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Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, and Marie Wilson at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission news conference, in Ottawa on June 2, 2015. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild, left, Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, and Marie Wilson at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission news conference, in Ottawa on June 2, 2015. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

J.D.M. STEWART

Reconciliation can begin one classroom at a time Add to ...

J.D.M. Stewart is a Canadian history teacher at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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This week’s report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made education one of its centrepieces. This did not come as a major surprise since the TRC telegraphed this vital element in its interim submission in 2012.

In this report, the commission is clear. Recommendation 62 calls on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to make “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, and aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.”

I couldn’t agree more.

This recommendation and others that touch on education speak to its power in our society. When challenges arise, one of the first places we turn to is the classroom. The irony of this is not lost on anyone: Aboriginal families were crudely torn apart in the name of education in residential schools and betrayed by a colonial and racist system. We now turn to education, in part, to help us reconcile with that historical burden.

The good news is that we are at a critical juncture where an opportunity can be seized to make a difference. A growing number of fabulous resources are available to help young people – well, really all Canadians – learn about this part of history.

Take The Education of Augie Merasty, for example. This little gem, published earlier this year, is a stark but poignant account of Mr. Merasty’s time at St. Therese Residential School in Saskatchewan from 1935 to 1944. The short memoir deals with the challenging subject matter of residential school history, and is well suited to a teenage audience because of its brevity and frankness.

The book is already in a second printing, and the University of Regina Press has made inquiries about promoting it to schools. It’s a good idea.

As the 86-year-old Mr. Merasty wrote: “I sincerely hope that what I have related here will have some impact, so all that has happened in our school, and other schools in all parts of Canada – the abuse and terror in the lives of Indian children – does not occur ever again.”

This is is but one book. Others such as Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse or Tim Wolochatiuk’s National Film Board of Canada documentary, We Were Children, also provide appropriate entry points for students into the subject of residential schools. What could be better than using our own cultural treasures to tell the stories and help the movement toward reconciliation?

Some might wonder how interested students would be in this subject matter, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that when students learn about residential schools and other aspects of aboriginal history, it is like giving a glass of water to a child in the desert.

Students want to know about this. “The commission’s interactions with youth indicated that young people care deeply about the past,” the TRC’s report pointed out. “They understand that knowing the whole story about Canada’s history is relevant for today and crucial for their future.”

There will be challenges. Education is a provincial responsibility and provinces will respond in their own way. A national effort will be harder to come by. And teachers will have to find a balanced approach to avoid saturating students to the point that they tune out.

Ultimately, though, the success or failure of this aspect of reconciliation will come down to the smallest levels of leadership exercised by the country’s teachers. One class at a time, one year at time, a remarkable difference can be made as we light a lamp on the path toward reconciliation.

One final but important point. Note that the commission’s recommendation are not just about residential school history. The role of aboriginal peoples must be made visible in all aspects of our past. It should reveal to students the positive contributions – from Big Bear and Francis Pegahmagabow to Kenojuak Ashevak and Justice Murray Sinclair – made by indigenous Canadians.

It is through this kind of education that reconciliation can be achieved.

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