Joanne Henry has been speaking to Yukon students about her experience in residential school for years.
Before a mandatory unit was introduced territory-wide, Henry, the executive director for Whitehorse’s Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools (CAIRS), has spoken many times to students at Vanier Catholic Secondary School as part of their courses.
“Since residential school has been talked about, there’s been a bit of a change in the Yukon,” she said, sharing a story about a young man with whom she spoke in one of those classes.
“His dad went to the liquor store. He went in and the young fellow was in the vehicle. When his dad came back out, there was a bunch of the guys sitting there,” Henry recalled. “And the dad said, ‘Oh yeah, look at those drunk Indians sitting over there,’ and the boy looked at his dad, and he said, ‘Dad, you know if you went through what they went through in residential school, you’d be sitting over there as well.’”
When Elijah Smith led a delegation of Yukon First Nations chiefs to issue a statement of their grievances to Ottawa in 1973, education in the Yukon looked very different from today. Children were still in residential schools and First Nations history was more than overlooked; it was ignored.
“The White student is not taught to respect the Indian Way of Life as a system that worked, with much fewer social problems than he faces today,” reads Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, the title of their statement.
“We believe that our children should be educated in public schools, but we also believe consideration should be given to the…factual representation of the culture of a group comprising nearly one-third of the Yukon’s population.”
Forty-two years later, that vision is becoming a clear reality.
This October, the Yukon’s Department of Education announced it would fully implement a mandatory two-week Grade 10 unit on residential schools. The curriculum was introduced in six schools last year. The goal is to provide what the department’s director of First Nations Programs and Partnerships, Janet McDonald, calls “awareness and understanding.”
“It was an eye-opener because most of the students hadn’t heard about it,” said Vernon Asp, a teacher at Carmacks’ Tantalus School, one of the six schools that introduced the residential school curriculum.
McDonald said surveys were conducted in every school after the unit was taught. They found the majority of students didn’t know about residential schools, regardless if they were in Whitehorse or in a smaller community like Carmacks.
“People are not talking about it even though we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events and it’s in the media and you think everyone should know about it,” she said.
The curriculum has also been important to non-Indigenous people in the Yukon. Tosh Southwick, co-chair for the Yukon First Nations Education Commission, created by First Nations’ leadership, said many pushed for this history to be taught, as well.
“They think it’s important that all Yukoners know what actually happened and what the legacy of those policies were,” she said.
That was an important consideration for Marcia Lalonde in determining how to teach the unit. A teacher at Vanier, she also helped to develop the curriculum.
Vanier’s student body is significantly multicultural, she said, and many students haven’t grown up with Canadian history.
“One thing I’m cognizant of is when non-First Nations students ask, ‘Why do I have to know this?’” said Lalonde, who said that’s why she places so much significance on what First Nations people lost in residential schools and the importance of healing both in the present and the future context.
“That’s why I really like to focus on the future part of it,” she said. “That answers the question – they’re here now and they have to do something.”
The curriculum has been designed so that students understand a history that is both past and present. Focus is centered on explaining the life of First Nations people before residential schools, outlining what happened at the schools, and highlighting the resiliency of First Nations people and their reconciliation efforts.
The real tragedies of residential school are not minimized, however. Teachers have access to survivors’ accounts and are invited to welcome former students to talk about their experiences. The department has approved these resources, and while they don’t go into graphic detail, the physical, sexual, and mental abuses that took place in residential schools are spoken about.
“I think the Department of Education has done a really good job of trying to make it a balanced approach, so that it’s not overwhelming, but it’s a real story,” Southwick said.
“We’ve got a generation of people who believe really negative stereotypes about First Nations people…and so historical fact is important in order to break that.”
Nevertheless, the department has acknowledged that the materials may be triggering, which is why it is providing support resources for students and teachers. When the unit was being taught in Carmacks, Asp said trained counsellors came in to make sure students weren’t traumatized. Similarly, if not more extensively, support is also given to residential school survivors who come to talk to students.
CAIRS was among many consulted on the curriculum. Henry said she feels positive about the fact that education is happening, but does have her own concerns. She is wary there could be students or families that may not have dealt with their own residential school histories and may not be ready to do so.
McDonald said the department understands the sensitivity of the topic and is aware some students are intergenerational survivors. For this reason, teachers cannot teach the curriculum without attending a two-day workshop related to the curriculum. Permission slips and information are given to parents before the unit is taught. And on a broader level, some communities are taking more time to implement the curriculum.
“This is really personal,” Lalonde said. “In a small community, this is not detached, impersonal history. [It takes] a lot of trust to put your story in the hands of strangers. This is still very real. This is not history. This is their story.”
While concerns do exist, Southwick said many community members, elders, and survivors have emphasized the importance of having their stories told, not just for the sake of truth-telling, but because it can prevent such tragedies from happening again. Most of what she’s heard on the curriculum is that it’s about time.
“Education needs to be transformed and needs to be a positive tool for change,” she said.
That change envisioned is one driven from awareness of how history has shaped prejudices. It’s that type of awareness that causes a young man to speak out against his own father’s judgments and tell him he “could be sitting over there as well” if he’d gone to residential school.
It’s also the type of change that helps young and old alike “regain their lost pride” in their traditions, as the Yukon chiefs’ wrote back in 1973.
Teachers have options in terms of what activities they engage their classes in. For example, Carmacks’ Tantalus School organized a community potluck for students to show their final projects from the unit.
“The students really saw it. They saw the positive outcome at the end and it was fantastic. That’s what it’s about: learning and moving forward and not being affected by it,” Asp said.
One of the final projects included a song, performed by two students. One played the guitar while the other sang. Asp said they sang their own lyrics about how “you will never break my spirit.”
Asp said he sees reconciliation as a new word for reclamation – rebuilding a culture and identity as Indigenous peoples.
In that sense, he said tradition is more of a frame of mind—an understanding of one’s culture and identity—than going back to a specific place and time in history.
But it also means moving forward, as Henry tells her students:
“Don’t…carry our anger with you, because it’s our anger, and you are entitled to do better than us.”◉
Photo credit: “Shingle Point Indian Residential School and Home for Boys, Shingle Point, Mackenzie District, Yukon, 1930”, J. F. Moran. Library and Archives Canada, PA-167638 (cc).