Advocates urge families to educate children, youth on residential schools

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WATCH: Residential schools remain a dark part of Canada's history. But as Global News reporter Marney Blunt tells us, experts say it's an important story to share with the younger generation – Jun 2, 2021

Residential schools are part of Canada’s tragic legacy, and many advocates say we need to ensure the country’s younger generations understand and recognize the stories of the past.

Following the unthinkable discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Winnipeg educator and community activist Mitch Bourbonniere says families need to have conversations with their kids.

“Parents, adults, need to take the lead and need to include their children in educating themselves as families,” Bourbonniere said.

“The only way for true healing is acknowledgment, the only way for acknowledgment to come is for young people to know and understand that these stories exist and they happened, and it will be the next generation that will be able to really reconcile.”

Read more: Residential schools: What we know about their history and how many died

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Bourbonniere says parents, of course, need to educate themselves prior to having the conversation with their children. He recommends parents reach out to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and find documentaries and different resources for education.

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Talking to kids about Canada’s residential schools – Jun 2, 2021

“Sit down with your children and talk about what has transpired over this last week,” he said. “In the indigenous community, people are devastated, wounded, hurt, angry — but not shocked — because we have known of these stories for decades. It’s time all of Canada understand what truly happened, and  to really learn something you have to feel it.”

He also says it’s important to acknowledge to children that these are not just issues of the past.

“When sitting down with your children, acknowledge that these children died and it wasn’t that long ago, it was a generation or two ago,” Bourbonniere said.

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“These children were forcibly taken from their homes and they died, and they are causalities of a war that was brought upon Indigenous People. It’s heartbreaking and it’s OK to just feel the sadness and feel the hurt, and then take that hurt and turn it into action — and that action is to educate yourself and be supportive to the Indigenous community.”

Read more: Deaths of residential school children ‘the fault of Canada,’ Trudeau tells debate

Author David A. Robertson says storytelling is the way to move forward, even if it is a shameful part of Canada’s story.

“Storytelling is the path forward in reconciliation, and one of the reasons is because it’s something we never had before,” Robertson told Global News Morning. “These stories weren’t being shared, they weren’t being taught, they weren’t being supported. So we grew up, if you’re my age or older or even younger, without having any books that taught us this history.”

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“Now we have these resources. We have so many stories being written for all ages that address these truths,” he added. “There’s really not any excuse anymore not to know the history. So what we have to figure out is what we’re going to do with these truths, how we’re going to use them to work towards reconciliation, and most importantly, to teach the youth about this history so that they grow up better prepared than we are as adults today.”

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Robertson also says education about residential schools can start at a very young age. He says it’s best to start with empathy and use language and words that children can relate to.

Read more: Canada’s Catholic bishops have responsibility to apologize for residential schools: minister

“You could use words like ‘sometimes the schools were mean to the children,’ ‘what happened to the children wasn’t fair’ — language like that, depending obviously on the age of the kid,” Robertson said.

“We do want to think of age appropriateness. So speaking about the abuses of residential school is something that is probably left for later years. Talking about fundamental issues is something you can do at a very early age — speaking about clothing, cutting of the hair, family ties loss of language – these are all things that I’ve spoken to kids of all ages (about) and that kids have really understood and empathized with, and it’s been very powerful.”

He says stories of resiliency also need to be shared.

“Temper a lot of those hard truths with resiliency, stories of resiliency.”

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Jay Greenfeld, a clinical psychologist with Mind Matters Clinic in Winnipeg, says parents can start the conversation by talking with children about their own experiences with school.

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“You get into that kind of conversation that they can relate to cause it’s their own experience,” Greenfeld said. “And then you shift it to ‘well it hasn’t been like that for all kids in our history,’ and you can bridge it very quickly.”

Read more: ‘It doesn’t leave a person’: Residential schools aren’t ‘history’ for many, advocates say

Greenfeld says hearing stories about children their age will be impactful.

“Helping children today to better understand how to emphasize, it highlights a huge component of empathy for these kids to better understand other people’s struggles, other people’s traumas and other people who are their age,” Greenfeld said.

“Oftentimes when children have field trips to museums, they’re more likely to relate to the experiences that they’re reading about and the history that they’re reading about, when the history is about people their age. We can’t lose that, because if we don’t learn from the past, history has a pattern of repeating itself.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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