A few weeks ago I attended the Manitoba Adolescent Literacy Summit and listened to author David Alexander Robertson's keynote entitled the Path to Reconciliation. It was a highlight of the conference, as his speech challenged me to look at reconciliation in my own classroom with a more critical eye.
Robertson discussed his views of reconciliation and the importance of stories. He shared examples of Indigenous stereotypes from films and literature that influenced his own identity growing up. While many of these stereotypes are still found in media today, we have been making progress. Stories we share with our students have better representations of Indigenous characters, which is important because, as Robertson said, "stories can help us heal through generations."
Many Indigenous stories currently found in classrooms are about residential schools. As a teacher I have attended a number of professional development sessions centered on Truth and Reconciliation, and most have centered on teaching about what happened at residential schools and their impact. However, often that is where these sessions ended, which I don't think goes far enough.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has recommended that school systems "make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students" (page 7). In my experience, we have made great strides teaching about residential schools, but additional emphasis is needed on other types of stories. As Robertson indicated, colonialism in Canada has encompassed more than residential schools alone. Stories about the Sixties Scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and contemporary institutional racism should also be told.
Robertson emphasized that we need more stories of empowerment, community, resurgence, and resilience. I absolutely agree. If our Indigenous students only read stories that position Indigenous people as victims, this is sending an unintended message of what it means to be Indigenous in Canada today. Similarly, if our non-Indigenous students only read stories with Indigenous characters that are centered in the past, this encourages misconceptions of Indigenous culture in contemporary Canada. Stories about residential schools are still important, but I need to make sure they are not the only Indigenous stories being told in my classroom. I need to look for books with Indigenous protagonists and heroes, particularly in contemporary settings. I need more books that focus on Indigenous culture and its resurgence and resilience. I need more stories that empower.
As Robertson said, books are tools to educate our children. The kinds of stories we tell help us teach about the past and help us move towards the future. I was happy to hear that Robertson is currently working on several books of empowerment and community. While eagerly awaiting those stories, I'll be on the lookout for more. Stay tuned for more reviews on the way.