Residential Schools and Present Day White Privilege

Chairs in a Classroom

Image used under CC0 Public Domain License.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to residential school survivor Mike Cachagee speak to a group of 90 grade eight students.  Over the past couple of years I’ve worked with Mike on a regular basis through the educational programming undertaken at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Mike often comes in to speak to students about residential schools, his experience as a survivor, reconciliation and colonialism. His talks are always a little different and each time I leave feeling grateful for his wiliness to share his experience and perspective in the classroom setting.

During Mike’s most recent talk when discussing colonialism and the corrosion of Indigenous communities through residential schools he made a direct connection between white privilege and the colonial system.  I was struck by how this is the conversation we need to be having in the classroom.  The Indian Act, the reserve system, residential schools, the 60s scoop and so many other instances of historical colonial policy have had a direct impact that is still being felt by Indigenous communities.  We know this.  But there is still a huge tendency to treaty these historical policies as things of the past despite the fact that they still have very real implications for Indigenous communities and Canadians at large. Colonial policies are closely related to so much of the white privilege that exists today – the land we live on, the current funding structure of education, the health care we receive and so much more is connected to historical policies.

During his discussion with the grade eight students Mike also highlighted the fact that he wasn’t trying to blame current white settlers for things that their ancestors did.  However, he was clear that the burden of building new relationships, changing policies going forward, and learning about the basics of colonialism and privilege lies firmly on the shoulders of white-settlers not marginalized communities.  The discussion of reconciliation is one that requires all sides to participate and settlers need to be doing the background work themselves.

I spoke with a handful of the teachers present during Mike’s talk and many indicated that the talk inspired them to take a look at how they are approaching residential schools in the classroom space.  One teacher indicated that they would be having a class discussion about how residential schools impact society today when they returned to the classroom. Personally, I know one way that we have often encouraged teachers to teach residential schools is to follow up with a conversation about present day impacts of residential school, a discussion of ongoing educational inequalities, and connect to social justice issues (such as Idle No More, MMIWG2S, or Shannon’s Dream).

How do you connect residential school history to present day realities in classroom?