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Surviving a residential school meant shutting off your emotions, said Chief Byron Louis from the Okanagan Indian Band, because the tragedy was real and the demons were condemning.
It’s been just over a decade since the last residential school was closed in Canada, but wounds inflicted from these colonial institutions of the recent past continue to bleed and seep into the fabric of our society.
“When you’re looking at what happened to First Nations people right across this country it often becomes a questions of why are First Nations at the level of all social indicators for everything from poor health down to poor education, and high suicide rates,” said Chief Louis.
As Chief Louis said, the history runs deep. Understanding the history of Canada is defined by understanding the history of First Nations, including the grim truth of residential schools and forced cultural appropriation for over a century.
“It’s really important for people to understand. Colonialism was not this friendly process: it was to benefit the colonizers at the expense of the colonized. It wasn’t to bring enlightenment, it was to gain access to resources and find opportunities for settlement. There’s no glorifying what colonialism was really about,” added Louis.
Considering a history riddled with pain and suffering, how then do we as a community heal and move forward?
Jami Tonasket is the Chair for the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement on behalf of School District 22 in Vernon, and she is working on a collaborative program to encourage Aboriginal students to strive for success, as well as inspire progress in our community through authentic Aboriginal history and education.
It’s a healing process for the entire community, not just for Aboriginal children, explained Tonasket. Children need an understanding of why things are the way they are; an explanation as to the disconnect between generations and how it affects our society.
“We’re having conversations on how to close the gap,” added Tonasket. “This is important, this is our history.”
Some of the history textbooks in Canada, from even seven years ago, are notorious for neglecting to tell the entire truth: glossing over the adversities of this country’s constitution as we know it, and pulling tidbits of outdated information to compromise a single component of a history lesson.
As Aboriginal Education Resource Teacher Kevin Kaiser puts it, the history of First Nations in this country should be seamlessly woven into our education system, because it’s Canada’s history.
A lot of people don’t understand that this history is so close to our present; my mom went to a residential school, explained Kaiser.
At least here in B.C., and more specifically here in the Okanagan, our children are learning an authentic history.
Both Kaiser and Tonasket said that comprehensive First Nations education is being implemented and taught in a very positive way.
“There’s no shame,” said Kaiser. “I only want people to know what happened.”
Workshops are being orchestrated and informative lesson plans are being developed for both students and for teachers at school districts 22 and 23—Vernon and Central Okanagan.
For example, residential survivors are asked to come in and talk about their experiences with students and teachers, allowing not only for a genuine Aboriginal perspective, but to facilitate community healing.
“Curriculum development is very positive for our community because it’s about strengthening relationships in our community,” said Tonasket. “It’s about improving how we teach local history. Dialogue is necessary and the focus is our kids, we all want our children to live healthy and balanced lives.”
Joanne Deguevara, the District Principal for Aboriginal Education for Central Okanagan added that the district is working with the community to integrate more Aboriginal content into the curriculum.
“It’s part of our history and it’s important to tell that history authentically,” added Deguevara.
Creating real conversations around Aboriginal history will enrich our community and facilitate societal growth here in the Okanagan, throughout B.C., and across Canada.
“It’s important to never forget,” said Chief Byron Louis, “and at the end of the day, we’ll all be stronger for it.”