WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
With communities across the Greater Toronto Area creating memorials for the 215 children whose bodies were discovered at a former residential school in British Columbia last week, advocates are calling for Ontario do more when it comes to teaching children about Indigenous history and residential schools.
Long-planned consultations with Indigenous educators and elders on curriculum changes were abruptly scrapped by the provincial government in 2018. Since then, province says, changes have been made to embed new "Indigenous learning and perspective" in school courses.
But advocates and experts say those changes weren't borne out of much-needed consultations with the people who best know the subject matter, and aren't being implemented in the way they should be.
Jeffrey Schiffer, executive director at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, told CBC News it's great to see flags at half mast across the country, but "that's not going to improve outcomes for Indigenous kids across the province.
"Canada has a long history of writing reports when things like this happen rather than translating that into concrete action," he said. "What I would say to Minister Stephen Lecce, what I would say to Premier Ford … is that we have a concrete opportunity to turn this national tragedy into a moment of action that benefits all Ontarians."
We owe it to our kids to help them understand what happened in this country. - Natalka Pucan
The previous Liberal Government committed in 2016 to update course content at the elementary and secondary levels — including social studies, history, geography and civics — to teach all students about the legacy of residential schools.
However in 2018, those plans were scrapped by the current Progressive Conservative government, right before curriculum-writing sessions with Indigenous educators and elders were set to begin.
At the time, former Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the province would "continue to move ahead with" the curriculum revisions related to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
"The ministry will work with experts, elders and Indigenous communities to develop the support materials for the updated curriculum," she said.
Consultation process questioned
In an email to CBC News, Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, said that starting in 2019, Ontario brought in new curriculum that made sure learning about First Nation, Métis, and Inuit perspectives and cultures, including topics like residential schools and treaties, became a mandatory education component for students in Grades 4 to 8 and Grade 10.
"We are in consistent dialogue with our Indigenous partners on how we can continue to embed Indigenous learning and perspective into our schools and to further build upon this mandatory learning," she said.
WATCH | Experts weigh in on needed changes in Ontario's schools:
But Natalka Pucan, co-chair of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Association of Ontario, said the province's revisions haven't been done in a reciprocal way.
"The ministry's idea of consultation is they make the changes and then give us a short timeline to respond," she said. "I don't think they've consulted the Indigenous community at all."
The province says it has consulted with First Nation, Métis, Inuit, and urban Indigenous groups, including provincial territorial organizations, individual nations, and Indigenous organizations that support education, but did not provide specifics for any of those examples when asked by CBC News.
"I don't know what the hesitation there is, but it would be I think a good offering for the province to sit down and really look at developing scope and sequence for dealing with curriculum around truth and reconciliation," Pucan said.
Changes labelled ineffective
Jennifer Brant, assistant professor in the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, also told CBC News that the province's new Indigenous content in schools comes without the necessary consultations to effectively address the TRC's Calls to Action.
"Yes changes have been made, but I would argue that they haven't been effective," Brant said.
Brant said teachers complete a 12-session course and are then expected to teach students about treaties, residential schools, and Indigenous histories in their own classrooms.
"One course is not enough, especially when we consider the instructional time required to establish assurances for avoiding the harm of superficial reconciliation and safeguarding against cultural appropriation," she said.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates about 4,100 children died at residential schools based on death records, but has said that the true total is likely much higher. The TRC said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.
That's something all Canadians should be learning, Pucan said. It's a matter of intergenerational grief, loss and trauma that continues to affect people in profound ways, with Canada's last residential school closing in 1996.
"Our kids are empathetic, and if we teach them the true history of this country, they'll help find a better way," she said.
"We owe it to our kids to help them understand what happened in this country."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.