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Indigenous Métissage and the Teaching of Residential Schools History

Posted by David Scott
16 February 2015 - 11:21am

In March of last year I had the opportunity to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton (2014). One of the most memorable moments of this national event occurred on the last day when the Minister of Aboriginal Relations, Frank Oberle, made the announcement that from this point further all kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum in Alberta will include mandatory content on the significance of residential schools. To a packed hall, Minister Oberle declared: "starting with the youngest members of our society, Alberta commits to residential school survivors, their families and communities, that Albertans will hear your stories and know your truths" (Cotter, 2014).

This news was met by an enthusiastic standing ovation from the over 2,000 people in attendance. However, as I rose with the other attendees to applaud, I was aware that the teaching of the Canadian government’s policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their homes and communities into church-run schools was already part of the grade 10 Alberta Social Studies Program (2007). I was further aware that the teaching of this topic in social studies classrooms often relies on informational, transmission-based approaches to teaching history, where students learn about residential schools largely through textbooks and worksheets.

As provincial jurisdictions of education across the country increasingly make the teaching of this dark chapter in Canada’s past a mandatory part of the school curriculum (see a previous blog on this topic here), the question becomes: how can educators take up this difficult topic in more meaningful ways? 

In response, history educators have offered a variety of viable conceptual possibilities. For example, teachers employing processes of historical thinking (Denos & Case, 2006; Seixas, 2000; Seixas & Morton, 2014) might use this an opportunity to explore the ethical dimensions of history. Specifically, borrowing the framework related to the interment of Japanese Canadians during WWII (Denos & Case, 2006, p. 59), students might be invited to act as a legal team representing former students of the residential school system to deliberate and decide upon: Who bears ultimate responsibility for the residential school system? Similarly, students might be asked to consider: What debt does the Canadian government owe victims of residential schools? (Seixas, 2000, p. 8). To prepare students to respond to these questions, they might be presented various historical documents including video testimony from survivors, copies of pertinent government legislation, correspondences of government agents, as well as newspaper editorials from the time (see also a previous blog with further suggestions for integrating residential school photographs with historical thinking). 

For assessment, students could be asked to draw on historical evidence to write a report on who they believe bears the greatest responsibility for the establishment of the residential school system (i.e., the churches involved, government agents, the Canadian government, Canadian society as a whole). This response might then be followed by specific action/s the Canadian government should take beyond an official apology, (i.e., specific reparations, mandatory instruction for all Canadian students, prominent memorial etc.).

While the historical thinking model provides a viable means for taking up the teaching of residential schools, one of the limitations of disciplinary approaches to teaching history is that they rely on Euro-Western structures of knowing. Perhaps one of the demands that the teaching of residential schools places on non-Aboriginal educators is to take up this topic through approaches that honour Indigenous ways of knowing and being that the institutionalization of the residential school system sought to eradicate.

In searching for models of what this might look like, a good place to begin is with the theorizing of Donald (2009) and colleagues (Chambers et al., 2008) who offer an approach to historical inquiry termed Indigenous Métissage. Drawing inspiration from braided sweat grass, this approach to engaging history positions educators “as the weaver of a textual braid” (Chambers et al., 2008, pp. 141-142), who sets alongside Indigenous stories of artefacts and particular places on the land now known as Canada, in relation to official Canadian perspectives. As Donald (2009) outlines, many sites in Canada possess contentious histories where the stories that Aboriginal people tell of them do not correspond with how many Canadians view these sites. Through the process of braiding stories together, the intent is to re-interpret and re-frame the historical and contemporary interactions of Indigenous people and Canadians. 

To do this educators begin with Indigenous perspectives relating to an artefact or site and show how stories framed within a colonial narrative have filtered and altered these perspectives. Donald (2009) argues that this weaving of conflicting and divergent narratives can ultimately produce something that the larger Canadian society can recognize as their own; while simultaneously prompting Canadians to question the depth to which they understand “the familiar places they call home” (p. 10). In this way historical engagements are no longer a Eurocentric master narrative, but a complex dialogue about the shared reality of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Currently Donald (personal communication, April 19, 2014) is working on an, as yet unpublished, paper exploring what such an encounter could look like in relation historical perspectives on residential schools. The artefact that forms the pathway into this inquiry is the Bishop Vital Grandin Mural situated at the main terminal of the light rail train station in Edmonton, Alberta. The mural depicts an early Catholic pioneer who arrived in the city in the late 1800’s (Frooq, 2011). Positioned prominently to the left, Bishop Grandin stands in the foreground wearing his black frock and crucifix, while a Catholic nun stands behind him holding a, presumably, Plains Cree child. To the right, and behind them both, is a residential school with Aboriginal children playing in front. It is summer time, the grass is green, and small clouds dot a clear blue sky.

Using the process of Indigenous Métissage, educators could ask students to consider the different stories that are present within this mural. To do this, students would be asked to move beyond an objectivist stance and imagine that they were inside this story. Beginning with a story by one of the survivors of this residential school, teachers could then weave in the voice of a contemporary Albertan who valorizes the role Bishop Grandin played in the history of Alberta. These stories could then be woven back and fourth with other stories that might be connected in this mural.

Following King’s (2003) insight that if you want a different ethic, tell a different story, the historical weaving of narratives would not end here. An educator using Indigenous Métissage would also want students to consider how a new mural, depicting a different story, might help Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people live together on this land in more ethical and balanced ways. Here, students could learn of Plains Cree stories of interdependence between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans during the fur trade era, as well as Aboriginal perspectives on treaty agreements that were signed in the late 1800’s between various Cree nations and the Canadian Government. In learning about the original spirit and intent of the treaties, young people would be exposed to the notion that:

The treaties teach that we are called to work together in ways that bring benefits to all people who live on the land together. These teachings place emphasis on learning from each other in balanced ways and sharing the wisdom that comes from working together in the spirit of good relations. (Donald, 2013, p. 2)

Rather than showing Aboriginal peoples and Canadians as isolated and independent, Indigenous Métissage involves the process of presenting stories that highlight the complex and entangled relationship of Indigenous peoples and Canadians so that people can see the lives of these groups as “both simultaneously and paradoxically antagonistic and conjoined” (Donald, 2009, p. 11).

As Donald writes, rather than two separate worldviews and spheres forever opposed and distinct, a possibility exists for a movement toward “relationality and connectivity that comes from living together in a place for a long time” (p. 6). It is Donald’s (2009) hope that the consequent re-reading and re-framing of historical situations can cause people to interrogate their assumptions and prejudices as limited and limiting, “and thus foster a renewed openness to the possibility of broader and deeper understandings that can traverse perceived cultural, civilizational, and temporal divides” (p. 5). In this way, the work of Donald seeks to cultivate an ethical space among Aboriginal peoples and Canadians that can foster a collective rethinking of the relationships that currently exist, towards more ethical and balanced interactions.

As an educator with nine years of experience teaching in public junior high and high schools, one of the refrains I have often heard from students learning about residential schools in the later grades is that they already know about this. As such they ask why do we have to learn about residential schools again? One of the questions that this chorus invokes concerns how teachers could take up this important, and now mandatory, topic in ways that redefine what it means to engage in history.

As Donald (2013) helps us appreciate, taking up historical inquiry in more storied ways that places an emphases on relationships, both past and present, provides a means to overcome the solid and independent identity binaries that colonial traditions have handed down to us. The message here is that identity is never a stand-alone phenomena, it is always scaffold through Others. While the rational autonomous self seeks to rob the world of human fellowship and connection, Indigenous Métissage provides narrative pathways to teach us how to renew and repair the relationship between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Ultimately, the need for such an engagement rests on the reality that, as Kanai elder Andy Blackwater stated, settlers and Aboriginal peoples now all “live together in the same place and their tipis are held down by the same peg. Neither is going anywhere” (Chambers & Blood, 2012, p. 50).



Alberta Education. (2007). Program of studies: Social studies, kindergarten to grade 12.  Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education.

Chambers, C., Hasebe-Ludt, E., Donald, D., Hurren, W., Leggo, C. & Oberg, A. (2008). Métissage. In A. Cole and J. Knowles (Eds). Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues (pp. 141-153). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Chambers, C. & Blood, N. (2012). Love thy neighbour: Repatriating precious Blackfoot sites. One World in Dialogue       Journal, 2(1), 38-51.

Cotter, J. (2014). Study of residential schools now mandatory in Alberta curriculum. Maclean’s. Retrieved from

Denos, M. & Case, R. (2006). Teaching about historical thinking. Vancouver, British Columbia: Critical Thinking Consortium.

Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives: The Journal of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, 2(1),1-24.

Donald, D. (2013). Teachers, aboriginal perspectives and the logic of the fort. Edmonton, Alberta: The Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Frooq, M. (2011). Edmonton LRT rider views station mural through a historical lens. Edmonton Journal. Retrieved from

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories: A native narrative. Scarborough, ON: Harper Collins Canada.

Seixas, P. (2000). Schweigen! Die kinder! Or, does postmodern history have a place in the schools? In P.N. Stearns, P. Seixas, & S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, teaching, and learning history (pp. 19-37). New York: New York University Press.

Seixas, P. (2006). Benchmarks of historical thinking: A framework for assessment in Canada. Retrieved from

Seixas, P. & Morton, T. (2013). The big six historical thinking concepts. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2014). Mandate. Retrieved from


Photo Credit: Dwayne Donald.



Thank you for the link to photos of St. Michael's demolition

As someone who spent much time in this building when it housed the school and band offices in Alert Bay (and the carving shop in the basement), I remember the feeling I had each time I entered. I always thought: "If these walls could speak ..." I know many people who attended this school and heard their stories. I think the demolition is long overdue, and I'm sure the people will find a good and positive use for the space now that it's gone.

Further link from Dr. Dwayne Donald

For those considering taking up Indigenous métissage in BC, Dr. Dwayne Donald sent on this photo essay from the Globe and Mail documenting the demolition ceremony of St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay

Powerful and Poingnent images. 




It's a difficult question to respond to in a short space, and I am moreover, new to this form of engaging history, but check out pp. 12-18 in Dwyane Donald's piece Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts:
This provides one example in relation to a rock known to the Cree as papamihaw asiniy.  
But the idea is to weave conflicthing stories together in a way where they are kept in conversation, instead of polorazing them as often happens-particulary by those that adopt a critical theory stance. In this way a relatoinality is maintained to show how we are all implicated in these web of stories, includings those that have been suppressed. 
Donald (2009) writes:
The act of weaving a textual braid of diverse texts provides a means for métissage researchers to express the interconnectedness of wide and diverse influences in an ethically relational manner. The assumption is that braiding in these ways will facilitate a textual encounter of diverse perspectives that creates a provocative interpretive engagement. The creation of texts and stories that emphasize human connectivity can complexify understandings of the significance of living together that traverse perceived frontiers of difference. One of the vital beginnings for such a project is an awareness of the “historically constituted present state of affairs, with the capacity for illuminating how any humanly livable future begins by acknowledging those historically derived debts and obligations that are part of any identity of the present” (D. Smith, 1999, p. 10). (p. 8)

Interesting post


Thanks for the intriguing post. I find the idea of Indigenous Métissage very intriguing, but I am having a hard time understanding how one might use this approach to teach about Residential Schools? Although I follow the example you provided of the Bishop Grandin Mural, I am having difficulty understanding how I would enact this method when teaching about Residential Schools in BC. Any ideas or clarifications you can offer would be most helpful.