Today, I’d like to present to you something a little different; an interview of sorts.
A while ago, a comment on one of my blog posts really caught my attention. In it, a mother was describing an experience her young daughter had at school, and that brief description had such a powerful impact on me that I shared it with my own children. They told me that people need to hear this story, and I agree.
We feel it is very important to get these kinds of stories out so that:
- those who are unaware that these kinds of things still go on, learn that they do, and perhaps understand how these events impact us and;
- those that have experienced similar things find out that they are not alone.
I contacted the family and asked if they would be willing to participate in an interview, to which they very graciously agreed.
To respect the family’s desire for anonymity, all names have been changed. Here is Ruby’s story, in the words of her parents, and then from Ruby herself.
Ruby and Indian Residential Schools
Ruby was seven years old and in Grade 2. She was assigned to prepare a class presentation on the topic of her choice. The only requirement from the teacher was that the student know a lot about it. Students needed to prepare a poster at home and some research was encouraged. The students were to inform their teacher of their topic before they started their poster.
Ruby’s presentation date was scheduled by the teacher. She decided right away that she wanted to share something about her First Nations culture and background because she felt that the level of understanding and knowledge about this issue was lacking in her class. After much thinking, she finally decided that she wanted to tell the story of why she doesn’t speak her First Nations language that she loves so much.
Ruby decided that she wanted to share information about the effects Indian Residential School has had on her family and community in terms of language loss. Her eyes were moist with emotion but her voice was sure and certain. This was a very important topic that meant a lot to her. She wanted everyone to know about how wrong Indian Residential Schools were.
A few weeks before the scheduled presentation date, Ruby and her dad, Chris, spoke to the teacher after school. Ruby stated that she wanted to do her presentation on Indian Residential Schools and how the legacy of these schools explains why she can’t speak her language. The teacher suggested she teach the class a few words in her language or about hunting or fishing.
Ruby’s father then asked Ruby to say one more time what she wanted to share. Ruby wanted to share the reason why she doesn’t know much of her language, because of the Indian Residential Schools. The teacher then approved the project.
However, the next day after school the teacher called Faith, Ruby’s mom, into the classroom while Ruby waited in the hallway. The teacher said she had been thinking about it all night because she didn’t know how to say “no” the day before. The teacher said it was an inappropriate topic and had many excuses:
- we the parents were putting our daughter up to it,
- our daughter was too young/immature to tell her family’s story,
- the other students were too immature to hear the story,
- the students 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.
Through all her arguments, Ruby’s mother quietly asked her questions. Had the teacher read the children’s literature about Indian Residential Schools that is available in the local library?
The teacher’s answer was no, to which Faith replied, “Well, our daughter has.”
Then Faith asked, how was teaching about Indian Residential School inappropriate when it was okay to teach about war and Remembrance Day? The teacher had taken the school to the local cenotaph and talked about war with the young students and this topic was not considered inappropriate or too mature. Faith reassured the teacher that Ruby would not be talking about sexual abuse in her presentation.
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” was the teacher’s response. “This is my classroom and my answer is ‘No!’”
Faith’s explained that the teacher would have to tell Chris and Ruby that the project was no longer approved. The teacher elected to setup a meeting with the principal instead.
Afterwards, the two of us sat with Ruby on the couch and talked about what happened. Ruby usually loves school, but she started saying that she didn’t want to go back. That is something we had never heard her say before. Ruby was very hurt and deeply grieved.
Her school had given her the message that her story is unacceptable and unimportant. That she, because of her culture and how Residential Schools had had an impact on shaping her life, is unacceptable and unimportant.
Ruby was also very concerned that this would happen to her siblings as well. We spent a lot of time talking and crying together on the couch.
It was a very difficult time. We decided that we couldn’t be alone in this. As a family, we went and visited with people. At church, one lady who works with Residential School Survivors as a psychology councillor encouraged Ruby, and us, to not give up. We are so grateful for our community.
The principal mediated our meeting with the teacher. The end result: the teacher very reluctantly agreed to allow Ruby to share her story. We explained to the teacher that Ruby wanted to share about the apology and say a prayer for the Survivors. The following day, the teacher apologized to Ruby, but then told her that she had better not scare anyone or give them nightmares because of her presentation.
The day of Ruby’s presentation finally came. However, the teacher did not let her start the presentation at the appointed time. Twice Ruby asked her teacher to start her presentation. The teacher said the class needed to finish up more work first.
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 Ruby off and made her stop half way before she had even gotten to the apology or prayer for healing. The class was then given plenty of time to ask questions.
At the end of the question period, the teacher had nothing positive to say about Ruby’s presentation. The only thing said was, “You should choose a shorter topic next time.”
Ruby is hoping to share more about Indian Residential Schools with her classmates and is learning more about other issues facing Aboriginal people, such as underfunding of First Nations schools. On Valentine’s Day, she asked her principal if he would support the initiative to send e-Valentines to the government in support of First Nations children in Canada. The principal said that he would take a look at it.
Ruby’s experience, in her own words
As a mother of children Ruby’s age, I long ago got rid of any belief I may have had that children cannot speak for themselves. It baffles me utterly that anyone who works with children could forget this simple fact. My daughters were also very curious to hear Ruby describe her experience and I sent her a number of questions so that her voice could be heard as well.
I am very grateful to Ruby for her courage. It is clear that this experience impacted her deeply and by answering these questions, she has been also asked to relive that hurt.
Below are the questions, and Ruby’s answers.
How old were you when you first heard about Residential Schools?
I think I was about 6 years old.
How did this topic come up?
When I was in Grade 1, my teacher said that I was only allowed to speak English at school. I didn’t know why people didn’t want us to speak our First Nations language. I talked to my Mom and Dad about it. Then my Dad told me about Residential Schools. He also told me about his hair getting cut off at school, even though he didn’t go to a Residential School. Then my Dad showed me the movie of the apology from Prime Minister Harper. When we talked to my Grade 1 teacher about it, she said that she was sorry about it and I forgave her.
What do you think Residential Schools have to do with First Nations languages?
They took away our language by taking kids from their moms and dads. At school, the sisters and brothers were split up and couldn’t even talk to each other either. The teachers at Residential School thought their ways and their language were better. And now we speak English and do not know much of our language. Our family is taking a language class together now so that we can all learn.
What did you want other students in your class to learn?
I chose the topic of Residential Schools because people need to know about the past. I wanted to tell my classmates why I couldn’t speak very much of my language. The past is our history and everybody should know. Our class learns some history like Remembrance Day and wars, so we should also talk about Residential Schools so that it won’t happen again.
How did your teacher’s actions make you feel?
I felt mixed-up between sad and hurt when my teacher didn’t want me to tell the class about Residential Schools. Then when she did let me share, she stopped me before I could tell about the Prime Minister’s apology or pray for healing for people who went to Residential School. My teacher didn’t tell me anything good about my presentation, she just said that I should choose a shorter topic next time. But I still think that this was an important topic.
How did the other students react to what you shared with them and how did that make you feel?
One student was fooling around but the rest looked serious and listened. Some of the students looked sad when they heard about Residential Schools. Lots of kids had questions during question time, more than any other presentation. It made me feel good that they were interested and wanted to know the truth. They thought that the Residential Schools were totally not fair or right.
Why is teaching people about Residential Schools important to you?
No one is First Nations like me in my classroom. So there are quite a few people who don’t know about my culture or about the past. I think that all kids in Canadian schools should know about Residential Schools because this happened here and justice and truth are very important. I don’t want something like this to ever happen again in our land.
Do you believe that you are too young to learn about or teach about Residential Schools?
No, I am not too young because I started learning in Grade 1. I talked with my family about it. I read Shi-Shi-Etko and Shin-Chi’s Canoe in Grade 1. Then later in Grade 2, I read more books for kids about Residential Schools. I know enough to teach others about it and I am still learning more about Residential Schools.
Is there anything you would like to say to other young First Nations, Inuit or Métis youth after this experience?
Be brave. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right. You may face some troubles, but it is worth it. Because you can do it with God’s help. The Creator gives us our culture and gives us courage. When I prayed about it, I felt better because I knew that God was with me.
Don’t stand in their way
A few weeks ago, I asked, “How do you teach children about Residential Schools?”
I think Ruby’s story tells us that we should avoid standing in the way of children when they want to learn about something, and when they want to take on the role of teacher. There are many young people in our communities who have wisdom to share and the passion to lead. They should not be impeded by adults who feel threatened by these children and by the knowledge they wish to share.
If we want our children to be invested in their education, we need to invest in them. It sounds trite and obvious, but it is clearly a truism that has not actually sunk in yet.
I suspect however, that children like Ruby, Shannen Koostachin, Chelsea Edwards, Ta’Kaiya Blaney and so many others, will make it impossible for us to continue ignoring uncomfortable truths. They make it impossible for us to believe that children do not possess wisdom, spirit and bravery. Children are not merely “the future” who can only make change once they become adults. They are making change now.
Many, many thanks to Ruby and her parents for telling this story, and many thanks as well to those in the community who supported the right of a child to not only learn about her history and culture, but also supported her right to share that learning.
Tags: Attawapsikat First Nation elementary school, Chelsea Edwards, First Nations education, Indian Residential Schools, Residential school apology, Residential school survivors, Shannen Koostachin, Shannen's Dream, Sliammon First Nation, Ta'Kaiya Blaney