Edgehill Elementary School grade one students recently had the opportunity to ask questions about residential schools with their member of parliament.
After some study of residential schools throughout the school year, North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney met with the Edgehill students to respond to questions that students developed.
Edgehill grade one teacher April Dimond said Orange Shirt Day occurs in September and the class did some work around residential schools at that time.
“They had already learned a fair bit and we did work around it, talking about what it would have felt like,” added Dimond. “We tried to tap into the feeling of it. They thought about words regarding how they would feel in these buildings.
“We read some stories about different residential schools. One of them is Amik Loves School and it’s about Amik’s grandfather who had gone to residential school. It talks about his feelings.”
Dimond said words the children came up with were amazing, such as lonely, disappointed and sad. Students also associated words with their school, such as happy and joyful.
Dimond said with the discovery of students at an unmarked burial site in Kamloops recently, she wasn’t sure how to integrate it into the classroom, but she was certain the matter had come up in many students’ homes.
Students come up with queries
While the students were sitting in their class circle, Dimond brought the subject up and asked what questions the students had about residential schools. She jotted them down on chart paper and wasn’t sure what she was going to do with them. She told the students she didn’t think she was the right person to answer the questions.
She outlined that residential schools were started by the government and there were some churches involved.
“I said maybe we need to ask someone who maybe has a better idea,” said Dimond. “I said we need to talk to someone in the federal government.”
She introduced the idea of contacting Blaney.
“I said we are going to see if we can talk to her so of course the students were very excited by that,” said Dimond. “I was thinking we would likely Zoom with her if we had the opportunity because that’s what we’ve done for the last year.”
Dimond said she received a response from Blaney’s office indicating the MP would love to appear before the students. Blaney was coming to Powell River so Dimond was able to arrange it so Blaney could meet with the grade one students if a gathering was in the school’s outdoor nature classroom.
“Everything fell into place and [Blaney] was able to come, so we went out together on June 25,” said Diamond. “We went out to the nature classroom and we sang the Coast Salish anthem, which we always do in the nature classroom. It was our welcome song to her.”
Dimond said the session was amazing because while she thought she was inviting a federal representative, Blaney brought a very personal element because she has a personal connection to residential schools. Blaney’s grandmother and husband attended residential schools.
“She spoke from her heart and her experience, which was just fantastic, because especially for the kids, it brought storytelling; that’s what engages the kids.” said Dimond. “She told us stories about her granny and stories of growing up. She explained where she is from. She has personal connections to residential school because it’s in her family. It was absolutely fantastic. She was honest and truthful.
“This was such a wonderful opportunity and something I didn’t expect to happen. For 45 minutes, the class sat in a circle and just listened to her.”
Dimond said each student had their question written out, so each student was able to ask a question of Blaney. She said the questions were read the way they were spoken to her when she used the chart paper – she did not edit the questions. She said students asked questions such as why residential school students didn’t have enough food, or why did some students die.
“They were honest questions and they wanted to know these things,” said Dimond. “They were fair questions and [Blaney] answered them honestly. She didn’t skirt the issues. It went really well and I think the kids got a lot out of it.”
MP responds in person
Blaney said she was grateful to attend in the outdoor class space so it was safe for everyone.
“I was moved by all of these amazing young people,” said Blaney. “They had written all of the questions themselves. The kids had done all of their own preparation and they had some really meaningful questions. I want to give a lot of respect to those kids. So many young people are trying to wrap their heads around residential schools. It was beautiful to see their curiosity, their sadness, and their openness to having this really hard conversation.
“The questions were really hard. I was being asked questions about why the residential school students’ hair was all cut off, or why they weren’t fed properly, or why they were taken away from their families. Those are hard things to talk about.”
Blaney said she tried to respond in a way to make some sort of sense about the history of the country.
“It was hard to look at those beautiful faces and think of all the beautiful faces in the past that were not nurtured in the way that all of these beautiful children were, and to try to figure out how to make space for all of us,” said Blaney.
She said the residential school system was targeting a sense of culture and connections to family and heritage. She added that those Indigenous children lost their pride and were told who they were wasn’t okay.
“If they spoke their language or sang their songs they were reprimanded, and in some cases, physically harmed because they were doing that,” said Blaney.
She said today, Indigenous children have an awful feeling when hearing about residential schools and become afraid they will be taken from their families.
“We all have to be strong around them,” said Blaney, “to let them know it’s not going to happen.”