This article has been amended since first posting, to clarify that there were 18 residential schools in B.C. not 28.
School communities across the North Shore are encouraged to wear orange tomorrow (June 2) to honour the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were found in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last week.
While the topic of residential schools is not new to the B.C. curriculum, more questions and discussions have arisen in classrooms after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation shared the tragic and heartbreaking news.
Schools across B.C., including those on the North Shore, have come together in solidarity, flying their flags at half-mast until further notice to honour the children who suffered unimaginable trauma and harm.
The movement to wear orange, encouraged by the BC Teachers’ Federation, is spreading across the province to raise awareness, help spark conversations, and to send the message that “Every Child Matters.”
To honour the children, North Vancouver School District’s Indigenous Education team also gathered outside the education services centre on May 31 for an intimate drum circle. One by one, 215 teddy bears were laid at the foot of NVSD’s Welcome Pole for the young lives lost.
215 Teddy Bears/Stuffies surround the Welcome Pole at @NVSD44 Board Office. Held ceremony to acknowledge the children from #KamloopsIndianResidentialSchool . TY to #NVSDIndigenous & community members for the support. #goforwardwithcourage pic.twitter.com/GSPmG3AsHu— Brad Baker (@bradleyrbaker) May 31, 2021
Hearing the news was “heart-wrenching” for Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education.
“It makes me emotional,” the Squamish Nation member said. “I wasn’t surprised to hear it but it’s still devastating and shocking.”
The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
There were 18 residential schools in B.C. It wasn't until 1984 that all residential schools in the province were closed down; the last one in Canada didn't close until 1996.
St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, which was located on the 500-block of West Keith Road in North Vancouver, was the only one in the Metro Vancouver area. It was run by the Catholic Church for 60 years until closing in 1959. The site is now home to St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary.
“It really wasn't a school,” said Baker, speaking of St. Paul’s. “They called it a school, but it wasn't a school. Residential schools were created to kill the Indian in the child and basically eliminate Indigenous peoples.”
As the son of a residential school survivor, Baker said he was in full support of the old St. Paul’s site and others being examined.
“Many of my Elders went to that school,” he said. “We know. We've heard stories that kids passed away at St. Paul's and were buried there. We've always known that as Squamish peoples and Indigenous peoples.”
For Baker, even driving past the old site gives him a bad feeling.
“All I know is when the new STA [St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary] was being built, every time I’d drive by the construction site it gave me a weird feeling,” he said.
“A very bad, weird feeling of what was going on there.”
Sensitive conversations to be had in North Vancouver classrooms
In his role with the school district, Baker is focused on helping people to understand Indigenous history and culture through education. At this time, he said it was important to start a dialogue about how to move forward together.
“I've been fortunate enough that knowledge has been passed down to me from Elders and mentors,” Baker said.
“Part of my work is to help the people of North Vancouver School District to understand the history we have here in North Vancouver with the local First Nations and the Indian residential school and to bring the real truth out to people, but then also to continue that dialogue of what it is and how will we move forward as a collective.”
He said students on the North Shore would be given the opportunity to voice their opinions, concerns and ask questions during class time. The NVSD Indigenous Education team will be guiding teachers through this important work.
The team has created a grade-appropriate resource guide that has been sent to teachers and staff to support them as they have thoughtful and sensitive conversations about this tragic event and the history of the residential school system.
To help support conversations in the classroom, Indigenous education team member and artist Ann Marchand created an Every Child Matters original piece of artwork for students to colour in to honour the children.
Baker also encouraged families to engage their children in conversations during this challenging time and to support them as they work through this. Support resources have also been made available to help parents and students.
"Part of our collective responsibility as Canadians is to gain a stronger understanding of the real truth of our country and that process has to start," he said.
He hoped everyone in the community would take the time to really listen to what they were hearing about residential schools.
“I think the big message would be to sit, to listen, to honour and respect the knowledge that you're hearing and receiving, and then to ask yourself: how am I going to change and how am I going to make Canada better?”
Support resources available:
- A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support former students and those affected. To access emotional and crisis referral services, call the 24-hour national crisis line at 1.866.925.4419.
- Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous specific crisis line, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1.800.588.8717.
- The school district also offers a Social Emotional Learning and Mental Health website for resources to support children, youth and families process stressful events.
-- with files from Canadian Press
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.