Students and teachers at Watson Lake Secondary School mark Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30. (Submitted)

Yukon testing Grade 5 curriculum on the residential school system

Classes are learning about the effects the schools had on First Nations families and communities

Four years after social studies units detailing the history of residential schools were introduced to Grade 9 and 10 students throughout the territory, Grade 5 students at select Yukon schools are beginning to learn about the atrocities of the system that was forced on Indigenous people across the country.

The Yukon government recently announced it is field testing new materials — books, videos and a story compilations — for Grade 5 students to learn about the residential school system with a goal of adding the materials to the curriculum for all Grade 5 students in the territory in the 2020/2021 school year.

Among the books are The Orange Shirt Story, Stolen Words and When We Were Alone to name a few.

The effort is part of the ongoing work to meet the Calls of Action outlined in the 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Among those is a call that education departments include age-appropriate materials for students that teach them about the residential school system.

It has taken about two years of work to select materials appropriate for those in Grade 5 along with developing a teachers’ guide and training educators, said Lori Duncan, assistant deputy minister for First Nations initiatives at the Department of Education, in an Oct. 8 interview

“It’s so important,” she said of the subject, highlighting the work of a group that includes elders, former residential school students, Grade 5 teachers, historians, knowledge-keepers and those representing Yukon First Nations in finding the right material.

It was important, Duncan said, to have that guidance as the department continues to educate students throughout the territory on the residential school system.

The material will be tested out in the 2019/2020 school year at Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow, Robert Service School in Dawson City, Ross River School in Ross River and a number of schools in and around Whitehorse including: Hidden Valley Elementary, Holy Family Elementary, Jack Hulland Elementary, Selkirk Elementary and Takhini Elementary.

Along with the material chosen for the Grade 5 curriculum is a teacher’s guide — Our Voices, Our Stories: Yukon Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation — that’s been developed, aimed at guiding educators on presenting the material to students. Training was also provided to teachers through a two-day workshop with staff from First Nations Programs and Partnerships.

“It’s sensitive,” Duncan said of presenting information about residential schools to students as she went on to stress the importance that all students learn about it.

The Grade 5 unit offers an introduction, awareness and aims to develop an understanding of the system and the impacts it has had.

The unit focuses on a key question — what effects did residential schools have on First Nations families and communities?

“As we continue on our journey of reconciliation, it is important for young people to hear the truth and learn about the history of Indian Residential Schools in Yukon communities,” Yukon Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said in a statement.

“This teaching is designed to help students learn about this complex and challenging topic and begin their understanding of the widespread impacts this difficult chapter in Yukon and Canadian history continues to have.”

Ultimately, Duncan said she would eventually like to see units focused on residential schools taught in every grade.

As it stands, formal units are taught in Grades 9 and 10 for all Yukon students, with that material being a more in-depth look at the system, its impacts and reconciliation. The new Grade 5 unit will be evaluated at the end of this year.

With the high school curriculum including a unit on residential schools since 2015, Duncan said efforts are underway to update the material for both Grade 9 and 10.

The units aimed at high school students offer a more in-depth understanding and focus on reconciliation and human rights advocacy.

While the focused social studies units are limited to the three different grade levels, Duncan emphasized ongoing efforts of the department to incorporate First Nations culture and history throughout the curriculum at all levels.

She also highlighted the department’s work to make all schools aware of Orange Shirt Day, recognizing the experiences of students in residential schools.

Many students and staff at Yukon schools donned orange t-shirts on Sept. 30, acknowledging the day and using it as a teaching opportunity, she said.

The initiative has expanded to schools and workplaces across the country out of the 2013 St. Joseph Mission Residential School Commemoration Project and Reunion.

There, former student Phyllis Webstad shared her story about having the new orange shirt her grandmother had given her taken when she came to the school at six-years-old. She did not get the shirt back.

The late September date to mark Orange Shirt Day was chosen because that was the time of year First Nations children were taken from their homes to residential schools.

Much of the Yukon’s formal learning material is relatively new, but for students at Robert Service School in Dawson City, the history and culture of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in has been taught long before the formal curriculum was in place.

Included in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement signed in 1998 is a provision that gives the First Nation a strong presence in the school, said Jody Beaumont, the First Nation’s traditional knowledge specialist.

That has meant many Dawson kids grow up knowing the history and culture of the First Nation. They know the elders of the community and thanks to a local group of residential school survivors, they have learned directly about the impact of residential schools.

“It’s just an everyday reality,” Beaumont said, adding the additional curriculum is another positive step in ensuring Yukon students learn about the residential school system.

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