Perspectives

BC teachers embrace Project of Heart

By Nancy Knickerbocker
June 20, 2016

Gladys Chapman was 12 years old on April 29, 1931, when she died in Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, British Columbia. On her death certificate, Dr. M.G. Archibald reported “acute dilation of heart” and tuberculosis as the causes of death. The duration of death was “several days.” Little Gladys suffered and died all alone, far from home, with no one to comfort her.

Tragically, she was only one of thousands of children whose deaths in residential schools are lamented in the landmark report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, a report that describes our country’s treatment of Indigenous people as “cultural genocide.”

Now, thanks to the courage of survivors, the truth is being told in classrooms and communities across the land. The injustices are finally coming to light, and denial is no longer an option for Canadian democracy. “At this historic moment, the teachers of British Columbia are responding to the 94 calls to action from the TRC,” says BCTF President Jim Iker.

Young girl pointing at small wooden tiles on a cedar canoe.

Through the Project of Heart, BCTF members in over 500 schools have invited residential school survivors into classrooms to share their stories. Students created art works on small wooden tiles, thousands of which were used to mosaic a dugout cedar canoe. The Commemoration Canoe first went on exhibit in the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, under the dark shadow of the decrepit St. Michael’s Residential School. This summer it will travel to the historic Fort Langley and later to the Langley School District, where it will be easily accessible for field trips.

The stories of Gladys and of the canoe are woven through the BCTF’s publication and e-book called Project of Heart: Illuminating the Hidden History of Indian Residential Schools in BC. This book provides links to original historical documents, articles, photos, videos, lesson ideas, and more. It is frequently updated with new resources, such as the recently-released documentary on Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, the courageous tuberculosis expert who blew the whistle on the atrocious health condition of children in residential schools.

Since being launched in August 2015, response has been encouraging. BCTF locals, education faculties, individual teachers, Aboriginal groups, and others have requested almost all 10,000 copies in print. The French version, Projet du Cœur, has also been published and work continues on translation of linked resources. More than 30,000 readers in 10 countries have accessed the online version. Other teacher unions, health care unions, and the BC Federation of Labour have all wanted to learn more. Even the Chief Justice of the Provincial Court of BC requested a copy for every judge. And the Canadian Association of Labour Media recently recognized the project with its “Breaking Barriers” award.

This response signals that many Canadians are keen to learn our real history—even the darkest chapters. And teachers do want to infuse Aboriginal content across the curriculum, but may need support to teach Indigenous history and culture with integrity and confidence. It’s a learning curve that leads us back in time, but also into our own hearts.

Paulette Regan, Director of Research for the TRC, poses this question—one that is significant for all Canadians, but perhaps more so for teachers—“How can we, as non-Indigenous people, unsettle ourselves to name and then transform the settler—the colonizer who lurks within—not just in words but by our actions, as we confront the history of colonization, violence, racism, and injustice that remains part of the IRS legacy today?”

Group of women standing behind a cedar canoe decorated with small wooden tiles.

Related BCTF workshops for teachers

  • Aboriginal History and Culture: Parts 1 and 2
  • Creating Racism-Free Schools for Aboriginal Learners
  • Deconstructing Myths
  • Exploring Relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people: The BC Blanket Exercise
  • Indigenous Perspectives
  • Infusing Aboriginal Content K-7
  • The Legacy of Indian Residential Schools
  • Working with Aboriginal Youth

Nancy Knickerbocker is the Director of Communications and Campaigns at the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 238,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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