonization, solidarity between newcomers and Indigenous Peoples.
Commemorate Orange Shirt Day beyond just wearing the t-shirt.
Support revitalization projects – i.e. Indigenous languages, language schools for youth.
Read the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
A few examples of websites available online for educators and researchers are listed below.
First Nations Education Steering Committee
Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation Resources
Teacher Resource Guides for grades 5, 10, and 11-12 are available online. They addresses a range of isues such as the purpose of residential schools, why study residential schools at all, the impact on family and community, what is reconciliation and why does it matter.
The Critical Thinking Consortium
search under the title Historic Injustices and Redress in Canada
The First Nations, Métis, Inuit Education Association of Ontario
Pedagogical Considerations for Teaching About Residential Schools
Project of Heart
see https://gem.bc.ca/mediate/firsthand/s02e09 for the Colonization Road video
Curricular Competency: (developed by the teacher creating the lesson plan in collaboration with the student(s) receiving the knowledge)
Positive Personal & Cultural Identity:
Personal Awareness & Responsibility:
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