Skip to Content

Bringing Residential Schools History into Northern Schools

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
29 September 2012 - 10:31am

Tuesday October 2, 2012 is an important day in the history of education in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories: the two territorial governments, in partnership with the Legacy of Hope Foundation, are launching a 10th grade social studies program on the history of residential schools that will become required learning for every northern student. This week teachers from across the North are gathered in Yellowknife to be introduced to the materials.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada initiatives have brought increased public attention to the history of residential schools, and their 2012 Interim Report recommends age-appropriate educational materials on residential schools are integrated into school programs in every Canadian jurisdiction. A team of northern educators were already hard at work developing materials when this call came, having heard the voices of northern leaders, survivors/former students and their families who encouraged that this be part of northern curricula.

The result of this work is a substantial kit of resources and a fully laid out program of activities entitled The Residential School System in Canada: Understanding the Past - Seeking Reconciliation - Building Hope for Tomorrow. A significant accomplishment of this project, particularly for Nunavut schools, is that a majority of the materials (including the entire Teacher’s Guide) are available in Inuktitut as well as English.

The territories have the highest per capita number of residential school survivors/former students, so including this topic in high school programs is more than a gesture towards a difficult chapter in Canada’s history. Focusing on northern stories about the educational past, and connecting them with Canada's history of colonization and the contemporary movement towards reconciliation, is intended to help students better understand their families, communities and country.

As is the case elsewhere in Canada, a great diversity of experiences - ranging from significant trauma to positive and enriching opportunities - must be considered in understanding northern residential schooling. This program aims to engage students in listening for diversity and considering the many factors that shaped student experiences, as well as different ways of remembering and making meaning from the intergenerational legacies of residential schooling.

In an introductory letter to educators, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson, who is a northerner and whose family has been directly touched by residential schools experience, commented: “I was impressed by the honesty and care put into developing materials that would be relevant to the northern residential schools experience, authentic to the voices of the survivors who attended them, and considerate of the emotional needs and readiness of students and teachers alike.”

This curriculum development work illustrates that new programs being implemented in northern schools are striking a balance between engaging issues-based content, ensuring local relevance, facilitating cultural responsiveness, and preparing students to think critically about the past, present and future.

As an historian of northern education and a graduate student, I am committed to supporting initiatives that engage history and memory in the work of improving educational experiences in Nunavut, particularly those led by Inuit educators, parents and community partners. I am both proud and grateful to have been part of the team that produced this program – and I would like to give credit to all of the northerners who shared their stories for the benefit of this program. The program is currently being distributed to teachers, and should be accessible electronically later in the fall.

What are some pedagogical strategies you've used for incorporating residential school experiences into your lessons?