What are the ethical and curricular expectations for bringing Indian residential school (IRS) histories and legacies into the classrooms? 

Since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action (2015), teacher candidates and in-service teachers have a growing awareness of bringing the history of Indian residential schools into the classroom. For many teachers, however, this comes with a lot of anxieties: Is it okay for me to teach this? Do I know enough? Where can I find resources? And most commonly, Is this content appropriate for children and students? 

This post is not trying to provide a “how-to” guide to teach about IRS; however, in light of so many anxieties and questions I often hear, this post is attempting to demonstrate that you can be confident and ethical in bringing IRS curricula into the classroom.

Check out the page with IRS resources for some suggested resources for teaching about residential schooling in Canada.

1.You do not need to be an “expert.”

For many Canadians, their learning journey about Indian residential schools has just begun. And that is okay. Intergenerational Survivors of Indian residential schools are on their own healing journeys, which is similar to the healing journey of Canadians through learning about the truth of residential schooling. If you are feeling a bit lost as to where to start teaching about residential schooling, it would be an effective pedagogy to be explicit with your students that you are learning alongside them. There is a reason Canada knows so little about Indigenous histories, including IRS legacies, and that is because this history was hidden for so long. Our students need to know this. It is powerful for them to feel like they are apart of “re-learning” the full history of Canada, alongside their teachers.

2.It isn’t (only) a history lesson.

Unless you are a social studies or history teacher, you might feel a bit lost as to how to incorporate Indigenous histories, including residential schools, into your classroom. But it is paramount – particularly for history teachers – to understand that the residential schooling system is much more than just “history.” It is ongoing, and surrounds us every day. If we consider the socio-economic impacts of the IRS system, it has affected Indigenous communities in terms of Indigenous relationships with today’s education systems, it affected the vitality of Indigenous languages and cultures, it has had a direct impact on the economies of Indigenous communities, it affects the ways in which Canadians view Indigenous peoples as “burdens” to the system (a system which was designed to eradicate them).

We can have many conversations about residential schools without simply creating a timeline of the history of residential schools, because it’s reach is much broader and it informs the relationship Canada has with Indigenous peoples today. It is not in the past.

3.It is not the responsibility of IRS Survivors to educate us.

It is not uncommon for teachers to instinctively want to bring Survivors into the classroom, for a variety of reasons. One great reason is to allow Indigenous peoples to share their personal experiences and histories, rather than non-Indigenous peoples speaking for them. However, we must be skeptical of bringing in a Survivor is because the teacher is unsure as to how to teach about IRS histories, and they want to pass the responsibility off to someone else.

If you wish to bring a Survivor into the classroom, this does not give you a “pass” to not teach about residential schools. In fact, you actually have even more work to do than the teacher who is not inviting a Survivor. You need to prepare your students weeks in advance prior to the visit, in terms of not only the history of residential schools, but also listening to the variety of stories from other Survivors to help contextualize the multiplicity of experiences (Where are the Children? is a great website for this). Your students should also be a part of the process of formally inviting the Survivor, preparing for their visit, and following-up afterwards.

Those IRS Survivors who give presentations in the classroom have a significant role in the reconciliation process. What is your role as an Indigenous or non-Indigenous educator?

4.Indigenous peoples are not victims.

Be cognizant as to how you are framing the history and ongoing legacies of residential schooling in Canada. Are you victimizing or pathologizing Indigenous peoples? The legacy of Indigeneity in Canada is much more than colonization. Resilience defines Indigenous peoples in Canada, not victimization. In the context of bringing residential school curricula into the classroom, it is also a great idea to include other perspectives and histories of Indigenous peoples, in order to situate residential schools as only ONE aspect of Indigeneity in Canada.

Indigenous peoples have rich and diverse identities, which are defined by complex languages, artwork and performance, governance systems, treaty-making – among so many other aspects of Indigenous identity.

5.Discomfort is good; guilt is not.

Teaching IRS is uncomfortable for everyone. For Indigenous peoples, as intergenerational survivors of residential schools, this is particularly emotional and uncomfortable. We cannot – nor should we try to – avoid the emotions associated with learning of such a dark history in Canada. This being said, the objective of teaching about residential schools is not to make students feel guilty or somehow responsible (although, again, this is a natural part of the healing process for some). Are we falling victim to the belief that “feeling bad is good enough” (Simon, 2013)? Simply “feeling bad” is not the goal of bringing Indigenous histories into the classroom.

We teach and learn about IRS history because this is the history of all Canadians, whether our ancestors were here for hundreds of years or we are new to Canada, our present-Canada has been shaped by this history. Now that we know about IRS, what are we going to do about it? How can we help our students to move past “feeling bad” and do something with this new knowledge?