By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on November 4, 2020.
An open letter to Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange:
Dear Minister LaGrange,
It is vital that residential schools be acknowledged in primary schools at all grades as residential schools are a part of the history of Canada. With racism being at the forefront of local and global events, now is the time for society to focus on decolonizing. Many non-native students have not heard, or know very little, about the residential schools, even when they get to the post-secondary level (this section was in italics in our letter, thanks!).
As a class member alludes to above, many members of my Indigenous Health class at the University of Lethbridge are concerned about the proposed elimination of the residential school system from the K-4 curriculum. I led the writing of this letter inspired by my current university students, over half of whom chose to write their research papers this term on residential schools. Both Indigenous and as non-Indigenous realize the importance of the residential school system in Canadian history but also in contemporary Canadian society.
Reading these research papers, we learn how most of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in Canada today are themselves residential school survivors or the children and grandchildren of those who survived (many did not). These schools were sites of physical and sexual abuse. Children were taken away, sometimes forcibly, from their parents and from normal family life. They were unable to experience the daily contact, care, and love that parents provide to their children. This was traumatic; further, it was not a single-event trauma but ongoing trauma, often for many years.
Processing and recovering from trauma are difficult lifelong undertakings, yet residential school syndrome was not even recognized until recently. First Nations, Metis and Inuit children left these schools and tried to get on with their lives, carrying overwhelming emotional burdens, including untreated anxiety, clinical depression and PTSD. Students’ research demonstrates that many survivors were unable to parent their own children well – how could they when they were not parented themselves?
Their trauma was unwittingly passed on to their children and grandchildren. Students see the obvious links between residential school trauma and high rates of addictions, suicide rates and other tragic coping mechanisms among Indigenous people. Their research papers note that residential schools were not the only cause of trauma for Indigenous people; for instance, before and coinciding with residential schooling, loss of land had led to food insecurity, forced economic dependence, and other traumas. Thus, many Indigenous people in Alberta and across Canada grapple with multiple multi-generational trauma today.
As Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, the uniqueness of residential schools in our country must be understood; these schools were part and parcel of a wholesale racist system that continues to affect every part of Indigenous people’s lives. Besides respecting and responding to this, one must admire the widespread and remarkable resilience in Indigenous communities and families. The last school was not closed until 1996.
Treaty law is the basis of Canadian law and we are all treaty people, whether we understand this or not. More and more, Canadians are realizing that their country is Indigenous – in numbers, land and law. Organizations from banks to churches to federal government departments, health services and the media are beginning to do things differently as a result. If Alberta students are to be kept ignorant about how and why issues have developed and how they are being addressed elsewhere in the country, then they will be disadvantaged as Canadian citizens and as employees. They will lack the tools they will need in the Canada of the future.
As a teacher, non-Indigenous students have sometimes approached me about not learning about this tragic aspect of Canadian history in school, asking angrily, “Why weren’t we told about this?” Children are more than capable of learning what happened to children who were even younger than them. Being so young, they are compassionate, which we must cultivate. Teaching children about residential schools is morally right; it’s also necessary if we are going to live together in respect and understanding.
As a teacher who has formally studied the Bible, ancient Rome and other proposed K-4 topics, I support including these topics in curricula. Knowing the history of western thought will also benefit young Albertans and such history is worth studying for its own sake. Further, it will help our students better understand the early encounters between Europeans and Indigenous people and subsequent developments. Regardless, it is certainly not an either-or choice between Rome and Lac la Biche.
We ask that you please consider the priorities and goals of our university students as they carve their futures. Please commit to include residential schooling as a topic in the Alberta K-4 curriculum.
Maura Hanrahan, PhD (associate professor, Dept. of Geography & Environment), John Little Bear, Bernice Big Bull, Robert Weasel Head, Francine Hunt, Amy Mendenhall, Bella Perizzolo, Jared Sandham, Megan Smith, Cassidy Tattrie, Mikayla Wiedemann (and other Indigenous Health class members), University of Lethbridge