This past spring teacher Cyndi Lauze decided she wasn’t afraid to guide her students on a complex journey through Canadian history, challenging them with the “big questions” that children of settlers are rarely required to consider. Cyndi — from Saskatoon’s Silver Spring School– shares her reflections below. Reading them, imagine you are one of her students: would her unit on the Treaties encourage students to question the privilege settlers take for granted?
I teach in a school in a neighbourhood that is middle to upper-middle class. Children in this neighbourhood are quite privileged with families that have been in Saskatchewan many generations. We embarked on this project in conjunction with our inquiry into Treaties. In January, I began a social studies treaty unit by asking my students to write down some questions they had about First Nations people. When I looked at their questions, I saw a theme running through them: Why are First Nations people associated in students’ minds with social problems? I decided we’d do a social studies inquiry initiated by the general question: “How has cultural genocide affected First Nations people?” I informed parents ahead of time about this overarching inquiry question. Their responses were useful, pointing out the challenges the question posed for their child. I had faith in my students’ abilities to meet these challenges.
This rather vague question was broken down into several appropriate topics (the Indian Act, residential schools, poverty, genocide, and cultural genocide) so students could select their own path with which to investigate their inquiry question. For example, one student selected treaties, the Indian Act, and poverty to come up with some answers; while another student chose treaties, residential schools, and cultural genocide. Their autonomy ensured the inquiry would be personally relevant. All students investigated treaties (What are they? Why do we have them? How did they come about?) because treaties can be connected to cultural genocide through residential schools which caused many of the social problems students identified in their initial questions about First Nations people. The last part of their inquiry required them to think about these questions and tie them in with what they had discovered in their inquiry. It was during this phase that one student in my class self- identified as having a First Nations ancestry. On a different occasion, another student mentioned her Métis background during a class discussion.
Many students came to recognize that residential schools were tools for cultural genocide. And when you rob a culture of its identity, the results are all the social problems students asked about in the first place. Students became aware that we non-Indigenous treaty people have benefited from the treaties, but not the Indigenous treaty people. A turning point for healing and reconciliation hit home when students watched a video of the public apology over residential schools offered in parliament by our Prime Minister.
Students prepared a short presentation of their inquiry results for the class, using any type of format they wished (e.g., a painting, an interview style, etc.). For his research, one non-Indigenous student interviewed a First Nations lady his family knew. During the interview, she explained why she smudged and what it meant to her people. She taught him her people’s protocols for smudging and gave him a little “smudging kit.” I had a student who talked to people on the street about cultural genocide and residential schools. The presentations were creative, informative, and reflected a real sense of engagement in this topic.
We held a windup talking circle to share what we learned from our inquiries and the Project of the Heart and how to move towards a resolution over some big questions, such as, “How has cultural genocide affected First Nations people? Or has it? Or is it genocide? If not, what is it?” We came to the conclusion that cultural genocide has affected First Nations people and that many of the social issues suffered by First Nations people today have been a result of residential schools. Painting the tiles was a concrete way to acknowledge the suffering of children who attended residential schools. As a social action project, we wrote letters to Mr. Harper encouraging him to improve education on reserves by funding students at the same rate that students who are not on reserves are funded.
Project of Heart wants to thank Cyndi for her and her students’ efforts to learn more about the negative side of Canada’s history. Through efforts like Cyndi’s, settler students are learning to take their Treaty responsibilities seriously (letters to the Prime Minister to make education on reserves a priority). Congratulations Silverspring School!