By: Sarelle Sheldon, FSWC Educator
First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples have been teachers since time immemorial. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have been teaching Indigenous Knowledge, Ways of Knowing, and Languages to their communities for generations. The continued celebration and embodiment of Indigenous Cultures and Ways of Knowing, illustrate the resilience of Indigenous people as they have faced – and continue to deal with the impact of – colonialism and genocide. To be accountable for the past, and create a better future, we need to acknowledge and learn from Canada’s wrongdoings, past and present, and take steps towards reconciliation. One way to begin is by recognizing and participating in Orange Shirt Day on September 30.
Orange Shirt Day is an Indigenous-led movement created to honour survivors and victims of the residential school system, to raise awareness of the violence and intergenerational trauma impacting Indigenous peoples, and to create positive change. Phyllis Webstad established Orange Shirt Day in 2013, but the story began 40 years earlier in 1973, when at the age of 6, she was forced to attend St. Joseph Mission Residential School in British Columbia. Phyllis was excited to attend her new school and proudly bought a new orange shirt to wear on the first day. Upon arriving at school, Phyllis’ new shirt and all her other belongings were confiscated and never returned. That orange shirt now symbolizes remembering past wrongdoings perpetrated against Indigenous children in residential schools, its violent legacy, and continued hardship affecting Indigenous peoples today.
Between 1831 and 1997, more than 135 residential schools operated in Canada. They were underfunded and mandated by the government of Canada and were operated mainly by the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. The goal was to systematically assimilate, displace, and erase Indigenous peoples and their cultures.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children, aged 4 – 16, were forcibly removed from their homes by Canadian government officials and taken to residential schools. The schools were often located far from the children’s homes, which resulted in severed ties with their families, communities, and cultures. Indigenous children were subject to extreme neglect and physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 Indigenous children died while attending residential schools, and at least 80,000 survivors are alive today and still dealing with the intergenerational impact (TRC, 2015).
In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established to investigate the residential school system. In 2015, it published its final report outlining experiences, testimonies, and the harmful impact of residential schools, and issued 94 calls to action for healing and reconciliation. To date, only 13 calls to action have been implemented, illustrating the need for our attention.
As we continue to uncover more unmarked graves of Indigenous children who did not survive residential schools, we better understand the detrimental and violent conditions Indigenous children experienced. The harmful effects of colonialism and residential schools are still felt today. They can be seen through the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system, accounting for 54% of children in foster care, yet representing only 8% of the child population in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2021). Indigenous women and girls in Canada are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than non-Indigenous women (National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, 2018). Indigenous peoples are also overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system, making up 32% of the prison population, and more than 50% of incarcerated women (Office of the Correctional Investigation, 2022). Currently, there are 28 long-term drinking water advisories in 26 Indigenous communities in Canada (Government of Canada, 2023). These continuing human rights violations are complex, systemic, and require thoughtful engagement.
September 30 is a day to show our commitment to learning the truth, so we can begin to move forward. We must know our past as Canadians if we are committed to learning and making changes for a better future. Yet, reconciliation cannot simply be confined to one day, like Orange Shirt Day, it needs to be an ongoing process and commitment.
In response to the TRC, the Canadian government made a public apology for residential schools in 2018. However, we have much work to do to reconcile with this past. Many educators, including myself, were not taught about the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and settlers in Canada. It is important that we start by educating ourselves. We must be willing to work through our discomfort of “teaching it wrong” or not having all the answers for our students. We have the ability to learn and grow together.
Where do we begin? Reach out to the Indigenous Lead at your school board, the school librarian, a local Indigenous organization or Friendship Centre for more resources including books, videos, lesson plans, Indigenous guest speakers, and more. I have included a few classroom lessons/activities and resources below to use in your classroom. We all have a responsibility to build connections with Indigenous communities, educate students, and empower them to engage in reconciliation.
1) Interactive Map of Residential Schools:
- Using the interactive map, explore to see if you live near a former Residential school.
- Research the residential school that was closest to your school, home, or community.
- After selecting a school, choose one of the survivors listed in the interactive map; research and listen to their testimony. You are now a witness to their experience. Write a short paper describing their experience and help share their life story with your classmates.
- Change the year in the search bar (e.g., the year you were born, when residential schools opened, closed, etc.). What changes on the map?
- Work in a small group or with a partner to develop questions prior to using the interactive map (ex. how many residential schools existed during the inception in comparison to when the last school closed? Which province had the most residential schools? How many Indigenous peoples attended residential schools? Etc.). After exploring the interactive map, answer the questions you developed and create more questions that come up.
2) Make your own personal land acknowledgement.
Turtle Island, or what we now know as Canada, is located on the ancestral lands of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples. It is important that we acknowledge the Indigenous peoples whose lands we are living on and benefiting from. Understanding our relationship to this land, Indigenous peoples’ relationship to this land, and the impacts of colonization are important steps towards reconciliation in Canada. Writing a land acknowledgement is an important way to honour Indigenous protocols and understand ourselves in relationship to this land. To write your own land acknowledgement begin by situating yourself (Who am I? Where am I from?), identifying what Indigenous nations originally lived on the land you are occupying, and identifying the treaties that cover this land. Further suggestions include: researching more about the Indigenous nation and their Ways of Knowing (pre and post colonization), ongoing impacts of colonization, how you are benefiting from the land, what you are grateful for about Canada, contributions of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, actions you are taking to engage in reconciliation, etc.
3) Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action
- Read the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Look to see what you and your students can commit to doing. We recommend sending letters to government leaders, creating an in-person or online advocacy campaign, school-wide assembly, educational workshop, classroom research project, buying books for your school library that focus on Indigenous Peoples, inviting Indigenous speakers to our classrooms (ensure you have an honorarium or compensation), etc.
- Using the Beyond 94 interactive tool, explore what Calls to Action have or have not been addressed, the progress (or lack thereof) that has occurred and ways that you can work to support positive change.
4) Indigenous Trailblazers
It is important that we are aware of all the contributions Indigenous Peoples have, and continue to make, to Turtle Island and to Canada. Despite ongoing discrimination, Indigenous peoples have resisted adversity, promoted reclamation of their cultures and rights, and have created positive change in Canada. Encourage your students to learn about inspiring Indigenous trailblazers/influencers/activists who have helped shape Canadian history and continue to impact our nation. As a guide for students to choose an Indigenous figure, use the following resources that include lists of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
5) Indigenous Guest Speakers
- Find your local Friendship Centre. Build connections and invite speakers to your classroom.
External Lesson Plans and Resources:
1) Activity suggestions by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: