Close to half of the NWT’s population is Indigenous, and the trauma of residential schools is still very close to home for many people.

How this delicate subject matter is taught in schools is influenced by that deep-seated impact.

Paul Bennett, vice-principal at Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, teaches the Northern Studies class that incorporates a unit specifically on residential schools.
Blair McBride/NNSL photo

“Down south, residential schools are more of a history lesson, but up here it’s still very current because it happened more recently,” said Scott Willoughby, Indigenous Language and Culture Education Coordinator with Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1).

“It’s not seen as history up here. The last residential school in Yellowknife closed in 1996 – Akaitcho Hall, it was beside Sir John Franklin. It’s sensitive because there are lots of survivors here. Down south, they closed most of the schools in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Several levels of the curriculum at Yk1 schools integrate content on residential schools, including the Dene Kede cultural program that presents the Dene worldview. That program has been in place since 1993.

In Dene Kede, Indigenous peoples’ experiences in residential schools are covered in grades 4-6. In grades 5 and 6, students learn about how children were separated from their parents and taken to residential schools.

Many teachers use resources and content from Orange Shirt Day, marked on Sept. 30, and all of them write some content into their lesson plans at the start of the year, said Willoughby.

“We usually bring Elders into the classrooms to talk about their experiences at residential schools, but we aren’t doing that now because of Covid,” he said.

Weledeh Catholic School

Sonja Hunt has been teaching about residential schools in her grade 4 and 7 classes at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife for about 10 years.

She often uses books as one of her teaching tools, such as Stolen Words by Melanie Florence and When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton.

“They help give us some of the words that we want to use at the appropriate levels for our kids. Books are good for connecting to the kids’ lives. It’s a good transition into what’s a really difficult discussion,” said Hunt.

Clayton Taylor, left, Wolf Breitbach, Sonja Hunt, Natan Asrat-Hadgu, Ethan Hawker, Matthew Macusi and Tytan Zoe take part in a talking circle about residential schools in Hunt’s Grade 4 class.
photo courtesy of Sonja Hunt

Residential schools don’t only come up in her lessons around the time of Orange Shirt Day.

Each day she recognizes Indigenous culture by using the Wiiliideh Yatii language for morning greetings and for singing the Canadian national anthem.

“We have learning opportunities out on the land. We really embed the culture in our learning activities (and) we try to show them how Indigenous peoples weren’t always able to express their culture in the way they can now.”

A hands-on tool that Hunt uses is gathering with the students in a talking circle to have conversations about history.

“When we open up this conversation in a safe way through those circles, we see a lot of empathy. I like the focus on making things better and being better people and working together on reconciliation. As children, they’re curious and they want to learn and make things better,” she said. “As teachers, we often ask kids to put themselves in the shoes of others: ‘How would you feel if you weren’t allowed to see your brothers and sisters? How would you feel if someone cut your hair (at school) and you didn’t want that?'”

Even though some of her students’ own family members experienced residential schools, Hunt sees no difference between how they and non-Indigenous children respond to learning about the schools.

“We don’t see the negativity come out. It comes from a place of empathy,” said Hunt.

Tłı̨chǫ community schools

Schools in Tłı̨chǫ communities learn about residential schools using their own resources produced by the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency (TCSA).

Residential schools are included in both history and social studies classes as a feature of how life changed when Europeans arrived, along with the fur trade, Treaty 11 and self-governance, said Linsey Hope, director of education with the TCSA.

“For example, in Grade 6, some of the suggested activities include mapping residential school locations in the North (and) reading short accounts of residential school experiences from our region/territory,” Hope said.

The stories were told by school survivors, some of whom were Tłı̨chǫ people, such as one by the late Chief Alexis Arrowmaker, one of the signatories of Treaty 11, which was signed in 1922 between the Crown and Indigenous groups in the NWT.

Arrowmaker’s story, intended for younger readers, focuses on himself as a boy. He had wanted to go off to the mission school like other children, but he was living “under the roof of Chief Mowhi who had other ideas.”

“One time, without telling him, I took my bedroll and went to the barge and sat there waiting for it to leave. Other people saw me sitting there and it was not long before Mowhi heard about me. He came and told me that he will teach me everything I needed to know, and so I followed him home.”

Other stories tell about the rotten food provided at residential schools, harsh punishments by missionaries, and children returning home to their communities unable to communicate with their families because they forgot how to speak Tłı̨chǫ.

“Many students realize how immediate and direct the impact of residential schools is for the North,” Hope said. “Tłı̨chǫ students have always demonstrated that they care very deeply about the histories and legacies of residential schools. Many choose residential schools as a topic for deeper investigation in their heritage fair projects, where some have interviewed family and community members who attended residential schools.”

Sir John Franklin High School

For high school students at Sir John Franklin (SJF), residential schools are included as a unit in Grade 10 Northern Studies, a required course.

“It’s likely the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to teach,” said Paul Bennett, vice-principal at SJF.

“I’ve taught chemistry and physics, from Grade 1 to Grade 12. This is the hardest thing for me to teach because it rips at you. What our governments did, and how people could allow this, and how it was hidden for so many years,” he said.

The topics that Bennett covers in the class include the Indian Act and its relationship to the schools, attempts to erase Indigenous language and culture, how historical trauma manifests itself and former prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools in 2008.

Bennett explained that he also devotes almost a full month in the class to the importance of identity.

“One of my goals is to build up what it means to lose your identity. I want not just native, I want our non-natives to understand that. And then to actually lose that – to be given a foreign name, in this case would have been a Christian name, or number in the case of the Inuit – and if you were called anything but by that name by another student that you would have been punished.”

His methodology in the class is similar to other social studies courses in that he uses literature, visits by Elders and films to teach about residential schools.

“This one here, We Were Children,” he said, holding a National Film Board of Canada DVD. “I tell the students, I can teach history, we’re talking about this or that, but I’ll never get the emotion across. But this one is powerful. You hear the voices of the two survivors. And I find that that’s been the most effective thing, to get the emotional connection of what it was like.

“(Some) of the numbers are saying 50 per cent of students didn’t survive the schools. And we can think it’s over. But I want the students to understand that it’s not over. When you talk about homelessness in Canada, it’s easy to see that it’s impacting our native population tremendously. We see alcohol and drug abuse. This stems from this dysfunction that we’ve imposed on the people during the residential school period.”

Most students come into Bennett’s class with some knowledge of residential schools because it would have been covered in earlier grades. The difference with the Northern Studies class is that they learn how extensive the residential school system was.

“(They realize) the evilness of it. They’ll often say this is the most impactful unit in the whole course. They question why our government did that, and it creates a bit of skepticism about governments, and (about) maintaining treaties and maintaining promises. The government promised education but, look what they gave.

“I hope this is something (the students) always remember. They might miss certain details, but they’ll know something happened, and it was wrong. Always be aware when government is not being equal. The takeaway would be from the Indian Act, how assimilation was made law.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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