Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What If...

Ellie spent the last few months researching the legacy of Indian Residential Schools for her Heritage Fair project  at her school.   Heritage Fair is an annual event in grade four in which all of the students choose something Canadian to research and present.  Ellie was adamant that she didn't want to do a topic that "everyone else" was doing or had done.  I was selfish.  I wanted her to choose Indian Residential Schools.  Not because I had any great ideas for her presentation or her backboard.  It was a simple reason.  I just needed her to know about them.

I never did know about them.  I'll always remember being a 19 year old woman in a Native Studies course at the University of Manitoba and hearing my Professor, Emma LaRocque talk passionately about Residential Schools.

I had never heard about them before.

Here I was, a young, educated, Canadian woman who grew up in a community with what was considered a great school system, and I had never heard about Residential Schools.  How was it, that a legacy like the one left by the Residential Schools was ignored as I learned about the history of Canada?  I remember almost feeling a little bit betrayed.  Like you're hearing a dirty family secret for the first time.

I don't want to leave dark family secrets of our shared history to be uncovered by my girls years after they should have known about them.  As Ellie and I often talked about during the course of her research - not all parts of Canada's heritage are things to be proud of.  Some of the things in our past as a country are shameful, and we should all collectively feel shame in response.

Yesterday, I was sitting in Westminster United Church in Winnipeg with a grade six class I was substitute teaching.  They were singing in the music festival.  As we were sitting in the pews in that beautiful historic sanctuary, Inkster School got up to perform.  Their choir was made up of beautiful brown faces - mostly First Nations.  I watched them, as they sang.  I studied their faces and their bodies and let myself imagine what life would have been like for children just like them in the hell-holes of Residential School all those years ago.

More than that, I wondered what would be different today if Residential Schools had never happened.

What would the First Nations community look like today?  How different would their lives look?  Would substance abuse, depression, suicide, crime, and fragmented families have ever come to play such a prominent role in their lives?  What would their families look like?  How much more of their language would have been preserved?  How much more of their spirituality would have been able to remain intact?  What if.....

I wish I knew.  I wish I could see a glimpse of that.

Ellie became an expert on Indian Residential Schools.  She can tell you how the children were herded into trucks and taken against their will.  She can describe the conditions in the cold brick buildings and the abuse and horror that went on inside.  She'll tell you about TB epidemics that ran rampant through the halls and dorms, killing many children.   She could tell you what a typical day was like and what the students were allowed to eat.   She could describe what it might have felt like to have your identity stripped away from you along with your traditional clothing.  She knows all of this now.  But I wish she didn't need to.

Thankfully she also learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Such a minuscule drop in the bucket in an effort to make such an enormous wrong right.  She's read the survivor stories that were part of the process of reconciliation.

When she talks about all of this now, she does it with passion because she went through the process of uncovering the dirty family secret that she can't believe actually happened, and that she could not live with seeing repeated.

Sometimes it's the shameful stories that teach us the most about who we are.... and who we don't ever want to be.


One of the best pieces I've ever seen on the legacy of  Residential Schools was done by Winnipegger Wab Kinew for CBC's The National in 2010.  You can watch it here.  (contains graphic language)


  1. I'm fine with printing photos and painting display boards for these kinds of projects, as long as my kids actually learn something. As much as I complain about it. So glad Ellie knows about this important topic now.