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A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada national event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada national event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

J.D.M Stewart

Education is the best path to reconciliation on residential schools Add to ...

Six years after the historic apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the battle continues on many fronts for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up its hearings on Sunday in Edmonton with its final national event.

At the time of the apology, Mr. Harper called the TRC a “cornerstone” of the settlement between the Canadian government and our aboriginal people, saying it presented “a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system.”

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After following the commission’s work and reading its documents carefully, it is clear that the TRC believes education is one of the keys to meaningful reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

In testimony to the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples last year, TRC commissioner Wilton Littlechild emphasized the importance of ensuring our young people know the history of residential schools.

“Once children in Canada, not just young children but also the critical age of the teenagers and the early university grouping, know that history, I think it will be very significant in terms of changing Canada for the better.”

As someone who has been teaching history for more than 20 years, I could not agree more. For too long the story of this tragic shadow cast on Canada’s past has not been told well or not told at all.

TRC chair Murray Sinclair told the same senate committee that one of the most common reactions the commission gets after its presentations is people saying, “I never knew any of this.” And that includes aboriginals.

It’s time to change that. Thankfully, there are many resources available for our young people – and the wider Canadian population – to learn about this story. My students just finished watching Tim Wolochatiuk’s 2012 NFB film We Were Children, a raw and moving dramatization of the experiences of two residential schools survivors.

The film provokes excellent discussion in the classroom – actually, it will promote discussion for anyone who watches it – and that’s really what we want our young people doing. They should be talking about what happened in residential schools and developing an awareness and understanding of this searing aspect of our history.

When young people learn about aboriginal history and residential schools they will become part of the reconciliation process. In Edmonton, Governor-General David Johnston spoke eloquently about this, saying that “the truths we hear will become part of the effort to foster healing and reconciliation within Canada.”

This is a responsibility of not only educators but also all Canadians. We need to take time to learn about what happened.

“Education, or what passed for it, got us into this situation, and education is what will lead us out,” Mr. Sinclair said last year.

“Schools seem to us to be one of the best vehicles to create and sustain a change in the attitude of all Canadians to the nature of the relationship that must exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this country.”

Education and reconciliation go hand in hand. This truth has come up repeatedly in TRC documents and it will form a major plank in the Commission’s final report when it is delivered.

But let’s also remember that teaching aboriginal history and building mutual respect goes beyond the residential schools. The aboriginal voice should find its way through many different avenues to debunk myths that connect the history of our first peoples to a constant stream of negative stories.

Positive contributions of Inuit, First Nations and Metis should also be taught – whether it is the story of the great long-distance runner Tom Longboat or the paintings of celebrated artist Kenojuak Ashevak. It’s necessary and vital that we light the lamp of history with celebrations as well.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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