Indigenous Authors on Discussing Residential School History: Resources and Guidance for K–12 Teachers and Parents

To our Indigenous colleagues and followers, know that our hearts are with you as you grieve. For everyone in Canada, this moment should be one of national grieving.

In May 2021, we were heartbroken to learn that the remains of 215 Indigenous children had been found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. These children died of abuse and neglect, with thousands more still unaccounted for. 

The following interviews and resources were compiled to support teachers looking to discuss this topic. The interviews were originally conducted in preparation for a 2019 post related to Orange Shirt Day, but the authors’ responses are relevant to any discussion of residential school history with students.

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.

We are honoured to have published the stories of Survivors, as well as other books about the history of residential schools. 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. There are many resources available, including the books listed at the end of this article. 

The national Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides 24/7 support for Survivors and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.

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 wellbeing that we can utilize in our own lives?
  • How can we ensure that First Nations children get the same level of education and healthcare as the rest of 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. 

David A. Robertson on the Origin and Importance of Orange Shirt Day

David A. Robertson (he/him/his) is an award-winning writer and recent recipient of the Writer’s Union of Canada’s Freedom to Read Award. His books include When We Were Alone (winner Governor General’s Literary Award), Will I See?, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story, and the YA trilogy The Reckoner. His most recent works include the graphic novel Breakdown, middle grade novel The Barren Grounds, and his memoir Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory. 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. 

Dr. Pamela Rose Toulouse on Leading and Enriching Classroom Conversations About Residential School History

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, Metis 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 Metis 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.

HighWater Press Books About Residential School History for Grades K–12

When We Were Alone
Ispík kákí péyakoyak/When We Were Alone
for grades K–4

Written by David A. Robertson
Illustrated by Julie Flett
Translated by Alderick Leask (bilingual Swampy Cree/English edition)

An empowering story of resistance that gently introduces children to the history of residential schools in Canada.

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history, and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength.

 

Amik Loves School: A Story of Wisdom
The Seven Teachings Stories series
for grades K–3

Written by Katherena Vermette
Illustrated by Irene Kuziw

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… 

The Seven Teaching of the Anishinaabe—love, wisdom, humility, courage, respect, honesty, and truth—are revealed in these seven stories for children. Set in an urban landscape with Indigenous children as the central characters, these stories about home and family will look familiar to all young 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 Hon. Murray Sinclair

Inspired by true events, this story of strength, family, and culture shares the awe-inspiring resilience of Elder Betty Ross.

Abandoned as a young child, Betsy is adopted into a loving family. A few short years later, at the age of 8, everything changes. Betsy is taken away to a residential school. There she is forced to endure abuse and indignity, but Betsy recalls the words her father spoke to her at Sugar Falls—words that give her the resilience, strength, and determination to survive.

Sugar Falls is based on the true story of Betty Ross, Elder from Cross Lake First Nation. We wish to acknowledge, with the utmost gratitude, Betty’s generosity in sharing her story. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Sugar Falls goes to support the bursary program for The Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation.

7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga
for grades 9–12

Written by David A. Robertson
Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson

7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga is an epic, four-part graphic novel. Illustrated in vivid colour, the story follows one Indigenous family over three centuries and seven generations. This compiled edition was originally published as a series of four graphic novels: Stone, Scars, Ends/Begins, and The Pact.

Stone introduces Edwin, a young man who must discover his family’s past if he is to have any future. Edwin learns of his ancestor Stone, a young Plains Cree man, who came of age in the early 19th century. When his older brother is tragically killed during a Blackfoot raid, Stone, the best shot and rider in his encampment, must overcome his grief to avenge his brother’s death.

In Scars, the story of White Cloud, Edwin’s ancestor, is set against the smallpox epidemic of 1870-1871. After witnessing the death of his family one by one, White Cloud must summon the strength to find a new home and deliver himself from the terrible disease.

In Ends/Begins, readers learn about the story of Edwin’s father, and his experiences in a residential school. In 1964, two brothers are taken from the warm and loving care of their grandparents, and spirited away to a residential school. When older brother James discovers the anguish that his brother is living under, it leads to unspeakable tragedy.

In The Pact, the guilt and loss of James’s residential school experiences follow him into adulthood, and his life spirals out of control. Edwin, mired in his own pain, tries to navigate past the desolation of his fatherless childhood. As James tries to heal himself he begins to realize that, somehow, he must save his son’s life—as well as his own. 

Resources to Help Teach Residential School History 

Parent/Teacher Guide for When We Were Alone
for 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. With this story, parents and educators can discuss diverse perspectives, experiences, and traditions with young readers that foster a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and of our relationships with others.

This guide presents:

  • key concepts of residential schools and Indigenous perspectives
  • ideas to guide student learning
  • approaches and suggestions that guide the reading
  • discussion topics and activities to deepen readers’ understanding of the abstract concepts addressed in the story
  • a Cree word list

Teacher’s Guide for Seven Teachings Stories
for grades K–4

Written by Katya Adamov Ferguson

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. With these stories, educators can create a space to discuss diverse perspectives, experiences, and traditions with young readers, and to foster a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and of our relationships with others.

This guide is presented in three sections and includes:

  • key information about the Seven Teachings, Anishinaabe vocabulary, and the characters in each story
  • ideas to guide student learning
  • approaches and suggestions that teachers can apply to any of the seven stories.
  • strategies and activities to deepen readers’ understanding of the abstract concepts addressed in the stories.
  • an appendix of reproducible classroom materials

Teacher’s Guide for 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga
for grades 9–12

Written by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

The Teacher’s Guide for 7 Generations series is a free resource. The guide includes instruction and activities for each title in the 7 Generations series.

In the guide, you will find ideas for using the books in the classroom including

  • activities for reading and responding
  • questions for discussion
  • culminating activities
  • related websites

Ensouling Our Schools: A Universally Designed Framework for Mental Health, Well-Being, and Reconciliation
for all teachers

Written by Jennifer Katz
With Kevin Lamoureux

In an educational milieu in which standards and accountability hold sway, schools can become places of stress, marginalization, and isolation instead of learning communities that nurture a sense of meaning and purpose. In Ensouling Our Schools, author Jennifer Katz weaves together methods of creating schools that engender mental, spiritual, and emotional health while developing intellectual thought and critical analysis.

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
for all teachers

Written by Chelsea Vowel

Delgamuukw. Sixties Scoop. Bill C-31. Blood quantum. Appropriation. Two-Spirit. Tsilhqot’in. Status. TRC. RCAP. FNPOA. Pass and permit. Numbered Treaties. Terra nullius. The Great Peace…

Are you familiar with the terms listed above? In Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel, legal scholar, teacher, and intellectual, opens an important dialogue about these (and more) concepts and the wider social beliefs associated with the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada. In 31 essays, Chelsea explores the Indigenous experience from the time of contact to the present, through five categories—Terminology of Relationships; Culture and Identity; Myth-Busting; State Violence; and Land, Learning, Law, and Treaties. She answers the questions that many people have on these topics to spark further conversations at home, in the classroom, and in the larger community.

See Chapter 20 for a discussion of the history and legacy of residential schools.

Truth and Reconciliation in Canadian Schools
for all teachers

Written by Pamela Rose Toulouse

In this book, author Pamela Rose Toulouse provides current information, personal insights, authentic resources, interactive strategies and lesson plans that support Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners in the classroom. This book is for all teachers that 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. The author presents a culturally relevant and holistic approach that facilitates relationship building and promotes ways to engage in reconciliation activities.

Books, education, and knowledge are not enough. For those looking to take meaningful action with their students, visit https://oncanadaproject.ca/settlerstakeaction