Students and teachers in many school districts were encouraged to wear orange shirts this week as a way to acknowledge the atrocities that happened in residential schools. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

How to talk to children about residential schools

Educators share teaching resources from the classroom to assist speaking with children In the aftermath of a tragic discovery in Kamloops

This article contains content about residential schools that may be triggering. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.

In the aftermath of the shocking news of 215 children’s bodies being discovered in a mass burial site at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, IndigiNews spoke with educators to gather resources on how to engage with children and youth.

“Having conversations about the deaths of children at residential school with our young children is definitely not easy,” says Katie Lonsdale, a Grade One and Two educator at Qwam Qwum Stuwixwulh School on unceded Snuneymuxw territory. 

Qwam Qwum is is co-governed and operated between the Snuneymuxw First Nation and Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools

In Lonsdale’s classroom, which includes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, they have been introduced to Indian Residential Schools through the books Phyllis’s Orange Shirt by Phyllis Webstad and When We Were Alone by David A. Robinson and Julie Flett. 

Phyllis’s Orange Shirt stories the experience of Phyllis Webstad, who at six years-old, arrived excited for her first day of school in an orange shirt. The school was the St. Joseph Mission (‘the Mission’) residential school, and she was immediately stripped of her orange shirt. Webstad is now the executive director of the Orange Shirt Society.

Lonsdale’s class also participates in Orange Shirt Day, which is inspired by Webstad’s experience at residential school at St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake.

The Orange Shirt Day Society also has a teacher resource section to guide educators on readings and teachings in the classroom. 

Anishinaabe educator Claire Shannon-Akiwenzie, who currently teaches grade six, suggested the picture books Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell. Shannon-Akiwenzie also suggested I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and When I Was Eight by Gabrielle Grimard.

Shannon-Akiwenzie, who is also a facilitator with the B.C Teachers’ Federation, suggests supporting Indigenous publishing companies when purchasing books.

Shannon-Akiwenzie, who is a graduate of the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP) at the University of British Columbia, also suggests the teacher resources Gladys We Never Knew  and Project of the Heart.

“You might want to also consider buying resources from Indigenous publishing companies and bookstores like Strong Nations, GoodMinds, Theytus Books, Kegedonce Press, Massy Books and Iron Dog Books,” she says. 

Shannon-Akiwenzie also points to the First Nations Education Steering Committee and their resources for speaking with children about residential schools

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a tool for educators on age appropriate books to read in class. A Stranger At Home: A True Story and Fatty Legs: A True Story, both by Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, are suggested as resources. 

IndigiNews also reached out to the B.C. Ministry of Education to ask how they will be supporting educators following the recent news, but did not receive a response in time for publication of this story.