Nimama, are they going to take me away too?

My youngest daughter was six years old when she asked me this, clinging to me in desperation, her face distorted and her eyes full of tears.  I hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction, and before I could say something intelligent and soothing, I started crying.

I rocked her on my lap say ‘moya ‘moya ‘moya (no no no) over and over again.  Just as I had not anticipated her terror, I was taken by surprise by my own.  Just thinking about someone taking my child from me is enough to cause my throat to close in fear.

Teaching children about Residential Schools

So how do you tell your children about Residential Schools without scaring the crap out of them?

To be honest, I’m not sure you can avoid it.  I certainly did not set out to scare my girls.  They had heard me talking about Residential Schools before and asked me what they were.  As a parent, I made the decision early on to answer my children’s questions honestly.  I believe that if they are old enough to ask you the question, they are old enough to get an answer, presented clearly and simply so they understand it.

I chose to explain Residential Schools to my daughters via a children’s book by Nicola I. Campbell titled Shi-shi-etko.  There is a forward to the book that gives some brief background to the reader on the Residential School system, and I’d begun by reading it to them. I hadn’t even gotten into the actual story, and this was how frightened they became.

Some truths are ugly

I believe you cannot avoid scaring children, and even adults, when you talk about Residential Schools for one simple reason: it is a scary topic.

The book Shi-shi-etko (which was also made into a film) and its sequel, Shin-chi’s Canoe, depict Residential School experiences from a child’s perspective, without dwelling on the more horrific details of abuse.  If you think this presents children with a sanitised version, think again.  Children live so much in their imaginations that a brief description of being fed watery soup while the teachers feast on meat and potatoes, is all it takes for them to launch themselves into the scene.  They feel the outrage keenly and their sadness and anger are real.

When we finished the books, they had a million questions.  Why did they take children from their families?  Why didn’t the children hide in the bush?  Why couldn’t their families hide them?  Why were the children treated like that?  And again, despite my reassurances…will they take us away too?

Exploring this topic with children is powerful

I discovered that exploring the history of Residential Schooling with my children was a very different experience than speaking about it to adults.

You see, adults can compartamentalise in a way that children don’t.  When you are speaking to adults who know little or nothing about Residential Schools, they are able to imagine it in the distant past in a way that shields them from the full horror of the system. They can agree that it was wrong, but they can avoid the kind of visceral reaction my daughter had.  Which is good in one way, because I’m not so great with the spontaneous clinging if the person doing it isn’t my kid.  It’s not so good when it allows people to ignore the impact Residential Schools have had on people who are still living today.

If you are a parent who does not have the answers to your child’s inevitable questions once they learn about Residential Schools, then there are many resources you can access to learn more about it yourself so you can teach them.

– people like to diss wikipedia, but it’s a good place to start when you are unfamiliar with a topic.  The article on Residential Schools in Canada is a pretty good overview and there are many external links provided if you want more information.

Some resources to access with your children

– I find that kids become very absorbed in the pictures out there of Residential Schools, particularly those showing children.  It seems simplistic perhaps, but the many archival photos are very powerful.

– this is an interactive website that provides information on the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, as well as features such as a 3D interactive tour of the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario.  Some of the information will be interesting to younger children, but the site is aimed mostly at children in highschool.

– despite decades of stories of the high mortality rates in Residential Schools, only recently has an investigation been launched into just how many Aboriginal children died, how they died, and where they are buried.  This news article gives a brief background on the Missing Children Research Project.

– this project is aimed at commemorating the thousands of deaths in Residential Schools, and as the site states: “to encourage “ownership” of this historic injustice by the non-Indigenous community. By doing so, non-Aboriginal Canadians can then be moved to take responsibility for the continued oppression of Indigenous people in Canada, and be inspired to take action.”  There are some suggestions for activities on this site as well.

– autobiographical or fictional, these books for young readers can help children explore the history of Residential Schooling from the perspective of children their own age.

-pictures and information leading you through the Red Lake Residential School experience.

Do you have more suggestions?

I’m not sure I’m ever going to go in depth into Residential Schools on this blog.  It’s too draining.  But if you have more suggestions for resources (online or in print) that would be appropriate for children, please feel free to post them!

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36 Responses to Nimama, are they going to take me away too?


  1. Medic72 says:

    I don’t even know how old I was when I began getting taught about what a Residential School was, it was always just a part of our mother’s history, we’d heard her stories many times and felt blessed that ‘things like that’ didn’t happen anymore. I always had this image of my mother as a small child standing stubbornly with her fists clenched at her sides, tough as nails because she had no choice, she had to survive. Could be why I turned out as stubborn as I am. 🙂
    Thank you to my Mom in the spirit world, for giving me my edge in life.

  2. Hard topic to write about – let alone teach children about…much respect to ye for doing both!
    The more we teach, the more we share, the more light we create for understanding, community and culture.

    Recently saw the film “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English”; well presented and very powerful, several interviews with First Nations “Children” (now Elders) and their experiences with Residential “Schools”. The entire film has been posted to YouTube http://youtu.be/rgaKyWswjX4

    “All we want, is the right to be right…and the right to be wrong” (Bob Marley)

  3. Nokamis says:

    Tough subject for parents to broach with children, especially our wee ones. These resources look insightful and age appropriate.

    Residential Schools
    Resources for Teaching
    by Larry Loyie

    “Award-winning Cree author Larry Loyie has written two books about residential school. As Long as the Rivers Flow was the winner of the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction. Larry is now writing his fifth children’s book, The Moon Speaks Cree. He collaborates with partner and editor Constance Brissenden (BA, MA). http://www.firstnationswriter.com

    http://www.canadianteachermagazine.com/ctm_first_nations_education/nov09_residential_schools.shtml

  4. Jenn Jilks says:

    I’m only grateful that you are teaching us white folks about this topic. Keep it up!
    /white gramma teaching her grandchildren

  5. JazzSoup42 says:

    I deeply appreciate the sharing you’ve done here, personal and intellectual. I will certainly come back to this post (and the whole site, of course!) to learn more. Thank you so much.

  6. Margaret Dankowski says:

    The 7 Generation Book Series and Sugar Falls -A Residential School Story by David Robertson are great to use with pre-teen children and up. They are graphic novels and easy reads that should be in every ELA curriculum for grades 7 and 8.

  7. SueZoo says:

    Sugar Falls You can pre-view the entire book online.
    https://highwaterpress.com/shop-2/sugar-falls/

  8. SueZoo says:

    I just learned about and read Sugar Falls today. It is the first graphic novel I’ve read in my life. As an adult I am full of questions, shock and horror learning about the Residential Schools. I can’t imagine hearing about it as a child. As a native child. I get so angry. I do not have words to express my outrage, sadness, … this is deep and dark and so very evil.

  9. Rhoda says:

    Thank you once again for your post and to all the many commenters. Some of the many subject you have discussed I have been thinking about and learning about for 40 years and I am grateful for all the people who have managed to share despite the pain.

    I recently had a disturbing e-mail forwarded to me containing comments by an anonymous writer touching on and judging, without empathy, some reserve experiences and without first party experience. I responded to the anonymous sender via the forwarder of the e-mail from my perspective and limited understanding.

    Is there anyway I can forward it to you? I believe you can see my e-mail address from your subscription list. I ask because I believe people should have the right to respond directly when criticisms are leveled about them or a topic related to them.

    Thank you.

    • To be honest, I read enough negativity and ignorance. I don’t need more 🙂

      • Rhoda says:

        That’s understandable…hopefully my reply to the anonymous e-mailer worked, the jist of which was, “why were you working in a position of assistance when you no longer had compassion or respect for your clients?”

        Thanks for all you already do…I hope you have time to nurture yourself.♥

  10. Emo says:

    Hmm… you got through the article without mentioning Kevin Annett. Love him or hate him, he’s been carrying the flag to get the real statistics published, and the corpses exhumed. And he’s still at it:

    http://aptn.ca/pages/news/2012/02/02/mystery-shrouds-bones-dug-up-next-to-residential-school/

    I get the sense that APTN was presenting this story in a way to minimize assigning either credit or blame to Annett (they may not be clear on what his role is in it anyway).

    I’ve never met the guy in person, but a lot of the complaints against him are ad hominem –and the sad fact is that you don’t get to choose the people who choose your cause. He made this choice (nobody decided for him), and he’s done plenty of work both in the archives and on foot that deserves respect (even if you have other reasons to disrespect him, as people complain that they do). For those who don’t like the guy (and/or his style of doing what he’s doing) compare him to any one of the thousands of Christian ministers who knew the things he knows, and who saw the things he saw, but who didn’t make the ethical decision he made –to oppose the church and do something about it. http://www.hiddenfromhistory.org/

  11. Claire says:

    Not that this is a particularly useful film for children, but it may help adults understand what residential school survivors went through so they can better explain it to children: Rabbit Proof Fence. It’s obviously from an Australian Aboriginal perspective, not First Nations, but it has some of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in it. And the behind-the-scenes video of the aftermath of filming the removal scene is very very powerful in its own right.

    • In a lot of ways, actually, Rabbit Proof Fence is as much about the aftermath of the Métis national consciousness in Canada than it is about residential schools exactly. It was a response to the fear that ‘halfbreeds’ (that was the standard term at the time) in other colonial territories would get their political will together much like what had happened in what is now the Canadian Prairies. (Related is the U.S. practice of forcing ‘halfbreeds’ into the White/Native split – disallowing them a separate existence.) The solution was forced separation and forced education, much like the residential school system, but the motives were from a different historical motive somewhat.

  12. Joe Ferguson says:

    Dear Ms. Vowel,

    I was introduced to your writing today, February 9, 2012 when I googled “attawapiskat what happened to all the money”.

    And I found a Canadian treasure. As a whilte male, over 60, lifetime British Columbian, I grew up with and sadly retain my share of prejudices.

    Your writings (and one post led to another… to another….) have done more to cause me to reconsider my use of “strawman arguments” and “logical fallacies” than any (maybe all) other influences in my life.

    Your style of writing is very clear and compelling. You present your views as if you don’t have a particular axe to grind — except to dispel ignorance.

    I’m hooked. I’ll be a regular reader from now on.

    I see you are a young woman, about the same age as my kids. People like you help me to believe that the next generation has its head screwed on right.

    Keep up the good work.

    Thanks,

    Joe Ferguson

    • Tan’si,

      I really appreciate your words. It is hard to know sometimes if the work pays off, but hearing from people is what keeps me convinced that this is worth it. So thank you very much for taking the time to let me know:)

  13. Faith says:

    “Where the Spirit Lives” (1989), a Canadian movie, is a fictional account of a Blackfoot student at a residential school based in 1937. It came out in VHS but you can see it in several parts on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZkJhWTfuPw and it is family-oriented. As a family we have watched the Prime Minister’s apology and read books such as Where Are the Children and books by authors: Nicola Campbell, Larry Loyie, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and others. We have not yet told our children about the sexual abuse yet as they are still young.
    My husband is a First Nations man and our 8-year-old daughter loves to read about Aboriginal people. Her class was recently told to prepare a presentation on something that they are interested in and know a lot about. After much thought and tears, our daughter decided to share about why she can’t speak much of her First Nation language that she loves. The reason has to do with residential school and the effects it has had in her family history. She is the only First Nations student in her class, and she believed that they all needed to hear this story so that this injustice would never happen again.
    Unfortunately her teacher did not want her to tell this story. The teacher had many excuses: we were “putting our daughter up to it” (not true at all), our daughter was too young/immature to tell her family’s story, the other students were too immature to hear the story or they might get bored (?), the teacher claimed to be too unfamiliar with the topic for our daughter to teach about it in her class … the excuses went on and on.
    Fortunately, after meeting with the principal, it was decided that our daughter would be allowed to share her story. But the teacher told our daughter privately that she had better not scare anyone or give them nightmares. On the day of her presentation, the teacher did not let her start her presentation on time. Twice my daughter asked her teacher, “Can I please start my presentation soon?” Finally, shortly before the end of school, she was allowed to present. The students were very interested and wanted to learn more. However, the teacher cut her off and made her stop half way through her presentation, before she had even gotten to the PM’s apology or prayer for healing.
    My 8 year-old daughter is considering holding classes at recess for kids who want to learn more since she was not allowed to tell much of her story in class. I believe that educating children and adults about these issues is important in order for there to be a “never again” from the PM’s apology. I am thankful for my daughter’s courage and pray that more people will be open to learning. Thank you also for your courage and wisdom to share truth in such a compelling way through your blog.

    • I can imagine how it would feel to have this teacher so interfere in what could have been a powerful truth telling. Instead, this teacher has highlighted very personally for your daughter how threatened some people are by these things. Some truths are ugly. I can’t say it enough. That does not mean they should not be told.

      I am sorry that your family was subjected this. These kinds of events are stressful in a way that is difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it. A lot goes on in the classroom that is not challenged or understood for the harmful acts they are. What was done to your daughter, to you her parents, and to the other students who wanted to hear, was a kind of violence.

      Please tell your daughter that she is incredibly brave, and that her story shows how much work still needs to be done to overcome ignorance and intolerance. Please tell her that she is very inspiring and that her age is no barrier to doing truly important work for herself, and for others.

      kinanâskomitin for sharing this story.

  14. Dale Copps says:

    Not wishing to be a contrarian, but aren’t we beating a dead horse here? And were there no positive motivations behind the idea of residential schools initially? Indeed, their implementation ended in a horror show, with abusive consequences almost Dickensian in proportion. However, it seems to me we are crying over spilled milk here, and the milk is still all over the floor:

    Aboriginal education gaps can no longer be tolerated

    This Globe and Mail editorial would seem to indicate that conditions continue to be almost as bad as they were before residential schools were tried, at least for those who have not left their traditional backgrounds and become assimilated into the greater culture. Residential schools only exacerbated the problem, but the problem is still there, and we would be well-advised (IMHO) to expend our energy on thinking up and implementing effective solutions than bemoaning failed attempts in the past.

    • I am publishing this comment and allowing it to be read, so that there can be an example of the kind of thinking that really does exist out there.

      This comment demonstrates a deep ignorance of the residential school system, its acknowledged intentions, its actual impacts, its continuing effects and the many obstacles to ‘cleaning up the milk’, most of which are rooted in this ignorance. It demonstrates a lack of empathy and a “can’t you just get over it” attitude rooted in that ignorance I’ve mentioned.

      I suppose this post highlights why I do have to tackle the specifics of the Residential Schools, in order to very clearly tie it into the kinds of problems we are facing today. Which frankly sucks, because as I’ve noted it’s not a subject I want to delve too deeply into and would prefer people do the learning themselves.

      But many Canadians really don’t know about these things. They haven’t been taught it, it hasn’t been a part of Canada’s national memory and it is still necessary to come up with a clear background and explanation that can be used when someone makes, apparently without even realising it, such an incredibly ignorant and offensive claim.

      • Nokamis says:

        In addition to what I agree is clearly ignorance and a lack of empathy regarding Canada’s ‘black eye’ residential schools policy (hence the apology duh) and the multi-generational impacts, the poor lad’s comments also reflect a general lack of knowledge and imp any real intellectual insight into the basic human emotional, psychological and spiritual condition across the human race continuum. There are enough resources available through this site alone to begin to lay a knowledgeable foundation to foster some understanding of this hard issue, however that seems to have slipped by this lad’s attention – or perhaps he just chose to ignore it. You are absolutely correct that many Canadians don’t know much of anything at all about this issue, and framing a clear and dynamic explanation for this lad and others of like mind is sadly but truly a necessity.

        Old dogs are hard pressed to learn new tricks, but every once in awhile they get it. One can always hope.

    • I wonder what your feelings are on the classic argument ‘back home’ (i.e. in the United States) for the value of slavery, since it brought Africans to North America and got them ‘civilized’ with education and missionizing, etc. Led to an eventual higher standard of living, better education, etc. Oh yeah, and slavery, slums, murders, imprisonment, etc.

      Similar justification is made for the British conquest of Ireland and the British conquest of India. Also the American occupation of the Phillipines. It’s a rationalization as old as colonialism. People will say the same thing in defense of the current exploitation of the third world, too.

      The crucial issue is that aboriginal people didn’t want to be educated, and still mostly don’t want to be assimilated. Until their perspective is taken into account, no amount of dragging them through someone else’s plans will work. Aside from the fact that it’s just plain brutal to do it against their consent anyway.

      The odd part is that the ‘intentions’ of the British/Canadians/Americans are always supposed to be taken into account as a defense of these systems, but the intentions of the subordinated population never are. Funny, that!

      • I’d like to point out that the term ‘educated’ itself suggests that before ‘education’, aboriginal peoples had no knowledge, no systems of passing on that knowledge, and basically just wandered around in the wilderness like animals. Indigenous peoples did not want to be ‘educated’ the way they were, in a system that denied their humanity, and sought to eradicate their cultures.

        We already had education. That education simply did not include the notion that everything about us was bad.

        • While I would obviously agree that aboriginal people have their own complex knowledge and means of passing it on, I don’t think they had what moderns mean by ‘education’ most of the time. Assisted development and education aren’t the same thing, I think.

          Education is primarily a process of forced acculturation to a system that is native to nobody. That is, it serves much the same function for ‘whites,’ that it does for everybody else. It’s primarily a process of teaching someone that most of their properties are primitive and need to be changed/improved. It’s a sort of attitude with no inborn adherents – a perennial eradicator of basically everything inborn to a person. Ask any 9-year-old straight-jacketed in a desk for 8 hours every day. If they don’t learn to reform, they’ll be medicated into reform – until they need a dribble up, if necessary – and get ‘coded.’

          My point is that the destructively adversarial attitude that ‘education’ takes with aboriginal culture is just the same thing it does with everything – it is adversarial to everything except the unliveable (if huge numbers of people need anti-depressants to cope with their daily life, then daily life is unliveable), abstract order it supports. It reforms you to be a proper Member of Society – a particular kind of social program.

          Hence, when they push ‘education’ of aboriginal people, they are definitely pushing eradication and assimilation, but they are being strictly fair-and-square about it. They’re doing the same thing to themselves. What do you expect from people who put their own child on Xanax when they’re 3?

          • I’m not glossing over the differences in pedagogy or institutionalism here…I’m attempting to emphasis the fact that the gulf between indigenous ways of knowing and ‘education’ as you’ve described above is unbelievably huge. There are many even within non-indigenous cultures who absolutely despise this ‘banking’ system of education, but it has a powerful inertia, and regardless of its many flaws is still respected as the authoritative way of proving you have ‘learned important stuff’.

            I agree with all you’ve said about this system of education…but as a linguist you can appreciate the power that this word has. You are either educated, or you are not. Except ‘education’ does not just mean ‘going through the institutional system described above’. It also has connotations of levels of intelligence, sophistication, ability to make informed choices, and so on.

            So when people talk about how indigenous peoples did not want to be ‘educated’, the baggage that comes along with that word suggests we were not intelligent, sophisticated, nor had the ability to make informed choices and even worse we wanted to remain stupid, simplistic and child-like. There is no recognition that we had and continue to have a particular pedagogical approach to the accumulation of skills and knowledge.

            I know what you meant when you said “aboriginal people didn’t want to be educated”, because I know you aren’t thinking the things that others reading that statement believe about us. But I felt it important to address those beliefs. Think of yourself as a spring-board 😀

            (add-on….I stopped teaching precisely because I could not stand the structure of the education system, and that is a major factor of what drove me into the study of law. And now, I’m heading back into the classroom soon, but with a better understanding of why things are so difficult to change, and so very adversarial, as you’ve mentioned. We’ll see how the perspective helps…or not.)

  15. Faith says:

    The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society has info on current issues of justice/injustice relating to First Nations children and families. Especially considering the big problem of government under-funding of First Nations education and child-welfare, it is important to let the government know that people are concerned and desire immediate action.

    See the link below to send an e-Valentine or letter to the Prime Minister and your MP to encourage them to HAVE A HEART for First Nations children. This is a great way for children and adults to be involved in a campaign for awareness and change.

    More info at:
    http://www.fncfcs.com/have-a-heart

  16. There are not a lot of published accounts of Res School experience in Cree, unfortunately. Part of it is that it’s hard to talk about, and part of it is probably that the ethnologists were more interested in ‘traditional’ life than these kinds of experiences. Sarah Whitecalf, for example, was kept out of residential school by being hidden with her grandparents after her sister died in the school and the family wasn’t notified. She was probably the last mono-lingual Cree speaker.

    I’ve worked with several people who survived the Res School, but none of them wanted to talk about it (although one of them told me a good Res School-based joke).

    I heard some interviews (in Blackfoot) about Res school life down here in Kainai country. I wish the speakers would push to have them published – the stories are pretty awful.

    For a different perspective on the Res Schools, check out Emma Minde’s book (in Cree) kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik. She went to a catholic residential school near Saddle Lake and actually liked it. She stayed a devout catholic her whole life and credits it with guiding her to a good life.

  17. nokamis says:

    Education being the operative word here does not even begin to apply to the experience many children in residential ‘schools’ endured with the exception of the diminutive percentage of experiences that qualified as viable educational experiences. Children are largely resilient, yet the horror of being wrenched from their parents arms and family homes created such intense traumatic states of mind, spirit and body that the ability to even function at an ‘acceptable’ level of concentration that would facilitate ‘learning’ was but one variable alone that suffocated the ability and will to learn, let alone the language barriers, and horrors inflicted daily upon vulnerable developing bodies and psyche’s. All for the purposes of learning what?

    Education my butt! Just a nice tidy word to hide forced assimilation policies behind. Being taught to scrub floors, cook, sew and work the fields hardly lends credibility to the mantra of the government and their administrator churches professing out of the goodness of their hearts their ‘admirable intentions’ to provide a springboard of ‘education’ for a better way of life. Poppycock! This ‘education’ policy imo was nothing less than a ways and means to suppress, oppress and disable any free spirited culturally sound thought and behavoural processes that might lead to an autonomous cultural society determined to assert control over their lands and way of life. Same old same old forced assimilation story repeated world wide by a colonial mentality bent of domination.

    Now having said all that, I am glad for those fortunate few who had good ‘educational’ experiences in residential schools. I am a great proponent of education that encourages and nurtures critical and creative thinking and doing in wholesome ways (curriculums) that lay strong foundations for future growth and development. Sounds like a fairy tale today really. Sounds more like a way of life…hmmmm.

  18. Jeffrey Canton says:

    I’d like to thank you (and everyone else here too who commented on your post) for providing links to fabulous resources that are an invaluable map for those of us who are trying to educate ourselves on the Residential Schools and the deep pain and suffering they caused so many communities across Canada – I am deeply grateful for the insights you bring to every subject you write about and want to thank you for your generosity in sharing your blogposts with us all !

  19. Faith says:

    The Residential School Song is a beautiful and sad song of one mother and one son’s experience of being torn apart by IRS. I heard Cheryl Bear sing this in person and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. Cheryl is an amazing singer/composer from Nadleh Whut’en, Carrier First Nation. This song is on her CD called The Good Road. My kids’ favorite song off the CD is called, “Hey Cuzzin!” Music can be helpful in processing and healing for children and adults. The IRS song is available at the following link:
    http://www.reverbnation.com/artist/song_details/551705

  20. Larry Loyie says:

    All comments are valued as Constance Brissenden (my partner) and I work on the residential school history we’re writing for senior elementary to junior high school grades (and anyone). This is a 20-year project that will be completed for fall publication in 2013. Our challenge is to write a book that is child-friendly yet tells the truth about a hidden children’s history in Canada. Students have said to us, “It wasn’t fair.” Today’s students understand the meaning of human rights and respect. Their attitude is interested and straightforward (if old enough).

    I don’t think anyone could ever express the pain and sorrow youngsters felt arriving lost at residential school, a strange, cold place. I went to residential school to get an education but never got it. I really want our history to be accessible to students today in a truthful and honest way.

  21. mandy says:

    I am wondering if you have any suggestions on group activities that could be done with a classroom that are focused on residential schools in one way or another.

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