Reconcile – from the latin reconcilare: re – back; concilare – bring together; to bring together again. What a beautiful word choice for the Commission – there was an initial partnership, togetherness, cooperative and symbiotic relationship. Somewhere along the line, through racist and segregationist policies, this relationship between “Canada” and its first peoples broke apart. We need to bring the parties together again.
One of most destructive systems suffered by the First Peoples of Canada is that of the Indian Residential Schools. To quote John A. Macdonald, our first Prime Minister: The objective of these schools was to “take the Indian out of the child.” That there was such a hindrance to retaining indigenous culture that the culture must be stripped. Some have noted that this system was part of a wider attempt to commit cultural genocide. The attempt failed, but its traumatic effects are very much alive.
On 2 June 2008, one hundred and forty-one years after John A. took office, the Government of Canada established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) to investigate and begin to repair these historical damages. The Commission’s mandate was extensive: collecting stories, understanding the residential school system and its impacts, writing as complete a history as possible about this period, and producing recommendations for reconciliation. The TRC held its final event in Ottawa, June 2015.
The TRC produced 94 recommendations, released in Calls to Action. Recommendations 62-65 are under the heading: Education for Reconciliation. Governments are called to teach our current and future students about “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.” I have a moral obligation to teach these lessons immediately. I have a curricular responsibility to teach our complete history. And… for the longest time, I didn’t know where to start.
That was, until I spent four days at my home away from home, my family cabin at Clearwater Lake, Manitoba. It’s so beautiful there.
This past Thursday, I was sitting on the front deck, enjoying coffee from an old mug, and thinking. I was thinking about all I wanted to do this year as a Grade 5/6 homeroom teacher. Dreaming of inquiries, makesplorations, and problem solving activities will never get old… but I didn’t take this trip to dream, I took it to get to work. My residential school history lessons need to be age-appropriate, but I need an “in” – a way to connect my journey of understanding with that of my students. And I had it in front of me the whole time.
I’ll back up a bit. I was born in The Pas, Manitoba – a town about a half hour’s drive from Clearwater Lake. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the town, I don’t have (m)any friends who still live in the town, and I’m not particularly attached to the community. But when my birthplace was going to be featured in a TV mini-series on the CBC – ten year old Sean was all over it. I credit my parents for letting me watch the mini-series, Conspiracy of Silence, and for taking the time to debrief the troubling details of that terrifically dark period of our history.
Conspiracy of Silence was about the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, and the sixteen years of racism, sexism, and indifference between the night she was killed and the arrest and trial of the four men implicated in her murder (only one of whom was convicted).
I’ll spare you the details, but do know that her body was dumped near the pump house – not far from the top picture showing the lake through a small clearing in the bush.
Clearwater Lake is, at once my favourite place in the whole world and, the site of so much sadness. The murder of a young woman who wanted to become a teacher to serve her home community of Norway House is not the only legacy my home away from home must resolve.
Perhaps her murderers had a state-sponsored low opinion of Aboriginals. Perhaps the community covered up and protected the four men because they grew up in a system which treated Aboriginals as less-than. Perhaps the presence of a residential school near their community had nothing to do with the crime or the cover up – but the Indian Residential School system did little to prevent such atrocities. I don’t mean to imply that the teachers and administrators at the schools encouraged community members to harm their students – just that segregation has an evil shadow.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement identified 139 residential schools which operated in Canada. There are more than 139 residential schools – but the Settlement figure does not account for schools operated by religious orders or provincial governments. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 14 schools in Manitoba. One of which was a Catholic-run school, the Guy Hill Residential School, that operated a few miles from the pump house where Osborne’s body was found – and 40 kms from the town that helped protect her murderers.
Though my search has been nowhere near exhaustive, I have not been able to find many stories of students who attended Guy Hill. I have not yet found any which detail the kinds of abuses that have rocked communities and grabbed headlines for years. I have more work to do before I can come to any sort of conclusion about the operation of this school. That said – this is still a school where students from distant communities were removed from their families to “be educated.”
To find the Guy Hill Indian Residential School, you can’t rely on highway signage – there is none. But there is a pot-hole filled gravel path that will take you past a hydro-electric station and on to the old school site. I know of its location because of my lake grandfathers – Ed and Bud – and the hiking tour they took me and my brother on when I was much younger. After a few minutes’ drive, you arrive at a beautiful clearing next to a lake known for its crystal clear waters and Master Angler Lake Trout. The only physical reminders of this site’s former purpose are a photo of the Guy Indian Residential School and a monument dedicated to Helen Betty Osborne.
My “in” to my students about this history, therefore, is my own story. How is it that I can have such fond memories of a region with such a tragic past? How can I reconcile Clearwater Lake’s history with my loving memories of this place? Isn’t that what the TRC is asking of educators? To learn about our history, understand the impact of past decisions, and to appreciate that it’s okay to both love a country and demand that it be better?
I can share parts of my story, invite the students into my inquiry, and support their exploration of our shared history. This may not be a perfect approach, but it’s a start…