Students from throughout School District 58 got an education on Canadian residential schools and their impacts last week in a series of workshops presented by the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society.

The presentations took place from Monday to Thursday with one session each morning for high school students and one afternoon session each day for Grade 6 and 7 students.

The aim of the presentations was to educate students and create awareness about this piece of Canadian history.

“When you think about residential school, you may think it was 100 years ago or 200 years ago, but it wasn’t,” IRSSS executive director Cindy Tom-Lindley told Grade 10 students from Merritt and Princeton on Thursday morning.

“It’s not really that far back in our history and it is an important part of Canadian history that is overlooked because it’s maybe too shameful to think that we treated other human beings like that.”

Tom-Lindley, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said she was surprised to learn residential school is not a topic that’s mandatory throughout B.C.’s curriculum. It is only mandatory in Grade 11 social studies.

That’s changing, she said, noting the work of developing a curriculum on the topic has been started by the provincial First Nations Education Steering Committee.

Grade 10 students from Merritt Secondary School and Princeton Secondary School write acts of kindness and positive thoughts on a poster in MSS’ multi-purpose room to end the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society presentation on Thursday morning. Emily Wessel/Herald

Grade 10 students from Merritt Secondary School and Princeton Secondary School write acts of kindness and positive thoughts on a poster in MSS’ multi-purpose room to end the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society presentation on Thursday morning. Emily Wessel/Herald

However, there is still plenty of work to do in sorting through the educational piece and implementing that in the school system, SD58 aboriginal superintendent Shelley Oppenheim-Lacerte said.

Oppenheim-Lacerte said it’s important to teach about residential schools at different grade levels throughout a student’s school career because the history’s impact on people affects all aspects of their lives.

Tom-Lindley said throughout the week, the workshop presenters and school staff members heard feedback from students coming to realize something about how their own family histories had been affected by residential schools.

She said a lot of students also asked how they could go so long without knowing about residential schools.

“We want to say here’s our history, here’s what happened to our people,” Tom-Lindley said. “We’re still here, and we’ve got some healing, some educating and all of that to do. People have no idea of what First Nations people have been through to be here.”

Tom-Lindley said her road from residential school to where she is now has been hard, but building understanding is one of the ways people can support survivors and their healing.

The IRSSS, which supports residential school survivors during their compensation hearings, advocates for survivors and spreads awareness, will celebrate its 20th anniversary this week.

Oppenheim-Lacerte said the workshop was a learning opportunity not only for students but for teachers and school staff as well.

She said the schools, staff and district are largely supportive of providing this history in schools.

It also ties into the school district’s Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements, which focus on developing students’ health and well-being, academic success, self-worth and culture.

With those goal areas so inter-connected, it’s important students learn about who they are and how this history may have touched their families, she said.

“Having this opportunity has been exciting in that it’s been a long time coming,” she said.

EDUCATION THE FOUNDATION FOR HEALING: IRSSS

For workshop facilitator Angela White, it was questions about her own family history that inspired her to do her undergraduate degree in history.

A student contributes her act of kindness to the board in the MSS multi-purpose room on Thursday morning following a residential school workshop. Her message was about helping people in need regardless of their circumstances.  Emily Wessel/Herald

A student contributes her act of kindness to the board in the MSS multi-purpose room on Thursday morning following a residential school workshop. Her message was about helping people in need regardless of their circumstances.
Emily Wessel/Herald

She shared the history of residential schools through her studies with the students, beginning with the first contact between Europeans and First Nations people in the 1700s through the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which established treaty rights, and the establishment of the Indian act in 1876.

Various pieces of legislation throughout those years slowly built the foundation on which residential schools would be established in the 1840s.

In 1879, the government adopted its aggressive assimilation policy at residential schools in order to “civilize” indigenous Canadians.

Canada’s residential school system was modelled on a similar system of institutions in the U.S.

Though it’s history, residential schools weren’t that long ago, White said.

B.C.’s first residential school, St. Mary’s residential school in Mission, opened in the 1860s and didn’t close until 1984. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.

White organized 16 student volunteers into a family structure radiating out from a circle of four, who represented the children in an indigenous family.

The children were gathered around papers with words written on them related to what children learn from their caregivers: culture, language, traditions, values, the right of way of doing things, and so on.

Then, another student volunteer came in and took the children away, representing their removal by the Canadian government to church-run residential schools.

“As soon as they were taken, their identity ceased to exist. Their name was replaced by a number,” White said.

After the students representing children were returned to the family structure near the end of the workshop, all the students were invited to contribute a positive thought to the “Acts of kindness” board at the front of the multi-purpose room.

“Be respectful to others,” read one message; another: “Smile at a stranger.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about you remembering how you can make a difference in somebody else’s life. No judgement, no stereotypes, understanding why people are the way they are based on the history we learned today,” White said.