On the morning of August 11th, a statue of John A. Macdonald in front of Victoria City Hall was removed, placed in storage, and sparked great controversy. On one side of the debate, some claimed that the statue paid homage to one of the leading architects of a residential school system that was responsible for years of intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide. It had to go. But others suggested that removing the statue amounted to erasing an important part of Canadian history. In a Global News article, Mayor Lisa Helps explained “So John A. Macdonald was a great man. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, without question. And he was also the architect of the Indian Residential School system. So we need to find a way to commemorate history and reconcile with history.” Certainly a great goal, but getting to that place of balance is messy. With emotions running high on both sides, it’s hard to know whether taking down the statue was the right thing to do. However, one point became very clear: people are talking about it.
Those of us in education are lucky. For over a decade, we have been increasingly exposed to Indigenous Education and First Peoples Principles of Learning, improving our understanding of their importance. For instance, in West Vancouver we have recently had speakers such as Harlan Pruden and Brad Baker share their stories to help us “go forward with courage” towards truth and reconciliation. With ongoing dialogue and professional development, we are growing in awareness and knowledge about Indigenous culture and our collective history. However, not everyone has this opportunity.
Despite growing attention through stories like Gord Downie’s Secret Path and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, many people still have limited knowledge about residential schools or the findings uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Today, Sunday, is Orange Shirt Day and despite the wide-spread recognition in B.C. schools, it wasn’t evident that other people knew it. There was no mention of it on the morning news and I didn’t see any orange shirts in the restaurant, grocery store, or movie theatre. However, it’s not really surprising since Indigenous Education hasn’t been around for very long. We certainly didn’t learn about it when I was in school. It was when I took some Indigenous Cultural Sensitivity training that I finally became aware of the extent to which indigenous children were taken from their parents, sent to residential schools designed to eradicate their culture, and suffered horrendous abuse (the documentary Kuper Island: Return to the Healing Circle is part of the training and can be viewed on YouTube). Before the training, I hadn’t grasped the full impact of colonization, oppression, and cultural genocide engineered by the founding members of Canada. I was shocked that none of this was covered in school and I’m not alone. A friend recently participated in the Blanket Exercise, exposing her to significant parts of Canadian Indigenous history that were left out of our school experience. “Why weren’t we taught any of this?” She asked. “We were cheated.” And she was right.
The Summary of the Final Report of the TRC states: “No Canadian can take pride in this country’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples, and, for that reason, all Canadians have a critical role to play in advancing reconciliation in ways that honour and revitalize the nation-to-nation Treaty relationship (p. 183).” The title of the report is aptly named “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future” – we must all face the truth of our past before we can heal. The controversy surrounding the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald effectively spurred discussion about our collective history. It is this discussion that will expose the truths that move us towards reconciliation and is why we need to recognize Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day draws attention to the painful legacy of residential schools and recognizes survivors like Phyllis Webstad. West Vancouver Schools are taking this opportunity to engage students in age-appropriate and meaningful conversations about the history and impact of colonization and residential schools. These are the conversations that I wish we had when I was in school. It is only through these conversations that we will move towards healing.