Creating Schools: Part II

“To deny the past and to refuse to recognize its implications, is to distort the present; to distort the present is to take risks with the future that are blatantly irresponsible.” — Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (1971)


Birtle Indian Residential School, 1908 via

The previous post related to public education focused primarily on the historical development of schooling in Canada from the perspective of inclusion. The argument made was that over the past 400 years, schools in Canada (or the various settler colonies that have existed since Champlain) have slowly become more inclusive and have focused their purpose to something beyond creating Jesuit priests.

But this inclusive evolution, which saw the development of public schools following the Act of Union and further organization with the anointing of responsibility of schools to the provinces through Confederation, meant something very different for indigenous children. School for Indigenous children was used as a weapon — a weapon of apartheid and genocide that historian and educator Brian Titley described in 1986 as “The destruction of the children’s link to their ancestral culture and their asimilation into the dominat society…” (p. 75).

Through Mission Schools, Day Schools, Industrial Schools, Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, Indigenous children have been targeted by Canada and Canadians through education — a tool that political scientist Karen Murray describes as “a vector of violence to control Indigenous peoples and their lands.” (2017, p. 747). Simply put, education, from the establishment of Mission schools in Red River (Think St. John’s of SJR in Winnipeg) to the closure of Gordon Indian Residential School 1996 (Edmond, 2016), schools and education were an intentional mechanism to remove Indnigemous people from the land and Canadian society based on what historian Sean Carelton refers to as “settler anxiety” (2017, p. 57). 

Carelton’s assertions is that settler anxiety is at its foundation the root cause for residential schools and state-wide control (p. 58). Early Mission schools on Vancouver Island at the mid 19th century saw schools as a means for moral education and to pacify hostile indgenous groups.  With the collapse of the relationship created by the Royal Proclamation through Confederation and the Indian Act, schooling of indiegnous children became the purview of the federal government and it used this weapon as a means to remove children from land to make way for settlers, to crush the spirit of any resistance, and relegate entire peoples to the margins of history.

University of Saskatchewan scholar Marie Battiste expertly expresses what this anxiety has meant to Indiegnous people in Canada. Her book Decolonizing Education serves as an antidote to those in society who ask Indigenous people in Canada to simply “get over it.” She invites Canadians to imagine:

Consider that for more than a century, Indinegous students have been part of a forced assimilation plan — their heritage and knowledge rejected and suppressed, and ignored by the education system. Imagine the consequence of a powerful ideology that positions one group as superior and gives away First Nations peoples’ lands and resources and invites churches and other administrative agents to inhabit their homeland , while negating their very existence and finally removing them from the Canadian landscape to the lands no one wants. Imagine how uncertain a person is whose success is only achieved by a complete makeover of themselves, by their need to learn English and the polished rules and habits that go with that identify. They are thrust into a society that does not want them to show too much success or too much Indian identity, losing their connections to their land, family, and community when they have to move away as there is no work in their homeland. Assimilation. (p. 23).

And further to this, historian John Milloy, in his groundbreaking history, A National Crime, reveals through state and church records the sinister methods by which these acts of assimilation were carried out: “…the system’s history is marked by the persistent neglect and abuse of children and through them of Aboriginal communities in general.” (p. xxxvii). Canada and the Department of Indian Affairs, according to Milloy, created a “fiction of care” that would destroy the way of life of generations of Indigenous people 

This thought exercise is paramount to making sense of the relationship Canada has with Indigenous people and how this is manifested in Canadian schools today. Since, Nicholas Davin’s report in 1879, which saw him chronicle the achievement of American industrial schools, we have been on a quest to develop a system of schooling that would civilize Indiegnous youth and move them aside in the name of progress. The initial Industrial schools of the late 19th century, located in Battleford, Qu’Appelle, and High River, were disasters in all sense of the word. (Titley, 1986). Not only were the economics ill conceived, but attendance was not mandatory and the Department of Indian Affairs became frustrated.

By the early 20th century, however, and the appointment of Duncan Campbell Scott as Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Residential Schools were clearly a vehicle for apartheid. In 1920, Scott had the Indian Act amended so as to force all Indian Children from ages five to 17  to attend residential school — a marked change in the intentionality of the Canadian government and partner churches.

Famously, Scott would utter the following vitriolic words that now haunt the legacy and the present colonial experience:

…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this bill. (Haig-Brown, 2013, p. 31).

And the implications of our collective experience, that is our history Indiegnous and Settler, manifests itself in schools, education, and the rearing of children in 2019. Canada is still experimenting with providing Indigenus children with different parents, many school divisions relegate “difficult children to off-campus programs, and we still manage to alienate many of our learners by secondary school.

And when we speak of achievement, higher expectations, and improved results, we need to imagine the possibilities of a public school system that is inclusive and committed to reconciliation. That is an environment where learners feel that they belong, where their language is heard and sene. Where their teachers look like them. And where their experience, culture and heritage is honoured and see as a strength. It is through this sense of belonging, as Martin Brokenhead (2002) argues, belonging is the first step towards a learner developing independence, mastery, and generosity — all quadrants of the Circle of Courage. The cultural and generational genocide that was committed through schooling for Indigenous children stares us in the face as educators. If we truly want all learners to have the means to a decent life, schools need to focus on allowing all learners the space to develop that sense of belonging that many settlers take for granted. When learners feel that they are part of a community and able to contribute to it, the learning natural follows.

Publics schools in Canada have a long way to go to not only ease the anxiety of settlers who fear that somehow the school experience is worse than when they were in school, but also to ensure that Indigenous children and families feel that they belong. In 2019, educators are doing outstanding work in this manner: indigenizing their classrooms, welcoming elders in their learning communities, and making the language visible. Schools are teaching Ojibwae, national anthems can be heard in Cree, and more and more teachers identify as Indigenous. But this type of learning, the learning required to make amends for the damage of 150 years of genocide, will not magically reveal itself in tests scores. Rather, our success will manifest itself in the wellbeing and well-becoming of our learners and communities. 

We will know that we have made gains when all learners feel that they belong in our schools.  



Ansloos, J. (2017). The medicine of peace: Indigenous youth decolonizing healing and resisting violence. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit. Saskatoon: Purich

Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, In.: Solution Tree.

Carleton, S. (2017). Settler Anxiety and State Support for Missionary Schooling in Colonial British Columbia, 1849–1871.Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’éducation 29,  57–76. 

Edmond, J. (2016). Indian residential schools — A chronology. Law Now, Vol 40 (4).

Haig-Brown, C. (2013). Resistance and renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. (1971). Wahbung: Our tomorrows. Retrieved on October 24th, from:

Milloy, J.S. (2017) with a forward by Mary Jane Logan McCallum, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School, 2nd edition. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press. 

Murray, K. (2017). The violence within: Canadian modern statehood and the pan-territorial residential school system ideal. Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol 50, No. 3, pp 747-772.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Titley, E. B. (1986). A narrow vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the administration of Indian affairs in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.


The Secret Path

As many Canadians did on Sunday, October 23rd, I sat down and watched The Secret Path — a film telling the story of Chanie Wenjak, a young Ojibway boy who died at the age of nine fleeing from an Indian Residential School. As a white settler, with all my privilege and colonial baggage, unpacking this experience has been painful, confusing, and without resolution.

The following day, my kids and I travelled to our local bookstore to pick up a copy of the graphic novel version of The Secret Path and Joseph Boyden’s Wenjak, the novella which inspired The Secret Path project. Immediately, my children had critical questions about the Residential School experience which surfaced their tremendous ability to empathize. My youngest was devastated by Chanie Wenjak’s story, and forced me to pause and think as to how his story might heal deep wounds.

Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip who is dying of brain cancer, and artist Jeff Lemire, the creators of the soundtrack and graphic novel, have been knocked about this week for representing a story that isn’t theirs to tell, and for perpetuating a sort of neo-colonialism. In a conversation I had with an elder, there is a hesitation to fully accept Downie’s historical interpretation. I think I get this.

While I understand the critique, I struggle to see how The Secret Path can’t be a small piece in the puzzle toward reconciliation — at least in Winnipeg, Red River, and on Treaty One land.

Winnipeg’s history is a microcosm for the destruction of a treaty relationship, one initiated by Chief Peguis in 1817 when he made treaty with Lord Selkirk. Peguis’ understanding of treaty was one of intense relationship where we are all relations. Selkirk and the HBC, however, saw treaty as a transaction — a ceding of territory. A few decades later, Canada came rolling into Red River with liberalism and progress on its mind. Indians had to be pushed to the side to make way for rail. Residential Schools served as a powerful mechanism for removing people from the land.

While many tried to resist, notably in 1869, First Nations and Métis alike were pushed to the side and the former were incarcerated on reserve. The same railways, by the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, created a profound division within the city, creating a genuine divide between rich and poor. Now in 2016, these same rails and urban sprawl drive a wedge between those who control resources and those who had them taken away.

I am a white settler, but I am also a treaty person. I take seriously my relationship and responsibility with all people on Treaty One land. Treaty is, as Niigaan Sinclair would say, a covenant– it is spiritual.

With this in mind, Winnipeg’s diversity and how we have traditionally controlled it, need to be critically analyzed in these days of reconciliation.  A development tax, as Mayor Bowman has proposed, is a step toward reconciliation, calling into question the ghetto-ization of poor people in our city. The removal of the CPR line which divides our city and arguably draws a line in the sand between rich and poor, is one step closer to reconciliation.

The Secret Path and Wenjak, and their potential impact in schools and on Winnipeg itself, are tremendous efforts on the part of people who take reconciliation seriously. The history of Residential Schools should be traumatic for all Winnipeggers and Canadians, and we must provide space for indigenous and non-indigenous people to make sense of this history.

Reconciliation is about recognizing privilege, for those of us who won the lottery of birth, and taking meaningful steps to bring peoples together. Downie and Lemire have made an attempt to do this, fully acknowledging their privilege, in an attempt to bring this country together to some degree.

History, as  historian Desmond Morton suggests, is the shared human experience. The Secret Path is a challenge to all of us to honestly break down the barriers of privilege and to speak openly about how we can share our experiences and move on together. Chanie Wenjak’s sister Pearl and Gord Downie, at the end of The Secret Path, offer a powerful glimpse of what reconciliation might look like.

As a leader at a Big Picture Learning school, I am convinced that our responsibility is to nurture Peguis’ understanding of treaty within our learning community and beyond. Our school community has a complexity and diversity that I believe is our strength. Our indigenous learners should feel that their school is safe, fosters their passion, and honours their experience. As a leader and adult at this school, our first step towards reconciliation is to allow the stories of our learners to be heard and to fully welcome their families into this idea of education. Met schools, I believe, are uniquely designed to fully and democratically unpack the inequitable learning conditions of the past and to create opportunities to mend wounds and deepen critical relationships.

The Maples Met School will be screening The Secret Path on Monday, November 21st.

Romance of the Far Fur Country: Reconciliation?


Photo from

Over the past few months, we have really explored and researched the HBC, as it this corporation seems to be pretty significant in the development of Canada, for better or for worse.

Prior to the break, we watched Kevin Nikkel‘s Romance of the Far Fur Country, an HBC film from 1919, which demonstrated the impact of the HBC from a certain perspective. To refresh ourselves, here is a small clip:

Today, we are going to watch On the Trail of the Far Fur Country, a documentary featuring Kevin taking the film to the different communities originally visited in 1919. As we watch it, can you identify any themes of reconciliation? Despite the negative impact of the HBC in some communities, does this documentary offer a glimmer of hope in terms of repairing the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada? Why or why not?

Please respond below and please use your Extraordinary Canadians name when you comment.