Monday, April 18, 2016

Teaching with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Most professional learning events don't start with acknowledgements and end with tears. The one my staff had on Friday, April 15, 2016 did. It was "The Blanket Exercise" and it gave the participants a different viewpoint for examining issues relating to the aboriginal people of Canada.

Two of our teachers, Siobhan Alexander and Farah Wadia, were taught how to run this intensive and important workshop. It began, like all ETFO events do, with a nod toward the original inhabitants of the land our school rests. I understand, as this blogger points out, that the gesture does not repair any damage that was done, but the gesture was significant enough of a step that some of our staff members suggested that we should include it as a way to begin our monthly character assemblies. (Please add to the comments if you find a link to a resource that provides the names of tribes that originally inhabited the area your school sits.)

Teachers wept when they read and heard about how children were ripped from their loving homes and warehoused in residential schools where many were abused. This wasn't new knowledge for some, but the way it was shared invoked some strong feelings. What I appreciated (although it makes less of an emotional punch) was that the workshop did not begin with the tragedy, but started with triumph. Dr. Nicole West-Burns at the TDSB Beginning Teachers and Mentors Conference last month, said that we should not begin with tales of oppression when trying to "teach equity". (I'm grateful to Brimwood Boulevard teacher Abhi Arulanantham for capturing this visual from that conference and posting it on Twitter and I can re-share it here.)

The same is true for aboriginal education. As tempting as it is to immediately address the injustices perpetrated, it is important to demonstrate that pre-Columbus (and indeed, even pre-Confederation) North America was a busy, bustling place with many cooperating cultures present.

At the end of the exercise, we had a "talking circle" where participants shared their feelings and reactions. I expressed my disappointment in being part of an institution (education) that is meant to enrich the lives of young people but, in the case of residential schools, meant to destroy instead. The impact is still being felt, with the mass suicide attempts in Attawapiskat and the inclusion of the Metis under federal assistance.

I also set myself a goal: I will read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's reports (which can be found by clicking this link).  I'm posting it here as a way to be accountable. It will not be easy to read. I remember studying the Holocaust in Grade 9 and being quite devastated at what I learned about the potential humanity has for evil. (We had to do a novel study from a list of recommended titles - I knew I couldn't handle Night so I chose Alan and Naomi but I still cried for days after reading it.) I vowed to get involved in Wab Kinew's #CraftReconciliation project - I still have to contact the school I wanted to connect with, and we may not meet the original challenge's deadline, but maybe that's not as important. It took generations to commit the wrongs - it will take generations to make things right. Baby steps for me will also include promoting the various materials our school library has to help with positive teaching. (I'll try and remember to take a photo of our display and some of our books, bought from the great Goodminds Resources.)


  1. Love this thoughtful post. Our two indigenous support teachers have been working all year to put together a blanket exercise together. Looking forward to participating. I believe the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg leads a blanket exercise as part of one of their various programs.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I am pleased that you were so moved by the Blanket Exercise. It's been a long time coming, for sure. SA