Truth and reconciliation education efforts ramp up in N.L. schools

·3 min read
Artwork made by Danielle Bishop's Grade 3 and 4 class at St. Matthew's School in St. John's. Bishop spent the days leading up to the National Day of Truth And Reconciliation teaching her students about residential schools. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)
Artwork made by Danielle Bishop's Grade 3 and 4 class at St. Matthew's School in St. John's. Bishop spent the days leading up to the National Day of Truth And Reconciliation teaching her students about residential schools. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC - image credit)

Efforts to educate Newfoundland and Labrador's school-aged children on the residential school system are getting a boost on several fronts, as truth and reconciliation takes on a greater role within the curriculum.

Many of the province's schools held Orange Shirt Day events in the lead up to the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, the new federal statutory holiday to observe the legacy of Canada's residential school system.

But Lake Melville School in North West River went further than most, dedicating Tuesday to reflection and healing in a day that featured children of Labrador's residential school survivors speaking to students and a visit to the local museum.

A new educational tool from the province's cultural institution The Rooms assisted in Lake Melville School's day — its Healing and Commemoration Edu-Kit, designed to educate specifically about residential schools in Labrador and Newfoundland. The kits include photographs, recordings, and artwork, among other items.

"Over the last few days it has really become clear, the schools are really using it here, teachers here are starting to use it and really helping the students learn about what's going on," said Mark Ferguson, The Rooms' manager of collections and exhibitions, who travelled to North West River to help with the school's event.

Regan Burden/CBC
Regan Burden/CBC

Five residential schools operated in Labrador and St. Anthony; the last of them, in North West River, closed in 1980. The schools operated outside the federally-funded residential school system, but served the same purpose in removing Indigenous children from their families and culture.

The Rooms' kits, which began circulating in the spring, have been sent out permanently to eight schools on Labrador's coast, with another promised for Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Five others are being loaned out by The Rooms as requested, he said.

"It's really taking off. We're getting lots of requests and lots of interest," Ferguson said.

Teacher resources are also included in the kit, which Ferguson said were put to good use in North West River.

"They've been talking to their kids, and doing projects and using the kit to prepare for a session like that today, where ... the children of the students who actually went through [residential schools] were speaking about their own personal experiences," he said on Tuesday.

Expanding on the curriculum

One teacher at St. Matthew's School in St. John's decided setting aside one chunk of time for Orange Shirt Day wasn't enough for her students to begin to understand residential schools.

"I felt that as a teacher I didn't need to just celebrate it or recognize it for one day," said Danielle Bishop, who teaches a Grade 3 and 4 class.

"I've been doing several things for about a week now to try and bridge the topic with my students, because it is a very sensitive but very important topic."

Bishop brought in picture books by Indigenous authors to help relay an age-appropriate message to her students, all eight or nine years old.

"As young children, they need to know those stories so that they can honour those people and teach their families about it," she said.

Regan Burden/CBC
Regan Burden/CBC

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is taking steps to entrench such education, introducing a new element to the curriculum as of this September: an educator's guide for residential schools and Orange Shirt Day.

The guide was created in consultation with Indigenous communities in the province.

"They want to see .. their culture, their traditions, their language, the truth of their stories, their history. They want to see their youth, they want to see themselves in our curriculum, in the resources we use," said Shane Welcher, the district's director of programs for Indigenous education.

The guide draws on material from Inuk Elder Nellie Winters' book, Reflections From Them Days: A Residential School Memoir from Nunatsiavut and Andrea Proctor's A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland, and will be used from kindergarten to Grade 12.

"Whether you're a student in class or your child coming home [is] having a conversation with you as a parent, I really think that some important conversations are going to start because of this work," said Welcher.

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