The voice of youth

By Emily Benham and Julian Heidt
October 25, 2013

Speech made by Emily Benham

Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel up North to a Cree reservation in Mistissini, Quebec (near Chibougamau). I travelled with 11 other women from different parts of the world, and we worked through a session of activities with some of the local Cree women. Going to the TRC and hearing about the residential schools helped me to look at the women I had met differently. In Mistissini, I got to hear a lot about the hardships they have to go through as women, and the obstacles they face on a daily basis. One of the ladies who spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing was originally from Mistissini, but now living in Vancouver at the time. Just the fact that she had been born and raised in Mistissini brought it “closer to home” for me. I think that was the biggest eye-opener because I actually met some women and got to know them personally. Hearing about how their childhoods were affected was such a powerful feeling and it helped me to understand them a little bit better.

Part of the history curriculum is learning about The First Peoples and their culture, so students have been briefly touching on the subject since before they can remember. However, we never get into the details of it.

The TRC was set up in a way that you were impacted, right away. The Blanket Exercise was set up to show us what it was like for the Aboriginal people to lose their homes. Personally, I can’t even imagine how I would feel if my home was taken away from me, let alone huge communities of people being moved. It was great to hear from people who had parents or grandparents who attended residential schools, because it showed the ripple effects of the schools. Family dynamics were completely changed because of something our government decided was “for the best”. It’s heart-breaking to hear about how someone’s entire life was thrown off the rails. The residential schools and the things that happened inside of them were cruel acts of injustice and we aren’t even able to fully learn about them in school. How are students supposed to understand something they have never been taught properly?

Any history teacher will tell students that they teach about the Holocaust because they want future generations to be educated about the wrong-doings that happened and that they should never be repeated. What the Canadian government did to the Aboriginal people was an act of mass cultural genocide, and most students don’t even know it. How will we ever learn the difference between right and wrong if we aren’t being taught about the wrong-doings of our grandparents’ generation?

For whatever reason we, as students, are not being taught about residential school, you have to ask yourself – is it because the government still doesn’t think what they did was wrong?

 More than anything else, we have to be educated about residential schools, otherwise we will never understand. We will never be given an opportunity to feel sorry for what happened. Remorse will never be able to take away the pain of what has happened, but it is the start in rebuilding the bonds between the Aboriginal people and the non-Aboriginal people.

Something that I personally want to see happen is for History textbooks to speak more about what happened in residential schools and what it was like for the Aboriginal people. Residential schools are important to learn about because it is a part of our Canadian history. We cannot let students sit in the dark and pretend it never happened. The Indian Act of 1876 promised the Aboriginal people so many things and few of those things have been carried out. The Aboriginal culture is part of our Canadian culture and that is why it should be taught in schools.

I also think that writing letters to the government is a step in the right direction for students to take a stand against what they think is wrong. But why stop there. An exchange program would be so great because it would give Aboriginal students and non-Aboriginal students a chance to see how we are the same, and how we are different.

Our government needs to begin spending more time trying to educate our fellow Canadians.


Speech made by Julian Heidt

Today, I'll be talking about my experiences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held April 24, 2013, here at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, and as well as what I personally feel and believe in no particular order, so please bear with me.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held a very powerful and memorable impact on me. It strongly demonstrated that power to me through videos, pictures, and truly emotional and brave speakers. It taught us First Nations history and European intervention upon Turtle Island through activities that involved the participants to hold a First Nations perspective which further developed my understanding of this dark moment in Canadian history.

I saw family members crying; I saw speakers crying. Crying is the effect of sadness. Sadness, an emotion we all know far too well, is present when issues have not been properly resolved. When the sadness of the past cannot remain as actions of the past, it's because things still need to change to be able to move forward. I saw a strong community that held a powerful unison, in order to simply achieve one thing. Fairness.

The Commission helped to educate us further about residential schools. Something in which the provincial/territorial governments to this day have still has not included in school textbooks. The Indian Act was made in 1876 and the last federally operated residential school was closed in 1996. That's 137 years of oppression -- a torture I could not even begin to explain. Those Aboriginals who wished to have a say in our democratic society had to relinquish their culture and beliefs. Aboriginals who were educated, including doctors and lawyers, were stripped of their status as Aboriginals to prevent them from opposing this Act. To this day, Aboriginal discrimination remains. Only 8 percent of Aboriginal peoples aged 25 to 64 in Canada hold a university degree while 23 percent of non-Aboriginals of the same age group have one.

“Federal funding to support Aboriginal students attending a post secondary institution has increased at only two percent a year since 1996 while tuition has increased at an average of 4.4 percent a year since 1998.” (Source: Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada)

July 8, Mme Françoise Ducros, Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs stated that the provincial and territorial systems are slowly changing. Then why, I ask, does she propose a First Nations Education Act as a federal bill?

“Roughly 75 percent of Inuit children in Canada — including those in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, northern Labrador and northern Quebec — do not complete high school.” (Source: The National Strategy on Inuit Education report submitted at Parliament (June 16, 2011)

And many Aboriginals who do graduate from high school, do not graduate at the same caliber in comparison to non-Aboriginals. The federal government needs to restructure its financial support for Aboriginal education, so that the First Peoples may be able to achieve their fullest potential.

The clashes of jurisdiction need to stop. We're not here to play ‘point and blame’. We're here to improve the educational system for the First Peoples as well as for ourselves, students and teachers. The federal government needs to take a step forward, not a step to the side. Joint participation and the will to move forward are necessary.

Serious challenges facing Aboriginal Education include: teacher training, recruitment and retention, the development of cultural curriculum, language instruction, and necessary funding and resources. These are important key issues regarding the development of future successful students.

On July 8, Mr. Clément Chartier from the Métis National Council spoke about how education about their culture is required to give students a sense of pride and protect their cultural identity. I say that we should not limit ourselves to solely the Métis and Inuit. History holds an important significance to all. High school curriculum should teach us about residential schools and First Nations culture to broaden our knowledge so that students do not remain ignorant to First Peoples, to our history and to the better development of our future.

When I told my friends about my experiences at the TRC, one of them said: “It's a waste of time and poorly organized.” Another friend, who heard our previous discussion said “Stop crying about it. You're not even Aboriginal.” Yes, while that's true, that I'm not Aboriginal, Aboriginals are Canadian and so am I. Ethnicity should hold no relevance to how I feel over this issue. The problem in our society is that it may be difficult for a minority to represent itself, so we have to support the Aboriginal community, which in the end will demonstrate true Canadian history and unity.

Education holds the greatest role in building a person's individuality, sense of morals, and understanding about what's happening around us. It's the center part, which allows us to go further beyond normal capacity. It's a place that touches contemporary and past issues; a place that regardless of what you decide to go into, vocational, educational, continuing education, regardless of all of that, schools develop what I can only simply call “Spirit”. That sense of development that comes from friends, those special teachers, their classes, and their lessons. None should be deprived of this entitlement. We all know that, the power of a group, the power of a community, and the power of a common goal, has led to this day, to this conference. It should be a reminder of those achievements, how far First Peoples have come, and how much further they will go.

Thank you for your time.

Emily Benham is a recent graduate from Westwood Senior High School in Hudson, Québec. Julian Heidt is a 17-year-old graduating student of Westwood High School Senior, Quebec.

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