Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Give the Schools a Break

Jun 19, 2015

According to news reports this week, the provincial government here in BC is going to insist that schoolchildren as young as ten years old be taught about the Indian residential schools, along with other examples of historical injustice, such as the Chinese head tax and the internment of Japanese-Canadians. This in response to the recent report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"There are many things that have happened in the province of British Columbia," said cabinet minister John Rustad, "that people are not aware of." That may well be, but residential schools are not one of them. (Nor, for that matter, is the head tax and the internment.)

Canadians seem to think that our schools have failed utterly to educate our children about many of the injustices of the past. We seem to think that the schools are involved in conspiracy of silence to whitewash our historyBut this is simply not true, and I say this as someone who has authored or co-authored several social studies textbooks that have been used in classrooms for decades.

Take BC for example. The implication of Minister Rustad's remarks is that schools have been silent on the subject of the residential schools. But for the past 15 years the grade 5 social studies text has been a book called Connections Canada, authored by myself. This book contains lots of information about Aboriginal peoples, including a description of the residential schools and an excerpt from a book by a First Nations woman describing her experiences at a school. (The text also explains the head tax and discrimination against Asian immigrants.)

I don't claim any credit for being particularly progressive. Textbooks are written to conform to a provincial curriculum and for at least 15 years, probably longer, in BC that curriculum has required students in Grade 5 to learn about Aboriginal history in general and residential schools in particular. And BC is not unique. I have several texts on my shelves used in other provinces and they all include mention of past injustices.

I am sure that the new learning materials promised by the minister will treat the subject more comprehensively. But it is misleading to suggest that schools have been neglecting the subject.

I can understand Minister Rustad's position. His government wants to appear to be responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so it is easy politics to promise to do something that is already being done. But I do not understand why someone from the education system does not stand up and defend it against lazy journalists and opportunistic politicians.

Of course schools are not perfect and the teaching of these subjects can always be improved. But it is wrong to think they have not been taught at all. The issue is not that we haven't known about the residential schools. The issue is that we have known, and we don't know what to do with that knowledge.