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Senator Murray Sinclair in Ottawa on May 28, 2019.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

The former chair of the commission on residential schools says a proposal from government-appointed advisers in Alberta to shield younger children from that dark history would be a “terrible mistake” that would leave them with a distorted view of the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada.

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said children can handle information about the difficult topic of residential schools when it is presented in an appropriate way. If the education system waits until they are older, as contemplated in a leaked curriculum proposal, he said that will perpetuate a “wall of mythology” about Indigenous people and their history that will be next to impossible to undo.

“It’s not only a terrible mistake, but it would be an act of discrimination against the Indigenous people," Mr. Sinclair told The Globe and Mail.

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“It would be, in fact, a continuation of the white supremacy which the residential schools and the public schools have historically perpetrated against the Indigenous people of this country. And we should call it what it is and we should fight it when we can.”

An advisory panel appointed by the United Conservative Party government has presented the Education Minister with a package of recommendations, published Wednesday by the CBC, for the kindergarten-to-Grade 4 social studies curriculum. The document argues that information about residential schools should not be taught to children in Grade 3.

Instead, the document says that material should wait until students are older, potentially in Grade 9, and with residential schools presented as one example of “harsh schooling.”

“The ugliness of Dickensian schooling, boarding schools, 19th-century discipline methods, and residential schooling that applied to some Indigenous kids can probably best be saved for later when learners are more mature and are less emotionally vulnerable to traumatic material," the document says.

“For example, there could be a Grade 9 unit about benign vs. harsh schooling in the past, inclusive of all cultures not only Indigenous, but with regard to the particular problematic of residential schooling even if it applied only to a minority of Indigenous children."

Mr. Sinclair rejected that idea, and said it is possible to present the history of residential schools in a way that that is appropriate for young children.

“We’re not asking them to start holding up bloody pictures and demanding that they cry,” he said. “What we’re saying is, talk about it from the perspective of children. Talk about it in ways that they can understand, that they can utilize. It can easily be done.”

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Mr. Sinclair, who has called on provincial education ministries to ensure students learn about residential schools, said young children already learn about potentially upsetting topics, such as wars.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange stressed the ideas in the document are merely recommendations. She said residential schools would be taught in elementary school but she declined to say at what age that would start or how that information would be presented.

“We are absolutely committed to truth and reconciliation and to ensuring that the truth about residential schools is in our K-6 curriculum. That is non-negotiable,” she told reporters at the provincial legislature in Edmonton.

She noted that a larger working group that will include teachers will examine the curriculum this fall and a draft will be ready for public feedback next year.

Richard Feehan, the Opposition New Democrats' critic for Indigenous relations, said teaching all students about residential schools should be non-negotiable.

“They worry that young children can’t hear that story, and yet here we are approaching Nov. 11, when we go into every grade in school and talk about the history of World War One and the history of World War Two," he said.

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“But somehow, when we talk about Indigenous children being harmed or being killed, it’s somehow too much for children to handle. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report in 2015 described the Canadian government’s long-running policy of removing Indigenous children from their communities as cultural genocide.

The report also found that abuse was rampant within the residential school system.

“Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers,” the report said.

The commission called on ministers of education across the country to include the history and legacy of residential schools in kindergarten-to-Grade 12 curriculums. In 2014, the Progressive Conservative government of the day publicly committed to ensure students at all grade levels learn about the legacy of residential schools.

When it comes to First Nations, the proposed curriculum document focuses on teaching young children about the life and customs of Indigenous people, particularly before contact with Europeans. Topics include the structure of First Nations leadership, farming, hunting, Arctic survival and “warfare.”

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While the document argues lessons about residential schools would be traumatic, it also proposes that students in Grade 3 be taught about ancient Rome, battles of the Middle Ages and slavery in the Ottoman Empire.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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