Province plans to revise school curriculum to include more Indigenous education

Residential School Survivors impact changes to school curriculum

On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors weighed in on the need for better education about Indigenous history. Education Minister Tom Osbourne said it’s important to understand the past so that  mistakes are not repeated.

Sherri Breen

As Newfoundland and Labrador reflected on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, residential school survivors and the minister of education highlighted the importance of education in the pursuit of reconciliation.

There is a long, dark chapter in the story of Canada that has been left out of textbooks for more than a century. The church-led residential schools, which operated from the late 1800s to the late 1990s, removed Indigenous children from their communities and desecrated an entire population of Indigenous peoples.

From May to July of this year, after thousands of unmarked graved were discovered in Saskatchewan and British Colombia, the nation was quieted. Many communities suspended Canada Day celebrations to acknowledge the sobering reality of our nation’s past.

Days later, a new statutory holiday was sanctioned.

For the first time in Canadian history, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was observed on Sept. 30. Canadians across the country wore orange shirts with slogans such as Every Child Matters to commemorate the children who died and suffered in residential schools.

Tell the Truth

Danny Pottle
Residential school survivor Danny Pottle recalls his experiences during a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation event in St. John’s. Sherri Breen/Kicker

Daniel Pottle and Cindy Lyall are two residential school survivors who shared their past experiences, perspectives on truth and reconciliation, and their thoughts on what schoolchildren should be taught about Indigenous history.

Pottle was relocated to Goose Bay from Rigolet in 1967 with no choice but to leave his community. There was no schooling available beyond Grade 8. When his parents separated, he lived with his grandfather until the welfare officer placed him in a residential school, which he described as “very rigid,” without any support.

Pottle said students were expected to begin peeling vegetables and making clothes at 6 a.m. and that multiple children (including his two brothers) were bathed in the same bathtub with other children by the high school principal.

From his perspective, all Canadians should take the time to reflect and learn more about residential schools as an important part of healing. But he stands firm in the idea to “forgive but not forget.”

Cindy Lyall said she suffered many forms of abuse in residential school and is still coming to terms with it today.

“We were just objects to be fed, clothed, and that was it.”

Lyall said she hopes to see people become less judgmental and more accepting of Indigenous people. When asked about what she would like students to know she said, “I’d like them to know the truth”.

First Light: Every Child Matters

First Light, an organization in St. John’s that works with Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups to celebrate Indigenous culture, held a series of events and activities such as drumming, singing, dancing, smudging, lighting the kudlik (a traditional oil lamp used by Inuit), and sharing stories of survival.

 “It’s great to see people wearing orange and to see so many individuals, organizations and governments reach out to our organization and ask what more they can do,” said Stacey Howse, executive director of First Light.

“But it’s more than just wearing orange,” Howse added.

Stacey Howse, executive director of First Light
Stacey Howse, executive director of First Light

“It’s having those conversations and learning the history, understand what needs to change, and from that there needs to be action.”

In its 2015 final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon governments to create mandatory age-appropriate curriculum about Indigenous history. It said such a curriculum should include topics such as residential schools, treaties and Indigenous contributions to Canada.

Last year, First Light worked with the school district to help develop some curriculum for Orange Shirt Day, and Howse hopes to see the partnership build across all schools. The organization, along with other Indigenous groups across the province, are in the process of reviewing and providing feedback on the provincial curriculum to the Department of Education.

Correcting the books

The government of Canada estimates that at least 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools. For most, the existence and examination of residential schools was neither acknowledged nor discussed the classroom, leaving generations of Canadians uniformed and misled about the systemic oppression and assimilation of Indigenous peoples. 

Justin Campbell, manager of research and advocacy programs at First Voice, which advocates for urban Indigenous people, said changes to the K-12 curriculum is just one of the TRC’s calls to action, but it is an important one that touches on promoting Indigenous languages and partnerships with Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador 

“These are complicated things that won’t be solved by individual actions,” said Campbell.

Education Minister Tom Osbourne said work has begun to include more content on the culture, heritage and history of First Peoples in schools across the province and that there has been progress.

“We’re working to advance the improvement of curriculum through an advisory committee and we have seen a number of improvements over the last number of years,” said Osbourne. “It’s important to have an understanding of the difficult stories, so we don’t make those same mistakes again and we need to include the residential schools and an understanding of what happened into our curriculum so that we can achieve truth and reconciliation.”

“It’s important to have an understanding of the difficult stories so we don’t make those same mistakes again.

– Tom Osbourne, minister of Education.

In terms of the proposed changes to the classroom content, Howse said, “It is so important for people to be aware of that and to understand the history because it is not taught in the school system.

“People weren’t even aware that there were Indigenous People in this province,” Howse said. . . “So many individuals have said, ‘I’ve only ever heard of Beothuk and that they were extinct.'”

One of the ways the government has responded to the 94 Calls of Action was by implementing more Indigenous education at The Rooms. According to education and public programming officer Joy Barfoot, EDU-kits and teachers resources were compiled under the guidance of the Healing and Commemoration Advisory Committee, which consisted of students, residential school survivors and Indigenous archival experts.

“Our overall objective is that these resources will help the development of student awareness of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The content focuses on residential schools such as Lockwood School, Makkovik School and Nain Boarding School (among others) and allows teachers to use activities of their choosing. The EDU-kits contain true accounts of survivor stories, audio and visual content and are available to any teacher in the province at no charge.

Barfoot said an important aspect of the kits is the “emphasis on strength and resilience” demonstrated by the school survivors.

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