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An Idea for Transformation in the Classroom

In April of 2012, I was teaching at Stelly’s Secondary School on the Saanich Peninsula just outside of Victoria, BC. The beautiful Saanich Peninsula is the traditional territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ people. The school population includes students from the four W̱SÁNEĆ nations, Tsartlip, Tsawout, Pauquachin, and Tseycum. The traditional language of the W̱SÁNEĆ people is SENĆOŦEN. This traditional language was undergoing amazing revitalization in the community.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Victoria that April. As a school, we took over 40 of our First Nations Students to the event along with our support staff. One of the staff members was a residential school survivor.

I cannot adequately describe the powerful experience of attending this event. As a teacher, as a Canadian and above all, as a Christian woman, I was significantly impacted. As a group, we heard survivors’ testimonies and we heard local church leaders apologize to survivors. It was evident that the survivors were all in very different places on their healing journeys.

One area that had a significant impact on my own personal learning and that of my students was “The Indian Residential School Learning Centre”. The display consisted of posters laying out the facts about each residential school in Canada: when did it operate? Which church ran the school and how many children attended? These facts were accompanied by pictures of the children in each school. There was an art display by students from the residential school in Port Alberni, BC. It was poignant to see the students’ fear, shame, loneliness, and grief expressed in those pictures.  

A large mural with the title, “One Hundred Years of Loss” clearly outlined the systematic and legal steps government and churches took to forcibly take “the Indian” out of the child. As we neared the end of the display, participants were invited to write down one word to share their thoughts and feelings in response to what they had just learned. A photograph was then taken of each of us holding up our individual word. It made for a powerful testimony of our hearts, souls, and minds as we learned the truth about Indian Residential Schools.

Back at school, our students wanted to do something to share what they had learned with our school community. Many of these students had family members that were survivors, yet they did not know the full truth of what happened to their relatives. They knew only that their family members struggled, whether with addiction, parenting, or other self-destructive behaviours, which had tremendous impacts on their family today.

As part of our W̱SÁNEĆ Aboriginal Week activities, we decided to recreate the “Indian Residential School Learning Centre” from the TRC in our school library. We ordered the materials printed the posters, used video footage from the TRC website, and set up the “One Hundred Years of Loss” mural. We organized the centre into stations that students would work their way through over a 90 minute period. My introduction to each class of students was: “You will be the first generation of Canadians to know the truth about Canada’s dark history of the Indian Residential School System. Without truth there can be no reconciliation”. The last station was a large piece of canvas where students could write a message sharing their feelings and thoughts with survivors. One student, a new Syrian Catholic immigrant, wrote:  “I am so sorry for what my church did.”

In that week, over 800 students and staff went through the learning centre. I personally witnessed my assistant superintendent wipe tears from her eyes as she watched video footage of survivors speaking. That powerful learning significantly shifted the culture of our school. It made the W̱SÁNEĆ cultural week that much powerful, especially celebrating the revitalization of the traditional language, SENĆOŦEN, which was now to be taught in our school.

Personally, the most profound impact for me was to present that large piece of canvas, with the words of our students, to my dear friend and colleague who was a survivor. Now I understood why she had such strong negative reactions to my faith and church. As a believer, the Spirit moved me to humbly and sincerely offer my apology for the harm that had been done to her in the name of my God. Without truth, there can be no grace, forgiveness, or reconciliation. I believe our school community moved along the road to reconciliation that week.

[Image: Flickr user Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada]


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