When Phyllis Webstad was six years old, her grandmother gave her a new orange shirt with string laced up in front to wear to school. But on her first day at St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C., Webstad’s new orange shirt was taken away from her.
The colour orange has always reminded Webstad of her experience at the residential school — how her feelings didn’t matter, and no one cared about crying little children, says Websatd on the Orange Shirt Society website.
Her story later became the symbol of the annual Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30.
In 2021, the day officially became recognized by the federal government as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a statutory holiday for federal workers and federally-regulated workplaces.
In light of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, parents and teachers need to teach children that colonialism is not a historic issue — it is still affecting many Indigenous children, Indigenous educators told Global News.
This past January, Williams Lake First Nation uncovered 93 possible burial sites on the grounds of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School.
“This isn’t something that happened in the distant past. This is something that’s affecting our generations,” said Johanna Sam, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, who is a member of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation.
Sam said there are age-appropriate ways of talking to children about the impact of residential schools, such as children’s books.
“Phyllis has a number of books on Orange Shirt Day,” said Sam.
Sam added that the Canada Truth and Reconciliation Committee also has been holding Truth and Reconciliation Week, which is a series of free educational programs and resources for students from grade one to 12.
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Sam said teachers should try to talk about issues affecting Indigenous peoples in their local communities.
“One thing that I see a number of educators do is, for instance, say they’re in Vancouver, instead of talking about the Musqueam people, they’re teaching students about Inuit people in the far north,” said Sam. “I encourage everyone to think about whose territory is it that you’re on and engage with their knowledge keepers.”
Sam also recommends families and teachers find out what residential schools were in their local area with children through an interactive map that indicates all former residential schools sites in Canada.
Sam said that when non-Indigenous teachers are working with a diverse class, finding ways to interweave Indigenous knowledge into the educational curriculum could be beneficial for children.
Yvonne Poitras Pratt, associate professor at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, said reconciliation should not be seen as “a goal” to arrive at, but rather as “a set of practices that we undertake on a daily basis.”
“If we can think about reconciliation in the framing of reconciliatory practices, I think that really helps us to think beyond the political scope and the idea that this is way too big for me to even attempt,” said Poitras Pratt, who is a card-carrying member of the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Educators, parents and institutions need to understand the material first before they teach children about residential schools, said Poitras Pratt.
“We have to start with our teachers,” she said. “We have to make them aware of the dark truths. Because you can’t teach what you don’t know.”
She added that it is also important for teachers to understand how they are implicated in Canada’s colonial history.
Poitras Pratt gave the example of what she described as the disconnected and inconsistent inclusion of Indigenous content in Alberta’s K-6 curriculum draft in 2021, particularly its narrow colonial portrayal of Métis history.
She said it is important for teachers to “respectfully include Indigenous perspectives” into their teachings, adding that she and other Métis educators created learning resources, including a set of digital stories from those who are impacted by the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta and stories of Métis residential school survivors in a Métis Memories mural mosaic project.
“We make our teaching resources really easy for teachers to download and use right away. So they don’t have to worry that they’re interpreting things wrong, these stories come right from the Métis community,” said Poitras Pratt.
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She also said Indigenous people schooled in a “colonial curriculum” have been “divorced from their own truths.”
“Oftentimes, what we find is that our own community members are unaware of the colonial history,” said Poitras Pratt.
This makes education about the impact of residential schools more important, because many do not have the privilege of being in higher education to understand how colonialism has affected their own families and community members, Poitras Pratt said.
“The need to have parent workshops and information sessions for our own Indigenous community members is absolutely paramount because we are suffering from the outcomes of a lot of racist attitudes from others because of the colonial curriculum,” she said.
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