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!