News from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
C harlene Bearhead has spent her career as an educator sharing the truth of Canada’s residential school system and its devastating impact on generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Now the education coordinator for the National Inquiry of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, Bearhead shares her thoughts on why it’s more important than ever for Canadians to engage with the reconciliation process.
On residential schools and loss
There’s a line in the 1986 United Church apology that always resonates with me. It says, “We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer.” Truth and reconciliation is also about acknowledging the fact that every person in this country is worse off because of that interference with Indigenous knowledge — the very knowledge that kept this land well and vital and the water drinkable and the air clean for thousands of years before contact. We wouldn’t be in the state we’re in with our environment in this country if it hadn’t been for that interference.
On residential schools in curricula
Every province and territory is working on that at one level or another. In Alberta, for example, it’s currently being built into the professional practices standards for every teacher, superintendent and school board trustee, and it’s also mandatory in the curriculum. The residential school experience is just one part of the history of colonization, so it’s critically important that we also teach First Nations, Métis and Inuit history. People look to the territories as the leaders in this because they were the first to develop mandatory northern studies courses for high school students.
On teaching about residential schools
In my view, it’s the most foundational injustice that’s happened in what we now call Canada. There have been many injustices, but what could be more foundationally unjust than the taking and holding of children as a means of controlling their parents, as a means of land acquisition?
On barriers to reconciliation
There are many layers to reconciliation, and one is the nation-to-nation relationship. If we look within the treaties, the only entity that Canada can actually have a relationship with is an individual First Nation, so reconciliation means working to ensure equity in funding and the return of the ability for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to govern their own lives.
On education as the key to reconciliation
To me everything goes back to education, because that’s the one common experience that all Canadians have. No matter what your cultural background, everybody has to go to school. So if we do it right and we do it in a respectful way, it’s the best opportunity we have to provide every child with the truth and the chance to consider what makes a just society.
Charlene Bearhead is one of Canada’s top Indigenous educators.