Learning about Residential Schools in the Elementary Classroom

In the 1800s, the Canadian government felt that Indigenous people were uncivilized.  In an effort to assimilate them into European/Canadian culture, children were taken from their homes and brought to residential boarding schools run by different religious groups.  Many children were harmed by being separated from their families, being forbidden to speak their languages, malnutrition, and abuse of all kinds.  The last residential school closed in 1996.  Today, many Indigenous communities are still suffering from this horrific legacy. 

If you are introducing your elementary students to the history of residential schools in Canada, these read-alouds are perfect starting points.
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Shi-shi-etko
Author: Nicola I. Campbell
Illustrator: Kim LaFave

Shi-shi-etko is a little girl counting down the days until she has to go to a residential school.  She spends those days with her father, mother, and grandmother who each share words of wisdom.  Shi-shi-etko soaks up her surroundings to store as memories for when she is away.  This story is more of a poetic account with very rich descriptive language.



Shin-Chi's Canoe
Author: Nicola I. Campbell
Illustrator: Kim LaFave

Shin-chi's Canoe is the sequel to Shi-shi-etko.  In this story, Shi-shi-etko returns to a residential school with her little brother Shin-chi.  She tells him to remember his surroundings just like she did.  At school, they have English names and cannot speak to each other.  Months of skimpy meals, chores, church, school, and loneliness have Shin-chi longing for home.  He spends his time at the river with his toy canoe, anxiously waiting for the salmon to return.  When the salmon return, it signals the start of spring and time to go home.


When I Was Eight
Authors: Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was Eight tells the story of Olemaun, an eight year old Inuit girl who in spite of her father's objections, wants to go to the "outsiders' school" so that she can learn to read like her older sister.  As soon as she arrives at the residential school, her hair was cut and she was given uncomfortable clothes.  Olemaun, her Inuit name, was changed to Margaret.  Instead of learning to read, she was given many chores and had to attend church.  After some time, she finally began her studies.  Not knowing how to speak English, she was ridiculed and punished for her misunderstandings.  Olemaun did her best not to break under the supervision of a cruel and harsh nun and in the end she learned to read!  The story is based on the experiences of one of the authors, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton.
 

Not My Girl
Authors: Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard

Not My Girl is the sequel to When I Was Eight.  In this follow-up, Olemaun returns home from her residential school and her mother declares, "Not my girl!"  Olemaun is now ten years old, her long hair was cut, and thin due to malnourishment and hard chores.  She learned a lot at school, had table manners, could say her prayers, and speak in both English and French.  But she could no longer speak her own language.  Her favourite foods were now unappetizing, she couldn't help around the house, and her best friend from school could not play with her anymore.  Olemaun feels like she isn't a part of the family and has to relearn her language and way of life.


When We Were Alone
Author: David A. Robertson
Illustrator: Julie Flett

In When We Were Alone, a little girl  notices things about her grandmother - her colourful clothes, long hair, how she speaks in Cree, and how she often spends time with her family.  Her grandmother explains how as a child in a residential school, many things were forbidden.  When they were alone, she and other children would try to keep their culture alive.  Now that she is older, she cherishes the customs that officials tried to erase.


Stolen Words
Author: Melanie Florence
Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard

In Stolen Words, a little girl asks her grandfather to say something in Cree, but he can't remember.  He says that he lost his words a long time ago; they were taken away.  He sadly recalls angry teachers that raised their voices and hands at the children.  Determined to help, the little girl gets an Introduction to Cree book to give him back the stolen words.


Bonus! I recently found a new story and wanted to add it to this post.


The Orange Shirt Story
Author: Phyllis Webstad
Illustrator: Brock Nicol

Phyllis Webstad shares her experiences in The Orange Shirt Story.  Phyllis couldn't wait to attend St. Joseph's Mission so that she could join her cousin and friends and hopefully make new friends.  Like many families, Phyllis went shopping for back to school clothes and picked out a bright orange shirt.  She happily wore her shirt on the first day of school and was devastated when her clothes were taken away.  She was given different clothes to wear and begged for orange shirt, to no avail.  Phyllis tried to make the most of her year at school, but felt lonely and homesick.  She went home that summer and never returned.  People across Canada now recognize Phyllis' story and honour residential school survivors on Orange Shirt Day, September 30.  Phyllis felt that she didn't matter, but we affirm that every child matters.


Residential schools are a sad reality of our nation's past, but their legacy have caused great harm to Indigenous communities.  Born and raised in Canada myself, I was unaware of this part of Canadian history.  I understand that it's a heavy and emotional topic and one that requires sensitivity; it cannot be ignored.  Educating our students, even younger ones is an important part of the truth and reconciliation process.


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