You Ask What You Can Do?

From Walk for Reconciliation

It has been a week since the media shared information from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed 215 bodies of children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential.

I write this now in the place between sadness and anger.

It is the sadness that existed as a layer over my soul for as long as I have been aware of the devastation felt by so many generations of First Nation, Inuit, and Metis people as the result not only of residential schools, but also as a result of other government policies deigned to assimilate or eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in Canada. It is the sadness that took up residency in my heart when I came to understand the impact that residential schools had on so many in my extended family. It is the sadness that weighs heavy as I think about the bodies of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential school.

And I am angry. I want to soften that word, to replace it with “frustration”, or to remove it altogether because I know that some people are not comfortable with the feelings of discomfort that may arise. But I will not do that today. I will name the anger. It is the anger that clouds my soul at the fact that it has taken this revelation of these bodies to awaken so many people out of the slumber of ignorance. It is the anger that pricks my skin with the memories of times I have heard “Why don’t they just get over it?” in reference to the legacy of residential schools. It is the anger that is an ache in my heart every time I have seen or heard an educator turn away from engaging in their own work in reconciliation in education because they do not see it as important for their role in the system, or “it does not relate to the subject they teach”, or when their engagement cloaks epistemic and systemic racism in the pretense of “examining both sides”.

It is the anger that, despite the work of so many people since the findings of the TRC were made available, and since the Walks for Reconciliation across the country over half a decade ago, little seems to be understood by so many.

I do understand. I can repeat the litany of reasons that people give about why they or others did not know the extent or the scope of the damage done by these schools, and the relationship between that legacy and our education systems today. But at this point, reasons become excuses to actively avoid learning. There have been so many people and organizations in the last decade working across this country to support the learning of educators and others about residential schools, the legacies, and about how everyone plays a role in reconciliation. People have been invited into the learning in caring, supportive ways with everything from book clubs to focussed workshops, to the provision of resources to use in classrooms and schools. In BC a new professional standard for BC teaching certificate holders was developed, and required professional learning focussing on Indigenous education was mandated. And yet excuses continue.

I also know about the desire of some people to turn away to avoid the discomfort of facing ugliness and pain.  I understand that. I have done that. But, the ability to turn away comes from a place of privilege that survivors, their families and communities have not had.  

Instead of turning away, I ask people to enter into discomfort with the understanding that it will help in the learning that needs to happen. We can think about how the legacies of residential schools show up in more than the heart-wrenching knowledge of bodies of children buried in unmarked graves. We acknowledge that the experiences of the children who went to the different types of Indian Residential and day schools differed from school to school, but there are common legacies that affect so many. In making sense of the long-term effects of these schools, we can also understand that in addition to the individual trauma that many experiences there is a collective trauma created by the sum of all those experiences.

Think about how children tried to make sense of what they were taught those schools – that, at best, they could learn a serviceable skill, and that at worse, they should be ashamed of who they were, and where who they came from. Think about the strength it took for those who were abused to survive. Think about the pain that comes from feeling so much alienation and powerlessness. Think about how this affected entire lives.

Think about what it was like for parents who had little recourse when their children were taken away. While many resisted and took action (such as hiding their children for as long as they could), others felt powerless. Think about the impact of that sustained feeling over years.

Think about what it was like for a community when there were no children left. Some communities actively protested and resisted, but with little result. Think about the disruption to the continuation of cultural knowledge.

Think about what it was like for parents when their children returned as strangers years later without the ability to speak in their own language. And yes, think about the parents whose children never returned.

Think about the ways that many people try to erase the pain of those schools, and you may better understand some of the challenges that some people continue to face today. This is not “just history”. This is now.

I know that the current generations are not responsible for the actions of the past, but we ARE responsible for our actions now. Turning away, not engaging, contributes to the trauma. It implies that what happened, and what continues to happen, is not important enough for a collective response that begins with our personal actions. It diminishes us all.

And here is another whisper of anger. It is the expectation that the work of teaching about the full scope of residential schools and of responding to “I don’t know what I can do as a non-Indigenous person” is the responsibility of First Nations, Inuit or Metis people. It is not.

There is, has been, so much that people can undertake to initiate their own learning. Some of the suggestions that follow are general, others are more specific. All will provide more context about the histories and contemporary contexts of this country. Some support specific recommendations and changes. It is tempting to respond to proposed changes with a “Yes, but…”. Remember that changes required for social justice and equity can be inconvenient; they can be challenging, and people may resist with the “Yes, but…”. But changes are necessary if we are serious about meaningful response to what we collectively now know.

It is important to take responsibility for our own learning. By learning more and deepening understanding, we can increase our ability to understand what next steps we can take in moving from awareness to action.

  • Read the Truth and Reconciliation Reports. The reports are lengthy, so choose one and read one chapter.
  • Read the Calls to Action
  • Increase understanding about the historical and contemporary effects of colonization in BC and elsewhere, and government to government and nation to nation relationships by exploring FNESC’s BC First Nations, Land, Title and Governance Teacher Resource Guide
  • Educate yourself about local First Nations, Inuit and Metis
  • Pressure political leaders to enact all TRC Calls to Action
  • Read the British Columbia based resources focussing on Residential Schools. It does not matter if you teach in a related area of not. There is personal and professional learning in  FNESC Residential Schools and Reconciliation Teacher Resources Guides and Education for Reconciliation Metis Professional Learning  and also see They Came for the Children
  • Help educate your family and friends about Canada’s true history
  • Read more books written by First Nations, Inuit and Metis authors. Watch more films created by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples
  • Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and collaborate with colleagues to determine how you might change something you do to in response to the Declaration
  • Learn about how racism toward Indigenous peoples shows itself in health care with In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous Specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care
  • Find and participate in an anti-racism workshop. Yes, racism is at the heart of this issue. Learn about the different ways that racism manifests itself
  • Learn about how racism toward Indigenous learners shows itself in education with the Education of Aboriginal Students in the BC Public System
  • Examine publicly available resources to help learn about residential schools such as the Project of Heart e-book by the BCTF
  • Advocate for mandated Indigenous focussed courses to happen in every high school
  • Read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian to help understand the relationship between the desire for land, and governmental policies enacted to control Indigenous peoples in Canada and the USA
  • Challenge people when you hear stereotypes about First Nations, Inuit, and Metis
  • Read 21 Things You May Have Not Known About the Indian Act Bob Joseph to learn about the Indian Act and its impact on generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada
  • Critically examine your work places to understand how racism might be embedded in structures, processes, or policies
  • Take a free on-line course such as UBC’s Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education to help learn how Indigenous histories, perspectives, and worldviews can be made part of the work we do in various contexts
  • Advocate for more First Nation, Inuit and Metis people in positions of decision-making in this country
  • Avoid usurping Indigenous voice. Create and hold space for it.
  • Avoid denying or minimalizing First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples’ experiences of racism in this country. Pay attention when you see and hear it, whether it is overt as shown in the attacks on Mi’kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia, Joyce Echaquan’s death in Quebec, or the hand-cuffing of a grandfather and grand-daughter in British Columbia, or embedded in the daily experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples as we live daily in this country.
  • Commit to continual learning to widen the scope of what you know or to deepen your understanding. Learn something. Reflect on it. Share it. Ask yourself, “what can I learn next?”.

In all, avoid the “Yes, but’s…”. Read, listen, reflect, act – repeat.

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13 Responses to You Ask What You Can Do?

  1. jansell13 says:

    Thank you for this. The resources will be an important part of my learning and the learning of my students. Be well, if you are able


  2. Lynette Mclean says:

    Thank you… as a non indigenous person I do want to do something and didn’t know what I could do. I do now and will pass this along to others. Take care


  3. Agnes Krammer says:

    Thank you so much Jo! This was well written and helps to clarify the perspective of the First Nations People. I am a teacher in BC and I will be using your post and your resources to help in teaching my students to have greater understanding. I hope it will help you to know that the students at our school were very upset and dismayed by the discovery of these children. They have been asking good questions which we are trying to answer fully and they have been offering prayers! The walls of our school are covered in orange running shoes that have prayers and messages of hope from our students. God Bless!


  4. Kelly says:

    Thank-you for writing this. It is important, and I appreciate the resource suggestions you have provided that will support me with my learning and reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rachpal says:

    Thank you Jo for sharing your thoughts with us so eloquently and for speaking for a truth you have known and are now trying to deal with. There is so much for us that live on this land to learn about the past atrocities, and it is not just enough to say “I don’t teach that subject”, and I shared with my Career Life class yesterday it is part our Canadian history and we do talk and share about events that happen around us with our students all the time. Thank you for the list of wonderful resources and for sharing with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan Close says:

    I really appreciate your suggestion of the cycle: read, listen, reflect, act, reflect. Through growing knowledge and actions, no matter how small, we gain insights and deeper understanding. Entering conversations as a listener and observer with a foundation of knowledge, helps you to find right words. Taking action in ways that feel right and respectful are sometimes hard. Again, the read, listen, reflect, act, reflect gives you words and ways to make a difference. In the learning world, I sometimes notice a racism of low expectations that makes my blood boil. Inviting others to see the effects of engaging learners with deeper learning in mind, has the power to shift thinking and the practices, especially when you see both learner & teacher reflections. Read-view-experience, listen, notice, reflect, act, reflect… worlds can change. Making a difference for learners big and small starts with building beliefs in their own capabilities. When they are invited to notice their thinking, notice when they get a new idea, notice when they make a connection, notice when a question comes into their thinking, notice how they are valued, respected and included… motivation grows as they visibly see evidence of their own learning and the learning of others. Through thoughtful interactions with deeper learning in mind you can see huge shifts in achievement as gain voice and otake ownership for learning. They are invited to listen-read-view, reflect, talk to develop and distribute ideas, express understanding, reflect to notice their own learning. I love the cycle and I love erasing any limitations for learning. Read, the learning sciences have so much to show us about literacy learning, listen to successes people are having, reflect, act in ways that feel comfortable, reflect…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jo says:

      Thank-you Susan. I especially want to underscore the racism of low expectations that you have noted. Challenging those is a significant part of the on-going discussion we need to have in education.


  7. Trine says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I am grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

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