What We Learned: Two Gen­er­a­tions Re­flect on Tsimshian Ed­u­ca­tion and the Day Schools

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dave Obee, a mem­ber of the board of Canada’s His­tory So­ci­ety and editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist in Victoria.

by He­len Rap­tis with mem­bers of the Tsimshian Na­tion UBC Press, 223 pages, $32.95

Too many sto­ries are still un­told; too many mem­o­ries have been lost to the ages; too many bi­ases have coloured our view of the past. That is why a book such as this one is a trea­sure, an over­due and cul­tur­ally aware look at a for­got­ten as­pect of the ed­u­ca­tion of In­dige­nous chil­dren in Bri­tish Columbia.

While the his­tory of res­i­den­tial schools has be­come well-known in re­cent years, those were not the only schools at­tended by First Na­tions chil­dren. Many at­tended “In­dian day schools” that had been set up in their own com­mu­ni­ties but were sep­a­rate from the pub­lic schools at­tended by nonIndige­nous chil­dren.

The day school fea­tured in What We Learned: Two Gen­er­a­tions Re­flect on Tsimshian Ed­u­ca­tion and the Day Schools was in Port Ess­ing­ton, on the Skeena River near Prince Ru­pert, Bri­tish Columbia. Stu­dents from Port Ess­ing­ton also at­tended pub­lic schools there and in Ter­race, as well as res­i­den­tial schools.

Au­thor He­len Rap­tis, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Fac­ulty of Ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Victoria, took great care to cre­ate a re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship with the for­mer stu­dents and to en­sure that their sto­ries are pre­sented with an ac­knowl­edge­ment of tra­di­tional Tsimshian ways of teach­ing. Her ac­count of that ef­fort could be a guide to fu­ture his­tor­i­cal ef­forts among In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

In this book, for­mer stu­dents Mil­dred Roberts, Wally Miller, Sam Lockerby, Verna Inkster, Clif­ford Bolton, Har­vey Wing, Char­lotte Guno, Don Roberts Ju­nior, Steve Roberts, Richard Roberts, Carol Sam, and Jim Roberts of­fer their per­spec­tives on ed­u­ca­tion.

The day school in Port Ess­ing­ton was closed in 1947, four years be­fore the fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially ended seg­re­gated school­ing in 1951. The num­ber of stu­dents at­tend­ing the non-In­dige­nous pub­lic school had dropped so low that it seemed point­less to have two schools. In the 1960s, two ma­jor fires meant most res­i­dents of Port Ess­ing­ton moved away, with many go­ing to Ter­race.

In Port Ess­ing­ton, stu­dents lived with their fam­i­lies within walk­ing dis­tance of school and were of­ten able to go home for lunch. That changed when they had to at­tend pub­lic schools, which were much less per­sonal.

There are also dif­fer­ences in the ex­pe­ri­ences of the stu­dents. The ear­lier gen­er­a­tion go­ing to day schools ex­pe­ri­enced more abuse in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem than the later one did, but the later gen­er­a­tion that went to pub­lic schools faced more dis­crim­i­na­tion. The ear­lier gen­er­a­tion was able to re­tain more of the Tsimshian cul­ture, lan­guage, and val­ues.

The for­mer stu­dents who worked with Rap­tis tell of good times, such as learn­ing skills they used for the rest of their lives, and of bad times, such as be­ing forced to speak English rather than their own lan­guages. It can be hard for an out­sider to un­der­stand what it must have been like for these stu­dents, who were ex­pected to con­form to un­fa­mil­iar rules and meet un­fa­mil­iar ex­pec­ta­tions, but this book makes it pos­si­ble to ap­pre­ci­ate what the chil­dren went through and the im­pact the ex­pe­ri­ence had on their lives.

Rap­tis lists all of the teach­ers who taught at the day school and in­cludes ba­sic bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion on some of them. Not sur­pris­ingly, it was dif­fi­cult to find and to re­tain qual­i­fied teach­ers for a rel­a­tively iso­lated school. Does that jus­tify the fact that a teacher who ad­mit­ted to sex­ual in­ter­fer­ence with three boys did not face crim­i­nal charges? No.

Of­fi­cial records usu­ally deal with ad­min­is­tra­tion and build­ings, not with peo­ple. What We Learned helps to close that gap and pro­motes a greater un­der­stand­ing of the im­pact of an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that was im­posed on In­dige­nous peo­ples.

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