Starting this year, Grade 10 students across the Yukon will learn about the residential school system as part of a new social studies program.
The territory is the latest jurisdiction in Canada to make residential school history a part of its curriculum – something that was recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Called “Our Stories of Residential Schools in Yukon and Canada,” the Yukon curriculum is 11 lessons long and takes two weeks or more to get through depending on how it’s taught, said Janet McDonald, Yukon Education’s director of First Nations programs and partnerships.
The goal is to help students understand the loss experienced by First Nations and other aboriginal groups across Canada, the impacts of residential schools for generations and the work that is being done to rebuild, she said.
“We all agreed that it is important for the students to go through the process with a sense of hope towards where are we today with land claims, self-government, where are First Nations (now) on their healing journey with reconciliation.”
Students start by learning about First Nation cultures and the way children were traditionally taught. They learn to think critically about life in residential schools and the Canadian government’s strategies to assimilate First Nation children.
Lessons touch on how what happened at the schools is still being felt by some younger generations. Students are encouraged to think about how things like suicide rates, depression, loss of parenting skills and self-destructive behaviour might be linked to the impacts of residential schools.
There’s also a lesson on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008, as well as on work that has been done since then. Yukon teachers, former residential school students, Yukon First Nation heritage staff and other education officials got together for two days this week to discuss teaching the curriculum.
Teachers are encouraged to include First Nation speakers in their lessons whenever possible, McDonald said.
“We’re telling the teachers, ‘You’re not the expert, but you can rely on people who are.’ We do want that authentic voice,” she said.
The department has collected survivor’s stories that teachers can access digitally if there is no one available to come into the classroom.
Curricula on residential schools are already being used in other Canadian jurisdictions. In the Northwest Territories, a unit has been running for four years.
The Yukon already uses the B.C. curriculum for classes like math and English, but for something like this, it wasn’t as simple as duplicating what is being done there.
“Our Yukon context is so different,” McDonald said. “With the history of the Gold Rush, the building of the Alaska Highway, the numbers of schools in the Yukon and the fact that Yukon students actually left the Yukon as well.”
The Yukon’s First Nations curriculum working group – made up of representatives from the territory’s eight language groups – has been working on the curriculum with other organizations and departments for more than two years.
That includes making sure it is taught as sensitively as possible, McDonald said. Teachers are encouraged to have a support person in the classroom with them, particularly for the parts of lessons that deal explicitly with residential schools.
In the Northwest Territories, teachers have found that it is equally important to let the community know when the lessons are going to be taught, McDonald said.
“They haven’t had problems with the students, the concern is always with what about the grandmas and the grandpas who had actually gone to school. If they get asked a question, what will it actually mean for them.”
Yukon parents will get a letter before the lessons are taught, she said. It will also be mentioned in the school newsletters.
The letter outlines what’s going to be taught and includes phone numbers to call if anyone needs help.
“Anybody can be triggered. I’m a grandmother, I have a grandson that’s five,” McDonald said.
“So if I think about how I would feel if now my grandson was taken away from me, you know, I’m sensitive to that and everybody has their triggers.”
The unit was introduced as a pilot project last year at Robert Service School in Dawson City, Tantalus School in Carmacks, Del Van Gorder School in Faro and Vanier Catholic Secondary, Porter Creek Secondary and F.H. Collins Secondary in Whitehorse.
Surveys of those students after the fact found that many didn’t know anything about residential schools before they started the lessons, McDonald said. “It isn’t something that’s talked about.”
But that is slowly starting to change.
“A lot of the students’ feedback has been that they get it, they understand now. They might understand why their grandparent drinks. They might understand why they see people that are challenged with addictions,” she said.
“They have that sense of empathy toward people. They look at them differently and that’s a huge shift in somebody’s idea of social thinking.”
McDonald said the department is considering creating similar curriculums age-appropriate for students in younger grades. B.C. has lessons for Grade 5 classes.
Outside of public education, all graduates of Yukon College are required to have some core competency knowledge in Yukon First Nations history and culture.
“If we work at the post-secondary level, and we also work within the public school system, we’re hoping that eventually everybody is educated about this part of Yukon and Canada’s history,” McDonald said.
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