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How the NWT asks students to examine ‘positive aspects’ of residential school

Last modified: January 27, 2021 at 1:11pm


On Monday, Senator Lynn Beyak announced she would be resigning from the Red Chamber three years before her mandatory retirement date.

Beyak is remembered for the posting of racist letters to her taxpayer-funded website and her complaints that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 findings regarding the residential school system were “overly negative” and did not focus on “the good.”

She is not alone in suggesting residential schools had some form of positive aspect. In November, a British Columbia school district apologized after a teacher issued homework asking students to find “positive experiences within residential schools.”

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Similar language turns up in documents that help educators teach the Northwest Territories’ Northern Studies 10 curriculum.

While the curriculum itself – released in 2015 – is broad, a resource module for educators developed three years earlier asks them to recognize the positive aspects of residential school.

The teachers’ guide states: “It is easy to put emphasis on the negative experiences of former students of residential schools without giving due attention to the difficult realities of teachers and parents involved.

“It is important to note that some students had positive experiences.

“Another layer of complexity is that in some instances students were hurting each other in residential schools. Individual stories and experiences are so diverse that we cannot label one group of people ‘victims’ and others ‘perpetrators.'”

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In an exercise, the NWT guide suggests that students be asked to list the positive aspects of residential schools.

The guide offers examples, which include that the schools were the “only chance for formal, western-style education” and that “for some students, residential schools may have provided a better environment than where they came from.”

For more than a century, the residential school system forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and attempted to take away their culture, their language, and their Indigeneity. Many children were physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally abused while in the system’s supposed care.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report found that the system amounted to cultural genocide.

In a written statement to Cabin Radio, the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment – which holds responsibility for the guide’s development – said the Northern Studies 10 curriculum and accompanying modules were developed in consultation with Indigenous community members, leaders, and former residential school students.

The process, which began in 2010, was guided by a “Wise People Committee” formed by the department. The committee included Indigenous leaders and educators from every region of the NWT, the department said.

In its statement, the department wrote: “The Wise People Committee advised that a diversity of voices should be included as there is not only one experience of residential school.

“The committee made the choice that it was important not to silence voices but to include the following question to allow students to articulate what they think based on many different sources: ‘To what extent do you think the positive parts of residential school need to be part of what people learn about?’”

The statement continued: “Without a doubt, the history and legacy of residential schools has had a negative impact on the Indigenous languages and cultures, and the Northern Studies curriculum and the resources provided are taught and shared over a sustained period of time.

“From research, it is shown that the students are coming away with an understanding of the negative impacts of residential school.”

Personal healing and time

The “positive aspects” portion of the resource module includes comments attributed to Dene Elder and longtime CBC radio broadcaster Paul Andrew.

A quote in the teachers’ guide attributed to Andrew reads: “We can look at all the negatives and talk about all the negatives, but there are also lots of positives.”

Andrew, a former residential school student, was involved in the consultation that informed the curriculum’s development.

He told Cabin Radio his healing journey had included looking back on fond memories from residential school.

It’s where he learned to play hockey and cross-country ski, he said, and he made lasting friendships with other former students.

Yet he quickly added he required a lot of personal healing to get to that point.

“If you had asked me 10, 15 years ago, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Andrew said.

“At that time, whenever I thought about Grollier Hall or residential schools, the only thing I saw was the negatives.”

Andrew, from Tulita, spent most of his childhood on the land before being taken from his home and sent into the residential school system when he was eight years old.

“I have still yet to be convinced that you should be taken away from your mother at eight years old or younger,” he said, describing the pain caused by being taken from his home at such a young age.

“Nobody has been able to convince me that is a good idea.”

When discussing residential schools, Andrew said, everything must come from the understanding that the system wasn’t designed with the well-being of Indigenous people in mind; rather, it was set up to colonize Indigenous communities, nations, and ways of life.

“How do you measure a loss of language?” Andrew said. “How do you forgive a loss of culture?

“There’s no way. You can’t measure the damage that mental, physical, sexual, emotional abuse takes.”

‘A repugnant part of our history’

Following the BC school district’s November apology, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole was criticized for telling Ryerson University students the residential school system was originally set up to “provide education” before it “went off the rails.”

To Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the NWT and former residential school student, these stories are not surprising.

He described hearing many people try to argue the positives of residential schools – an argument Kakfwi believes obscures both the attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples and the trauma Indigenous children endured.

“We forget the source of the harm, the nature of the harm,” he said. “It’s like asking somebody who got a severe beating: ‘But other than that, didn’t that make you stronger? Didn’t you feel good about it because you survived it?’

“It’s a repugnant part of our history. It was a law – that’s how bad it was. It was a law in Canada that said, ‘It is our right to take the children away from Indigenous people.’ Right across this country. You cannot justify that, and nobody should be looking to.”

Kakfwi was a member of the Wise People Committee that helped to guide development of the 2015 NWT Curriculum.

Upon learning the resource module asked students to list positives of residential schools, he said he thinks that should be changed.

In its response to Cabin Radio, the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment stated it is committed “to reaching out to former members of the Wise People Committee to determine if they would like the resource to be updated and changed.”

No longer silenced

Maggie Mercredi, who formerly served as the City of Yellowknife’s Indigenous relations advisor, echoed Kakfwi’s remarks.

From 2010 to 2016, Mercredi helped former residential school students apply for compensation through the national Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Mercredi told Cabin Radio: “We need to teach truth with all its trauma in order to properly educate people on the true events of how Canada came to be.”

However, she said, it’s just as important that students – and everyone else – understand how the racism, discrimination, and colonialism that fuelled the residential school system persists today, and that the discussions surrounding these concepts are able to grow and change, much like Indigenous oral histories.

“It’s not about one curriculum in the North,” she said. “It’s about the whole relationship between Indigenous people and settlers.

“My hope is that we don’t create a mold to fit into but a fluidity of unified voices as we create spaces of learning the truth, reconciling the ‘whys’ and healing our relationships so we can look into each other’s eyes without turning away in shame.”

To ensure the NWT curriculum is taught with proper context and empathy, Mercredi suggested that schools contract a qualified Indigenous knowledge-keeper.

Kakfwi agreed, citing his own commitment to speaking with teachers and educating others using his experiences.

For his part, Andrew has been generous in sharing his experiences. He was awarded the Order of the NWT in 2017 for his contributions to the territory’s culture, education regarding residential schools, and healing.

“We’re no longer silenced,” Andrew said. “Whether it is political, social, or economic, we talk, and we let our voices be heard.

“We’re trying to take our position in the Canadian mosaic, whether Canada wants us there or not.”

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