Classroom guide on residential schools helps kids...
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Dec 05, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Classroom guide on residential schools helps kids face dark chapter in Canadian history

Culturally sensitive curriculum is designed by a non-profit that has worked on similar materials on the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide


Theodore Fontaine doesn’t think of himself as a survivor of residential schools.

He’s a victor.

Separated from his parents at age 7, he was ripped from a childhood spent learning the traditions of the Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation, north of Winnipeg, trapping muskrats and mink at 5 or 6 years old with his family.

He lived at Fort Alexander Indian Residential School for 10 years, just a few kilometres from his home, where he suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse and was shamed for speaking Ojibway.

“People don’t have a clue what happened in those institutions,” said Fontaine.

Now 73, he spends his time speaking to audiences across the country about his experiences, after years battling the dark legacy of a system that taught him to hate himself, his culture and his family.

“It took me a certain time, a certain age until I started beating the system,” he said.

“Everything that you hear, probably 100 times over, it’s worse than what you’ve heard.”

Helping people better understand what happened to him, and the 150,000 other First Nations, Métis and Inuit children forced into residential schools across the country run by churches and funded by the government, is the goal of a new classroom resource guide aimed at students from Grade 7 on.

It’s been developed by a non-profit organization called Facing History and Ourselves, with input from Fontaine.

For 40 years, the organization has created classroom resources on humanity’s lowest points, from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, to support teachers in starting difficult conversations in the classroom.

The residential school guide, which also covers indigenous history to provide context, is the first resource it has done on Canadian history.

Leora Schaefer, director of the Facing History and Ourselves Toronto office, the need for such a resource was crystallized when she was leading a workshop on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and a First Nations woman in the audience asked why the organization did not address some of the darkest moments of Canada’s own past.

“She stood up and she was quivering with anger and frustration, with all reason,” Schaefer recalls.

“And I knew that it was true. I knew that we needed that resource and that our teachers needed that resource.”

Several of the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last June spoke to the need for education on residential schools, and one specifically calls for curriculum materials to help kids learn about the legacy.

In the existing Ontario curriculum, there are “opportunities” to learn about residential schools, and in high school, residential schools and treaties are a mandatory part of the Grade 10 history course, confirmed Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the ministry.

He added in an email that, following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, “the ministry will continue to work with our Aboriginal and other partners to revise our curriculum to include greater requirements for students to learn about the residential school experience.”

But Schaefer said that since many teachers are not familiar with material themselves, they may be tempted to skim over the content because they don’t feel confident in their knowledge, or don’t know how to approach the difficult discussions.

Facing History and Ourselves already has a relationship with the TDSB through work on a course dealing with genocide and crimes against humanity.

The organization is holding a workshop to support GTA teachers who want to incorporate the guide into their classrooms.

By working with individual school boards and teachers, Schaefer hopes the resource can be used in as many classrooms as possible across the country to engage students in the subject.

Fontaine said he knows it will have an impact.

“Even if it’s one classroom. (The kids in this) one classroom are going to be adults at some point. They’re going to be leaders,” he said.

“That’s what I live for now, to educate Canadians that we’re real, and we’re not bad.”

Toronto Star

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