K–12 Resources and Guidance for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
To our Indigenous colleagues, know that our hearts are with you as we observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This is a moment for everyone in Canada to recognize the legacy of the Indian residential school system and grieve together. If you are not familiar with residential school history, please take the time to educate yourself, but do so without adding to the emotional labour of Indigenous peoples.
The following interviews and resources were compiled to support teachers looking to discuss this topic. There’s no way around it; these conversations are hard. They’re painful, difficult—and necessary. So, where are we to begin?
We spoke to three prominent Indigenous authors about how educators can participate in creating a more equitable future for residential school Survivors and their families. Originally provided for a 2019 post related to Orange Shirt Day, the authors’ responses are still relevant to any discussion of residential school history with students.
We are honoured to have published the stories of Survivors, as well as other books about the history of residential schools. There are many resources available on this topic, including the books listed at the end of this article.
The National Indian Residential School Survivor Society Crisis Line provides 24/7 support for Survivors and others affected by the legacy of residential schools. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 1-800-721-0066 or visiting www.irsss.ca/faqs/how-do-i-reach-the-24-hour-crisis-line.
Christine M’Lot on Making Progress Through Discussion
Christine M’Lot (she/her/hers) is an Anishinaabe educator and curriculum developer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She has experience working with children and youth in multiple capacities including child welfare, children’s disability services, and Indigenous family programming. She currently teaches high school at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate. Christine is also the co-founder of Red Rising Education, and works to create Indigenous education resources for teachers.
PMP/HWP: In many Canadian schools, there are kids in the classroom who have been directly impacted by the intergenerational harms of residential schools. They might be sitting right next to kids who have no knowledge at all about this painful time in history. How can educators gently guide conversations about residential schools in a way that is constructive for everyone, and not harmful?
CM: This is a very real scenario that most educators face while teaching about Indigenous topics. One thing that I’d like to remind teachers is that it’s important not to make any assumptions about the level of knowledge that Indigenous students may have about their histories or culture. I’ve definitely made the assumption that because a student is Indigenous, they must already know about residential schools or the direct impact that they had on their families and communities, but this has not always been the case.
In my classroom, I try to ensure that our conversations around Indigenous topics are not always focused on the negative aspects of history. While learning about residential schools is hardly positive, I always make time to recognize the resilience and beauty in our communities. I think it’s important to show students examples of Indigenous resistance and political action that our communities partake in. It’s important to be mindful of not inadvertently showing Indigenous people as victims all the time but rather as people who continue to fight for equal rights in Canada.
PMP/HWP: What are some discussion questions early years educators and middle/high school educators might ask their classrooms on Orange Shirt Day to keep the focus on healing?
CM: Some questions I like to ask my students include:
- How can we honour residential school Survivors as a school and community?
- How can we ensure that the legacy of residential schools is never forgotten?
- What are some Indigenous theories and practices around wellness and well-being that we can utilize in our own lives?
- How can we ensure that First Nations children get the same level of education and health care as other Canadians?
PMP/HWP: Which resources would you recommend to educators to help them facilitate meaningful conversations about residential schools in their classrooms?
CM: I would recommend the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Canada website as a great resource for teachers to learn about residential schools and gather teaching resources appropriate to their students’ grade level.
I also recommend Red Rising Education for our authentic Indigenous educational resources. We created a special-edition magazine and accompanying unit plans to teach educators how to include Indigenous topics into their curricula. Our unit plans are centred around the themes of identity, community, land and water, and resistance.
In this History Slam interview, Indigenous Voices, Resources, & Learning in Canadian Classrooms, Christine M’Lot introduces audiences to the book Resurgence and how to meaningfully incorporate Indigenous voices into classrooms.
David A. Robertson on the Origin and Importance of Orange Shirt Day
David A. Robertson (he/him/his) is the 2021 recipient of the Writers’ Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award. He is the author of more than 25 books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won a Governor General's Literary Award and was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. David’s most recent works include the graphic novel Breakdown (The Reckoner Rises, Vol. 1), middle-grade novel The Barren Grounds, children’s book On the Trapline, and memoir Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory. He is also the writer and host of the podcast Kíwew, which won the 2021 RTDNA Prairie Region Award for Best Podcast.
A sought-after speaker and educator, David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg.
PMP/HWP: Where does Orange Shirt Day come from?
DAR: Orange Shirt Day originates from an experience of one residential school survivor that is common to many, that is, the attempted elimination of cultural identity.
A student, Phyllis Webstad, on her first day at residential school, had her new orange shirt taken from her by school administration. We know today that Phyllis’s story is representative of the experiences many Indigenous children had while attending residential school, and we recognize it to both remember what happened and honour Survivors, but also to ensure we do not repeat history.
I think, as well, we should use it as a day to keep our eyes and hearts open, because it is a history that is still happening, through systems like child welfare. Ultimately, Orange Shirt Day is a day of reflection and awareness.
PMP/HWP: You’ve written several books that address the impact of residential schools on Indigenous peoples. Your children’s book, When We Were Alone, also frames loss of identity through the school’s control over Nokóm’s clothing. Why do you think clothing is such an effective touchpoint for talking to young kids about residential schools?
DAR: You have to find ways for children to relate to Indigenous children who attended residential schools. If children can relate, they can empathize. And empathy is powerful.
Any child can understand the expression of identity through the way that somebody dresses or how they wear their hair. Any child, as well, can understand the impact of what it means to not be able to express identity. If I tell a child, in a safe environment, to imagine that the shirt they are wearing, perhaps a team shirt, is not welcome in the room, because in the room, only the shirt for one certain team is allowed, that child can understand the concept of assimilation.
If I tell a child the same thing about their hair, they can likewise understand the concept of assimilation. It allows me to have a conversation with students about their individuality, the importance of their uniqueness, and how it might have affected children to not be able to express who they are, to have to be the same as everybody else.
Kids can understand sophisticated concepts if we are able to meet them at their level, in an age-appropriate way.
PMP/HWP: Why do you think Orange Shirt Day is important?
DAR: I think it’s important because it is an entry point to have an important conversation. More than that, it brings people together to have that conversation. That coming together is an important step in the path to reconciliation. We cannot heal a broken relationship in a vacuum. We need to do it together, and we need to do it through listening and sharing.
What I don’t want to happen is for this conversation to happen on just one day, so a vital piece of this is to build on this day, by making each day one where we discuss reconciliation, in one form or another. Because that conversation will shape where we go tomorrow.
Watch as David discusses Teaching Difficult Subjects with "When We Were Alone"
Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse on Leading and Enriching Classroom Conversations About Residential Schools
Pamela Rose Toulouse, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Faculty of Education (Concurrent English Language) at Laurentian University. She is a National 3M Teaching Excellence Award Fellow known for her dynamic, engaging and impactful approach to presenting. Originally from the community of Sagamok First Nation, Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse is a proud Anishinaabe woman from a long line of educators. She has a strong commitment to equity/diversity and passion for education. She chairs various committees, works with a variety of school boards, and is active in her areas of research. Dr. Toulouse continues her life journey in the field of education by representing her Nation and profession in a respectful and meaningful way.
PMP/HWP: Do you have any suggestions for classroom activities teachers can try with their classrooms on Orange Shirt Day that support the message behind the event?
PRT: There are so many classroom activities that can happen on that day, such as KAIROS blanket exercises, Project of Heart events, and learning from local Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and getting out on the land.
The key is to reach out to the Indigenous community and form a relationship that goes beyond the one day. Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity to fulfill our truthful relationships and responsibilities as caring two-leggeds.
One of the primary activities is to engage in truth and reconciliation by finding out “who you are.” Being Canadian will be so much more meaningful when you can connect to your own ancestral stories of challenge and hope. This exploration of the past from a personal stance will give students and educators a greater appreciation for “why” Indigenous peoples are so connected to traditions, ceremonies, and the land.
PMP/HWP: You suggest inviting an Elder or Knowledge Keeper from a local Indigenous community to visit the classroom as an extension of learning. If an educator wished to do this but isn’t acquainted with an Indigenous Elder, what can educators do to respectfully make contact with a community?
PRT: Nearly every school board in Canada has an Indigenous Lead who has been entrusted with many roles in K to 12. These Indigenous Leads are the connection between educators and Elders, Métis Senators, and other Knowledge Keepers.
There is so much diversity across the country in terms of the protocols in how to approach Indigenous resource peoples— the Indigenous Lead can assist educators with this. In the absence of an Indigenous Lead, contacting a local Friendship Centre or a local First Nation or a Métis organization is the best approach.
The gifts and the experiences shared by Indigenous Elders and Métis Senators with classrooms will leave a head to heart impact on the students—and this is something that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
PMP/HWP: How can educators continue to help young people understand the scope of residential schools beyond September 30th?
PRT: Orange Shirt Day is acknowledged once per year, but residential school Survivors and their families live with the effects daily. This is why it is so critical to continue to implement the Calls to Action from the TRC and do so in relationships with Indigenous communities.
For me, Call to Action #63, “Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” is foundational here. It’s one thing to offer classroom lessons on the history and effects of residential schools and quite another to truly feel the depth of these impacts.
The most respectful outcome is for school communities to take that additional step and do something about it. There needs to be action beyond acknowledgments.
Truth and Reconciliation Reading List for the Classroom
Books for younger readers
An empowering story of resistance that gently introduces children to the history of residential schools in Canada.
Amik tells Moshoom about his wonderful school. Then his grandfather tells him about the residential school he went to, so different from Amik’s school, so Amik has an idea…
Learn about the cultural significance of the Haida potlatch through the sights, sounds, and dances of this once-banned ceremony.
Siha Tooskin Knows the Catcher of Dreams
for grades 3–5
Written by Charlene Bearhead and Wilson Bearhead[bio links]
Illustrated by Chloe Bluebird Mustooch[bio link]
The Siha Tooskin Knows series uses vivid narratives and dazzling illustrations in contemporary settings to share stories about an 11-year-old Nakota boy.
A Mi’kmaw girl battles an ancient giant and forms an unexpected friendship in the first volume of this series of graphic novels inspired by traditional stories.
Books for older readers
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story
10th Anniversary Edition
for grades 9–12
Written by David A. Robertson
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson
Colour by Donovan Yaciuk
Foreword by The Hon. Murray Sinclair
Inspired by true events, this story of strength, family, and culture shares the awe-inspiring resilience of Elder Betty Ross.
In this national bestseller, David A. Robertson “weaves an engrossing and unforgettable story with the precision of a historian and the colour of a true Indigenous storyteller." (Rosanna Deerchild)
Spíləx̣m: A Weaving of Recovery, Resilience, and Resurgence
for grade 12+
Written by Nicola I. Campbell
In this exceptional memoir, bestselling author Nicola I. Campbell deftly weaves together rich poetry and vivid prose to illustrate what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of Indian residential schools.
Resources to help Teach About the History and Legacy of Residential Schools
for teachers of grades K–4
Written by Susy Komishin
The Parent/Teacher Guide for When We Were Alone provides ideas for parents and teachers sharing and discussing themes—sometimes difficult ones—that are presented in the story When We Were Alone.
Designed to help teachers in early years classrooms use The Seven Teachings Stories series by Katherena Vermette, this guide provides the framework and key ideas educators need to become participants in a culturally responsive classroom community and to deepen their understanding of the Seven Teachings.
Teacher Guide for Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story
Learning About the History and Legacy of Residential Schools in Grades 9–12
for teachers of grades 9–12
Written by Christine M’Lot
This guide, written by Anishinaabe educator Christine M'Lot, provides opportunities for learning the history and legacy of residential schools for students in grades 9–12 using Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story.
The Teacher’s Guide for 7 Generations series includes instruction and activities for reading, responding to, and discussing the graphic novels in the 7 Generations series.
Wayi Wah! Indigenous Pedagogies: An Act for Reconciliation and Anti-Racist Education
for all educators
Written by Jo Chrona
I was working on…chapter  when the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, announced that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The reaction across Canada was immediate. This news led people to ask what they could do in response. The answer to that question is threaded throughout this book.—Jo Chrona
See chapter 3 “Yes, You Have a Role: Reconciliation Through Education” starting on page 31.
Resurgence: Engaging With Indigenous Narratives and Cultural Expressions In and Beyond the Classroom
The Footbridge series
for all educators
Edited by Katya Adamov Ferguson, Christine M'Lot
A thoughtful guide to critical engagement with Indigenous literatures, perspectives, and teaching methods as well as ideas and action steps for bringing them into the classroom.
See “Holy Eucharist” and “miyo kisikaw” by Louise Bernice Halfe for support with discussing residential schools, decolonization, and truth and reconciliation with older students.
Ensouling Our Schools: A Universally Designed Framework for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Reconciliation
for all teachers
Written by Jennifer Katz
With Kevin Lamoureux
Kevin Lamoureux contributes his expertise regarding Indigenous approaches to mental and spiritual health that benefit all students and address the TRC Calls to Action.
Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada
The Debwe Series
for all teachers
Written by Chelsea Vowel
[Chelsea Vowel] punctures the bloated tropes that have frozen Indigenous peoples in time, often to the vanishing point. Reading Indigenous Writes, you feel that you are having a conversation over coffee with a super-smart friend, someone who refuses to simplify, who chooses to amplify, who is unafraid to kick against the darkness. . . What this book really is, is medicine.—Shelagh Rogers, O.C., Broadcast Journalist, TRC Honorary Witness
See chapter 20 for a discussion of the history and legacy of residential schools.
This book is for all teachers who are looking for ways to respectfully infuse residential school history, treaty education, Indigenous contributions, First Nation/Métis/Inuit perspectives and sacred circle teachings into their subjects and courses.
Books, education, and knowledge are not enough. For those looking to take meaningful action with their students, visit