Off the textbook: teaching students history by humans

When grade 10 students return from CAIRS, some of them are literally shaking. But all Joanne Henry does is tell them about her childhood.

When grade 10 students return from CAIRS, some of them are literally shaking.

But all Joanne Henry does is tell them about her childhood.

Henry isn’t a teacher, but she gives these students “real education,” says Mark Connell, the religious education co-ordinator at Vanier Catholic Secondary School.

Henry is a residential school survivor and the executive director of CAIRS, the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools, a drop-in centre in Whitehorse for residential school survivors.

The Committee and the school have been working together for four years, connecting students in grades 10, 11 and 12 with the human side of a dark part of Canadian history.

“They go into CAIRS, they listen to Joanne talk, they come back to me and some of them are physically shaking,” says Connell. “They can’t believe that they’ve never really understood what this is about. They maybe heard about it, but they never knew that people would come and take the kids away and if the parents wanted to go and get the kids, the parents would be arrested. And they didn’t understand the levels of abuse. It’s the human story that survivors tell that really shakes the kids up. And then they look at our community from a different perspective.”

The program in Grade 10 breaks students up into groups and sends them off to discover their “neighbours.” Some visit the outreach van, some go to BYTE (Bringing Youth Towards Equality), some go to the Salvation Army and the food bank and others go to CAIRS.

When they come in the doors on Fourth Avenue, Henry takes them around the small centre that has one large room with some couches and a pool table, and another room that has been turned into a carving studio.

“Once the five-minute tour is over, I invite them to sit on the couches and say ‘lets talk about residential school,’” Henry says.

She starts by telling them she was five-years-old when she went to residential school and asks the students to think about themselves at that age.

The talk makes Henry nervous, she says. She doesn’t know if they’ll be attentive, she doesn’t know what they’ve been told in the past, she doesn’t know if she’ll ruin spinach for them for the rest of their lives, she says, laughing about how the kids were really upset when she told them about what she was fed in residential school.

Henry and Connell also co-ordinate talks from survivors for the Grade 11 and 12 social justice and world issues classes.

Henry remembers a recent visit.

A student was lounging at his desk while she was talking. His legs were stretched out, his head perched in his hand, his eyes closed.

Henry pointed him out to all the other students.

“There would be no warning,” she told the class. “All he would of got was maybe a whack across the head with a ruler, or maybe his arm would be knocked out so his head would slam on the desk. There was no talking, we were just punished.”

There are three main points Henry hopes to convey to students, she says.

First, is perspective and appreciation.

She tells them to appreciate their parents and the time and teaching they provide. Even if the kids don’t like it and think their life is horrible – as many youth do – she hopes they will learn how many children were never allowed that time or those lessons.

Second, she hopes to give them more understanding.

The next time they see an aboriginal person downtown, maybe high or drunk or getting picked up by the cops, I hope they don’t just say, ‘Oh there’s another drunk Indian,’ she says.

“It’s not an excuse,” she adds. But sometimes alcohol and drugs are the only escape or safety mechanism people have because counsellors are not as accessible as it’s made out to seem, she says.

Finally, it’s just about telling the story, she says.

“I don’t want to hurt someone else because I’m hurting,” she says. “Don’t take the feeling on and feel bad about it. But do listen.”

And what if the attitude is different in the child’s home?

This is not about challenging what the kids have already been told – they can make up their own mind, Henry says.

“I just tell them my story”, she says.

“I am always amazed because they come back and they are really introspective and you can see they are just trying to process and understand,” says Connell. “Once you’ve heard the talk you can’t help but be overwhelmed by lots of emotions and I think it’s a long process to try to sort those out. And then the big question is, ‘How do I live in this?’ As a person that is interested in fairness, equity, justice, how do you live once you know that this is what’s at the heart of your community?”

It’s obvious Connell has asked himself this question.

As a Catholic, and as a teacher of Catholicism, he doesn’t consider telling students about this dismal history of the church a betrayal

Rather, it is rooted in his faith.

“Most of those people (working in residential schools) – they weren’t these evil maniacs, these were people with good intentions, like teachers in our schools today who want to make a difference and help kids learn,” says Connell. “But something prevented them from seeing. Back in the day in residential schools, there was a real separation between those social mechanisms and what the school was actually doing.

“When I have a real relationship with Joanne at CAIRS, I need to listen to what she’s saying. The Catholic faith teaches us to be proximate to other people, so this is part of our mandate.”

He feels the same about the education system.

Big institutions tend to have blinders on, he says. Grassroots organizations provide another perspective.

CAIRS is essential for the school, he says. It can save the school system.

And Connell is hoping to help save CAIRS.

He’s written numerous letters to local and federal politicians, highlighting the work that CAIRS does and the support it needs.

The committee was funded by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which Ottawa established in 1998.

It was given $350 million and an 11-year mandate.

CAIRS was supposed to close June 30.

Currently it has no secure funding and operates on a month-to-month basis.

Connell has written to Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, the federal Ministers of Health and Indian and Northern Affairs, Leona Aglukkaq and John Duncan, Territorial Health and Social Services Minister Glenn Hart and all the territory’s First Nation governments.

To date, he has not received a single response.

However, a letter obtained by the News shows Hart responded to a letter from Ruth Massie, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations – five months later.

“I have been trying to work with officials in Ottawa and here to find a source of funding,” the letter read, “We will continue in our efforts and will follow up with you soon.”

Asked about CAIRS’ funding woes, Hart had no comment.

But Connell hopes the partnership between his school and CAIRS can continue even if the committee has to shut down.

“Teachers use things that are easy,” he says.

Besides, “how would a white teacher, like me, teach from the perspective of a survivor,” he says. “It would be unjust.”

As well, CAIRS provides a safe space for survivors, many of which have a deep mistrust and fear of the school system because of their experience, says Connell.

Sometimes just walking into a school can be too much.

“The students get a critical look at history, they get a firsthand experience to hear about the human cost of the legacy of residential school and they get to see how survivors are trying to make the community a better, safer place – to work for healing,” he says.

“If we’re interested in giving our kids tools to engage in the civic process then you need to be able to recognize what’s around you,” he says.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at