David A. Robertson Transcript

DAVID A. ROBERTSON: Thanks for having me, and I always find it a privilege to be able to present to educators. It's really important work that you do, and I often think of educators as being on the front lines of reconciliation because you are in the most direct contact besides parents with youth.

And I love what the Elder mentioned in her intro about the youth and how they are our future leaders, and they're leaders today, and they're teachers tomorrow, and they're teachers today. And the best thing that we can do is prepare them to do the work.

So I just want to talk to you a little bit about my own view from my own experience on teaching hard history with that context in mind, with the context in mind, that my focus has been on kids. That's why, out of all my books, 90% of them are for kids and working with teachers.

So, you know, the background of my work when I started out was almost almost entirely on difficult history. I focused on Indian Residential School system and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and on colonialism, which surrounds all of that.

And I...one of the things that led me to do that was thinking about my own youth and the things that I learned, or did not learn, when I was younger. And, you know, I went to Brock Corydon Junior...River Heights Junior High, Kelvin High School here in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory, and one of the things I think about most often is that I went to school down the street from a Residential School, Assiniboia Residential School, and we had no clue, we had no idea that that building was there.

We had no idea what happened to kids who went there, you know. It was something that, you know, later in life I learned about that school, I learned about the history when I became friends with Elders who attended that school. I couldn't believe that we went through all those years of education, all those years of history classes, and didn't learn anything.

And it was particularly hard for me because my grandmother was a Residential School Survivor. She went to Norway House Indian Residential School. And that school is, in a lot of ways, an indicator of how many of these schools operated and the experiences of kids who attended these schools. There are a lot of stories that came from that school which we can extrapolate into the experience of children across Canada.

And I'm going to mention a couple of different aspects, or different events in the history of Norway House Residential School as an example of why it's important to learn about the history. And I think the first point I would make, and I'll repeat this in a little in a few minutes, is that we have to learn first as educators, as adults, as parents, we have to learn first if we want to make sure that our kids know what they need to know to do the work that they have to do.

In Norway House Residential School was a school where there was truancy. In the early 20th century there was a boy named Charlie Cline who ran away from the school because he had been beaten for wetting his bed and stealing clothing. The school conditions around that time were atrocious. The insulation in the school was very poor. They had 17 stoves burning at any one time to keep the building warm.

And we talk about Charlie stealing clothing, the likelihood is that if he did it was because he was cold. The building did burn down. It was a wonder that none of the kids who attended that school at that time lost their lives. When the school was rebuilt it had a capacity of about a hundred kids, and it was almost always over capacity. So, and that was, you know, due to funding. The more kids they had, the more funding the school received.

But in the middle of winter they would have girls in the dorm sleeping out on the balcony because the beds were all taken, and they had two girls to a bed. Nutrition was very poor; rotten food was being served to the kids. And one community, Berens River, very, you know, to me, at least in my own research, very famously kept their kids en masse from going to the school because of the conditions and because of how the kids were being treated.

And this is again, one example in one school, very briefly, of what happened in many of the schools across Canada. And, you know, for me I think about that within the context of my grandmother, but also, and how that could affect me as an intergenerational Survivor. And the truth is, is that I'll never know. I'll never know what my grandmother really went through because at the time, her story was a story that she was not able to tell.

No, there was not maybe the support, there was shame associated with experience, we also don't know that. But it's a lost history. And what I've tried to do in the work, and for my own life, and how I've been affected by the history, is to try to learn, try to understand, what she may have gone through, because that's how all have.

And that learning has allowed me to write and talk about the history, and that to me, again, is the first step. Before we educate anybody else, we need to educate ourselves so that, A) we can be articulate in the history, B) we can teach the history in a good way, in a productive way...it's not easy, and C) so we can answer hard questions, so we can have a dialogue.

One of the biggest mistakes that I've seen in education was out of Alberta where they were banning books from Indigenous authors, and some of those books were mine, and graphic novels about Residential School history, and one of the rationale of banning that book and keeping it out of classrooms is because it required pre- and post- conversation.

That's our job, and so I never understood that reasoning. So we need to be able to answer those hard questions and to have pre- and post- conversations. Kids are going to have very difficult questions for us. We need to be prepared for that. My nephew, Eli, when he was in elementary school, there was a very well-meaning teacher who attempted to teach Residential School history to, I believe it was grade four kids.

And at the end of school, my nephew went home and ran into his mother's arms and was crying and terrified because he thought that he was going to be taken away. So despite good intentions, that teacher was not prepared, and one of the things that we saw in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action was that we are now requiring teachers to teach this history to kindergarten all the way to grade 12.

And we haven't adequately, at least back then, and maybe still now, adequately supported and prepared teachers to do a very difficult job. And so, and because of that, there there is at times a fear of doing it wrong. There's a fear of doing it the wrong way, of making mistakes, and what I would say to that is it's a completely understandable fear. But we cannot let fear get in the way of progress.

We can't let fear get in the way of the work we have to do. And so what I want to do here is to give you permission to make mistakes, because what we have, what we need to be able to do, is to have a willingness, an understanding, to make those mistakes because this is new. You know, we look at it...really we've been doing this for the last six, seven years, at, you know, that's dating back to the Calls to Action. That's new.

You know, this history...we began in the 19th century. The first real Residential School, you know, opened in about the 1830s in Ontario. So that's a long history, and we've only been teaching it, you know, en masse to schools from K-12 for the last six, seven years. So it's new.

Because it's new, we're going to make mistakes. But in making those mistakes, we also have to understand that that's a part of the growth, that's the part of the journey that we're on. The longer we do this, the better we'll get at it. And to get better at it so that the kids can benefit from the work that we do, so they can in turn do the work that they have to do, then we have to be able to learn from the mistakes that we've made to get better at the work that we have to do.

And, the reality is, and I'm, again, one of the great privileges I have as a writer is I speak to tens of thousands of kids a year. And I see the work that's being done. And I have to tell you, from being in the school, from meeting kids, being in classrooms, speaking to assemblies, doing virtual presentations where there's like 5,000 kids watching — we're doing okay.

You know, and I feel like sometimes we don't give ourselves enough credit for the work that we've done, you know. One of the greatest indicators for me of that is that, you know, the knowledge that kids had ten years ago is not, you know, is completely different from what the knowledge that kids have today.

When I first started out, when I asked an assembly full of kids, you know, talk to me about Residential Schools...who here knows about Residential Schools? Very few hands would go up. If I do that today, every hand goes up, every time. So, that's, that is a huge victory and it is an important step on the path that we're walking towards reconciliation.

And, we are not only, I think, we have to keep in mind, preparing teachers, the teachers of tomorrow — and I really believe that all kids, everybody's a teacher — anything you say you're teaching somebody. So we're not only preparing teachers for tomorrow; we're preparing teachers for today, you know.

But, as well, different ages require different approaches. And so what I want to quickly go over is some of the different things that we could think about and incorporate when talking about this history to kids. And the first is acceptance of real history.

So, one of the things, one of the most important things we have to be able to do is, when we learn about this history, it is inevitable when we learn the history, that we know that this history was a history of genocide. And so, you know, that's something that we need to accept, and as much as, you know, the stats, experiences, the stories are important documents that speak to that reality, and we need to be able to accept that.

We need to think about the terminology and the vocabulary that we use, depending on the age of the child. So, for younger kids, the way that we talk about Residential Schools and the experiences that kids had at those schools is different than how we'll talk to high school students, you know, and so, what we're talking about there is age-appropriateness.

So, for a kindergartner, you know, we don't talk about, you know, "abused," for example. We would use vocabulary to meet them at their level. So we might say that teachers could be mean to the children, and that is appropriate vocabulary to use for a young child.

Again, for me, the outcome is never going to be fear; it is always going to be empathy. The focus for younger kids needs to be empathy through balance weighing the good against the bad. So if you look at a story like When We Were Alone, that picture book, if you read it, you'll know that it addresses the hard history, it talks about language loss, you know, having to wear a uniform, the cutting of hair, detachment from family.

But every single time it brings up something like that, it weighs those bad experiences with reclamation, and that is the good. So it's all all about balance and empathy. And approach teaching this history as we would teach any other subject, you know, and that's another important point. So we don't ignore any subject and then start teaching it in Middle Years or High School, you know, and for a long time we were doing that with Indian Residential School history.

We were starting to teach it in grade 8, we were starting to teach it in grade 10. And you don't do that with math, you know, so if you look at math, we don't start teaching a grade 10 kid calculus and ignore math for every single year before that, you know. What we do is we start with basic math, we start with, you know, one plus one is two.

I'm not a teacher, but maybe that's how you start math. But we start with that, and we build on it, and we get to the point where kids are ready to learn calculus, and make no mistake, learning about that history, Indian Residential School history, is complex. It is a hard history to teach, as much as it is a hard history.

And so, we have to lay that foundation. And that's what it is. It's the need to lay a solid foundation so we can build on that foundation. The best resources teachers have to lay that foundation and to build those walls are stories. And that's another very important point.

The own voices' stories — and I know that that term has gone out of fashion and that's okay. What we're talking about is stories lived experiences, so a Residential School Survivor writing about their experience at Residential Schools. An intergenerational Survivor of Residential School history writing about Residential School history: those are stories from the perspective of a lived experience. That's what I'm talking about.

If you don't know the history at this point, you do not want to know the history, because the stories are there. And one of the things and, again, this is one of the drawbacks of not using PowerPoint, but there is a very easy list to find on the internet.

I created a list a couple years ago for CBC that is a list of 48 books for all ages that teaches Residential School history. And so, that is just a a sampling of the many books that have been written that assist teachers and parents and to teach kids about that history. So the books are there, the stories are there.

And that's, I think that is one of the most powerful ways that we can learn is through stories. And I would say in school, in directive learning through, with the support of, stories. So, using books to support the difficult job that you have...hey, like that's why I'm here. That's why I write books. I started off writing books with expressed intent of writing books to support teachers to educate kids.

So, and that's why I started using graphic novels, because graphic novels are almost, you know, a perfect educational tool. And then finally, in terms of hard history within the context of the conversation that we've been having, you know, Indian Residential Schools, we also, when we talk about that, we cannot ignore the larger issue of colonialism, you know.

So when we, for me, and what I write about and what I'm concerned about in education, is not only the Indian Residential School history, which is vitally important, but as I've gone forward in my career, and as I've written more books and as I've done more work with teachers and done more work in schools, what I recognize is that this whole business of reconciliation, if that's the word you want to use...this whole business of reconciliation, it requires, it encompasses, learning beyond only solely Residential School history.

And so, and that is looking at the larger issue of colonialism and learning more about it and how, for example, systems have been put in place that create trauma by seeking to eliminate culture, identity, language, and community. And so, those systems are still in place today, and they have been in place for a long time.

So if you look at foster care, you know, that's why I wrote about foster care in The Barren Grounds and The Great Bear and The Stone Child. What we've been able to have...a conversation we've been able to have with kids, thousands of kids, is about foster care and how, for example, the foster care system in Canada, the representation of Indigenous youth is close to 60%, right?

And so the representation of Indigenous youth in Canada is under 10%. That representation is...is astronomical in foster care when you consider the amount of Indigenous children in Canada. And in some areas of this country, the representation foster care of Indigenous children is close to 100% and that's, you know, for example, in the area of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

So we need to learn about that too, and that is again a byproduct of colonialism. We need to talk about the justice system, we need to talk about the health care system, you know.

My aunt, for example, was someone, along with Sinclair, several years ago, that was left in the waiting room at Health Sciences Centre for a very long time. So long, that when she was eventually brought into care, it was too late, and she died. And if she had been brought in earlier, she would have survived. My aunt would still be alive today.

And what the determination was is that if she had been brought in early she would have lived but, you know, the hard fact is if she had been white, she would have been brought in, right. And so we need to learn about those things, too. And as well, education, access to adequate education on reserves, you know.

In reserves across Canada still, kids who want to get high school degrees, get post-secondary diplomas, they have to leave home. And we have to make sure that if they have to leave home, first of all the most important thing is that they are able to access education on reserve at home. But if they can't, that they have adequate supports in place so that if they do have to leave home, that they're doing it in a safe safe space, that they have access to community, culture, language, family, right.

And, or else we're looking at the same history repeating itself over and over again. I noticed the time so I just want to wrap up by saying that we are on a long journey, you know, and sometimes I feel like we maybe are a little impatient, that it takes a long time.

But the reality is, real change takes years. Real change takes a lot of time. You know, what my dad said and what the grandparents — and my dad used to call Elders grandparents — they say is that for as many years as we have been experiencing trauma, that is how long it will take to experience healing. And the reality is we, are still experiencing trauma, and so there's still a lot of work to do to heal from that trauma, you know.

We still have these systems in place that are creating trauma. And so, talking about history, maybe a bit of a misnomer, because it's not only history we're talking about here. It's contemporary issues that we're still dealing with. And Indian Residential School system is included in that, you know, when when the unmarked graves were being uncovered in Canada, just a couple years ago, that reopened wounds.

And that created new trauma, and so, that history is not actually history. As much as it's not only Indigenous history, it's Canadian history. And because of that, we all have an accountability and a responsibility to figure out what our roles are in order to walk this path and play a role on this journey towards reconciliation. We all have a part to play.

Teachers, more than anybody else, know what their roles are, and that work is very clearly defined, in my opinion. And I've met enough teachers to know that we are in very good hands, but we are in this together, and if we continue to walk, not run, on this path then I think that we'll see the change that we want to see.

I'll tell you...if I time it...to tell you a very quick little story... when you asked about anything that surprised me? So, we were going to the legislature in Winnipeg on Canada Day 2021. It was the the day where, you know, another, I think another couple schools had found unmarked graves.

The numbers kept climbing, and people were coming together at the legislature on Canada Day to honour the children, but also ask Canadians maybe to "cool it" on the fireworks for that year. And, on the way there, we had learned about a girl who was selling lemonade.

She was, I think, an eight- or nine-year-old girl, a non-Indigenous girl, and she was raising money to support Indian Residential School Survivors' families and in communities, and so we stopped by there on the way to the legislature to buy lemonade, and what we found first of all was that there was a huge lineup of people waiting to buy lemonade. Canadians are pretty great, by the way, like, the majority Canadians are pretty great. So, she had two signs there.

It was "pay what you want" and "all money's going to support Survivors," and there was a jar full of money. And so we bought very expensive lemonade, and we went to the legislature. The next day, her mom posted on Instagram a story about Willa, that was the girl's name, and what she had done. And she had raised over a thousand dollars to donate to the Indian Residential School Survivor Society.

And what her mother said about Willa was what I think encapsulates reconciliation, and that was: she had learned the history, it upset her by what had happened, and she decided that she needed to do something. That's action, right? And so if a nine-year-old white girl has the capacity to do something like that, then we all have the capacity to do something.

And I think that Willa has been a big inspiration for me in what she did, and I talk about her all the time, and the one question I asked people when I talk about that is to figure out what your lemonade stand can be, you know? And that is, I think, a good question to ask yourself and to find an answer for.