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‘Education the pathway forward': North Shore schools reflect on Truth and Reconciliation

October 01, 2021

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Left: Grade 3 students Ivy and Alaina from Capilano Elementary raise the new Every Child Matters flag, which the NVSD Indigenous Education team gifted to each school at the North Vancouver School District. | North Vancouver School District.

Right: Brad Baker, district principal and administrator of Indigenous education for the North Vancouver School District, encourages families to have a day of "reflection" on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. | North Vancouver School District.

By Elisia, Seeber, North Shore News.

Every Child Matters flags will flutter in the breeze and students will wear orange at schools across the North Shore this week, to mark the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

Each flag gifted by the North Vancouver School District Indigenous education team includes the original artwork of Indigenous support worker Ann Marchand and is meant to honour the lives and lived experiences of children who attended Indian residential schools in Canada.

The new holiday on Sept. 30 was implemented by the federal government in direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action 80 and encourages community members to learn and reflect on the history of residential schools and the lasting impacts they have had on survivors and families. The date was chosen to coincide with Orange Shirt Day.

For Tsonomot (Brad Baker), SD44 district principal of Indigenous education, who is a Squamish Nation member and son of a residential school survivor, the creation of the statutory holiday “is a very symbolic gesture.”

Although, he added that “in the North Vancouver School District, we're making a conscious effort to move away from the 'one day' of things.”

“We've used the month of September and week of the 30th, Truth and Reconciliation Week, as a continued and broader awareness to Orange Shirt Day,” he said.

“We're encouraging schools, students and staff and parents in the community to wear orange this week, but we're also wanting teachers to bring in grade-appropriate discussion points to talk with the kids about the impacts of residential schools and about the calls to action, but also the legacy of hope moving forward – how can we become better Canadians?”

Looking back on the past few months, Baker said when the school district community first became aware of the discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential school, it was “definitely a time of reflection” for the adults in the education system.

“[Teachers] were going ‘wow, how are we going to talk about this with children?’” he said.

“In June there were a couple of challenges around people feeling unsure, and nervous about teaching. But what we're trying to do … is provide the opportunity for dialogues to occur between adults if they feel they need additional support.

“I think all the adults understand that the children that we have a responsibility to teach, we owe it to them and the future generations to ensure that they are taught about Canada’s history, including residential schools.”

He said teachers were being guided and supported with “age appropriate resources.”

While visiting North Vancouver schools during the past few months, Baker said what had stood out the most was hearing students’ questions.

“It was hearing children asking adults, ‘Why did Canada do that?’” he said.  

“But also, I think it was evident in many of the schools that I visited during that time that they were becoming more involved in moving away from tokenism. So, the impacts of residential schools were becoming part of their daily discussion, which is incredible for this to be happening.”

Baker added that the district had been working on a new strategic priority of truth, healing and reconciliation over the last eight months as part of the district’s overall strategic plan.

“It's become even more apparent that that part of the strategic plan is so vital to the fabric of the school district and ensuring that equity for Indigenous learners is at the forefront of what we're doing.

“It puts an obligation on us as the school district. It shows that all levels of the organization from the Board of Education to teachers, to students, community partners, to parents, that we've made a commitment to continue on the path of understanding the truth and also on how we heal and move forward.”

In the West Vancouver school district, Tricia Buckley, manager of communications and community engagement, said many authentic activities, learning opportunities and conversations had been taking place at schools this week.

“As a school district we are committed to Truth and Reconciliation as education is the pathway forward,” she said. “Each of our schools has an Indigenous education committee that is planning and sharing learning opportunities with staff and students.”

As well as staff and students wearing orange, she said teachers had been weaving in developmentally appropriate stories, lessons, videos and activities with respect to residential schools and Truth and Reconciliation, language and culture, and land and treaties.

“There are ‘Every Child Matters’ displays, posters, art activities, music and cultural events planned,” she said.

Buckley said some students would be also venturing out in Tel’Tiwet, the school district’s Indigenous canoe, working in their Indigenous gardens and taking part in drum circles.

As schools will be closed on Sept. 30, Baker encouraged families to use the day off as a time of “reflection,” but also “to make a commitment to understand the TRC calls to action, and to commit to continuing to learn.”

In his nine years as district principal of Indigenous education with SD44, Baker said he’d seen the education system “change to become more equitable, but we still have a long way to go.”

“My vision for the future is true equity for Indigenous peoples,” he said. “Where we have more Indigenous teachers and we have more Indigenous administrators.

“And, also, within the school, the four walls of the classroom, Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous perspective is the norm, not an add-on.

“That's our goal.”

The National Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24/7 for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of residential school experiences: 1-866-925-4419.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.