Reconciliation into the Classroom Transcript

Hello everyone.

I was actually born and raised here, and I continue to live on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people, right down the street. I rode my bike here today, but I actually had no idea that the lands that I lived on were unceded and belong to the Algonquin people until 10 or 15 years ago.

I was never taught about traditional territories or treaties or colonization. In school, when I was a kid, we never learned about Indian Residential Schools or smallpox blankets or the Indian Act and I had no understanding of the Sixties Scoop.

The history I was taught in elementary school, high school, and even university was that of the typical narrative. You were probably taught that one too. The one that romanticizes Indigenous people as figures of the past instead of contemporary people. The one that tells us how the Europeans came to Canada and treated the native people nicely, that they shared things.

When I started unlearning the history lessons I was taught, it changed my entire life.

It changed the way that I teach, the perspective through which I see the world, the way that I understand politics and justice, and love. It changed the course of my life and it's ultimately what brought me here to you today.

I could talk about how I teach and communicate Indigenous histories in many ways, but I know that the best way to do this is by telling you my story and for this I need to tell you about my students.

I normally have lots of students with me so it's a strange thing for me to be talking to you about them and not being with them.

I started teaching at a school called Pierre Elliott Trudeau school about 11 years ago. My school is just across the river in Gatineau and my first class was Grade 2. I had 29 students and 16 of them were from James Bay.

Some of them had never been away from their community and many of them had had horrible experiences at their schools there. All of them were coming to our school to get a good education, something their parents felt they couldn't get at home.

This was something I wondered about. I knew I had to get to know my students in order for them to trust me, so I started asking them about their communities, about what they ate, and how they lived.

They started to teach me some words in Cree. The laughter that my very strong accent caused were moments of bonding. Here I was, their settler teacher trying and wanting to learn their language.

I don't think I realized the incredible power of what was happening in my classroom that year. For me, it seemed obvious that I needed to know who my students were and not just their names, their ages, or their favourite colours but to really know them.

So I learned a lot from them and I continue to do so and that's the relationship-building piece of reconciliation. It's seeing the humanity no matter where we come from or where we intend to go. It's standing up for each other, recognizing our position of privilege, and taking steps to make amends.

A few years after this, my students and I got involved in the Shannen's Dream campaign to bring equal education to reserves.

I'm sure many of you have heard of Shannen Koostachin. Here she is, here. She was a member of Attawapiskat First Nation in Treaty 9 territory and she never got to go to a real school because the school on her reserve had been contaminated 30 years before by a diesel spill. The government had put up makeshift portables that they promised would be temporary. But 30 years later, they were still there.

Shannen knew that this was wrong and she convinced her classmates to write letters to the government. Still, the government did not listen and refused to build a new school.

Shannen graduated from Grade 8 but then made the heartbreaking choice to leave her family and community to attend school 600 kilometers away. Shannen did this because she knew she needed a good education. She wanted to be a lawyer so that she could fight for equality and human rights for her people.

Shannen never made it to her 16th birthday. The day before, she was killed in a car accident while heading back to her community. The devastation and loss were enormous, but the dream for equal education on reserve was born.

When I first introduced my Grade 3 students to Shannen's dream for a new school, they were incredibly moved. They were angered. They were shocked. They were saddened. They could not believe that kids in our country went to schools like the one Shannen did. They could not believe that kids in our country didn't have schools with libraries and books and good teachers or even doors that kept the cold out.

They had questions: "What do they eat when the mice eat all their food?" "Why would they get less just because they live on reserve?"

All of their questions deepened their thinking and mine. Within days, my students were writing expressive and passionate letters to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

These and other letters have now been published in a book by Cindy Blackstock. It's called Children Have Power! And it's full of letters from kids who want a Canada that stands up for everyone.

These kids that I work with are nine, ten, and eleven years old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous working together. You may be wondering how younger kids understand issues of fairness and equality and justice. Well they do, and I think they actually understand them much better than we would.

Shannen's Dreams summon my students and I to do, not just learn but to do, to take action, and this is what true allyship and reconciliation is about. It's about standing up together and saying, "I am here to help you with your struggle. I recognize my role in it and, what can I do?"

My students also decided that it was important for them to teach others. They felt very strongly about this. They did not want other kids to be in the dark about what was happening in Canada. They were sure that, as soon as kids and teachers knew, that people would help.

And so, my students and I took city buses all over town to give presentations to schools. Sometimes, we taught young kids, as little as kindergarten. Sometimes, we taught older ones. My students have even taught classes at the University of Ottawa on Shannen's Dream, Indian Residential Schools, and colonization.

We've also been working with Elders and residential school Survivors who have courageously shared their stories with us. My students and I learned things that we never knew happened in this country. There was a lot of shock and anger and pain, and many deep questions.

One day, we were watching a video by the Legacy of Hope, and one of my students started crying. We stopped the video, and we had a circle.

He said, "how can I be in Grade 6 and only learning about this now? How? How come all I learned in Social Studies was about fur trade and longhouses and wigwams. I'm so sad and I'm so angry."

My student was asking a question that I believe we should all be asking. It's a question that should change the course of the curriculum in our country.

He's right. We must learn, and to learn we must be taught. It's our responsibility as a nation to learn our collective history. We cannot remain in the dark. The dark is where ignorance and racism and the systemic inequity and policy live. We must learn about the past so that we can find the light.

I want to end my talk today with a story about one of my former students. His name is Zach and he's from Wemindji Cree Nation on the Quebec side of James Bay.

When he arrived at our school, he was angry and he was hurt. He had been bullied badly at his school up North because Zach had learning disabilities. He was placed in my class and we connected immediately.

He thought it was cool that I knew some Cree words like niska, which means goose. He told me all about goose hunting and the gauges of rifles he used. I enthusiastically listened. This was not the time to tell him that I was a long time vegan (audience laughter).

Zach hated writing. He often crumpled up his papers in rage, hiding under his desk, but when it came to speaking out for his people, speaking up against something that was wrong, Zach became articulated and motivated.

Here he is standing on the steps of Parliament reading a speech that he wrote to over a crowd of 1,000 people and where am I? I'm with him. I'm by his side as an ally.

In my experience, teaching and communicating Indigenous histories is an act of reconciliation that creates spaces for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to become brothers and sisters. It is work that must be done together, standing side by side through learning and action.

As a teacher of young people, it is powerful to see how social justice and reconciliation brings a voice to kids who never thought they had one. Kids who have been marginalized for so long are no longer on the sidelines but now on the stages. Kids who have felt disengaged from our classrooms are now eagerly coming to school. Why?

Because they feel they are making change. They know that they are learning the truth. They see the humanity in our relations. They feel heart and spirit when they learn from the Elders. They feel that their reading and writing and speaking skills now have true purpose and they want to use them to voice their opinion, speak their truth, and be heard.

This work helps them find out who they are, find out what it means to be Canadian, and find out that they can change this country.

Thank you.

(Audience applause)