Where many Canadians have only started learning about this country’s residential schools, Grade 11 student Waylon Fenton has known about them since early childhood.
He was just a preschooler when his Inuvialuit grandmother, Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton, and his mom, author Christy Jordan-Fenton, began publishing some of the former’s stories about attending residential school in the High Arctic as books for children.
His paternal grandmother’s devotion to their culture, her triumphs and her resilience in overcoming fierce hardships — explored in part in the books Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home, When I was Eight and Not My Girl — continue to motivate and set an example for Waylon.
“It makes me very proud to know that my grandmother did all that,” said the 16-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C.
This week, delegations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people met with Pope Francis to share stories about the impact of Canada’s residential school system, with the pontiff expressing on Friday “sorrow and shame” for the conduct of some of the Roman Catholic members who ran the schools.
Here at home, dedicated students and parents are continuing to keep important conversations about truth and reconciliation in the education system alive and ongoing.
While talk of Indigenous experiences has increased in Fenton’s classes and society at large, many still have a lot to learn. The teen recalled, for instance, a teacher who just a few years ago raised residential schools in class, but tried to justify them as “better” than what survivors had at home.
“It was… frustrating for me when she was teaching about it that way. I thought that was wrong,” said Fenton, who later transferred out of that Grade 7 class.
His mom’s desire to teach her own children — as well as other people — about the reality of residential schools was a key reason she felt driven to collaborate with his grandmother to create their age-appropriate books, the first of which was published in 2010.
“I wanted my children to grow up seeing their grandmother as a hero,” said Jordan-Fenton, a B.C. author and adult educator. “I didn’t want them to ever feel bad about their Indigeneity.”
Though not Indigenous herself, Jordan-Fenton’s stepfather was a Cree Métis man. Growing up, she lived in communities where many, including her stepfather, had attended residential schools. She knew most Canadians never learned about the traumatic history of that school system as she had — or believed the schools to be a relic from long ago.
“One of the ways that I explain to people that it wasn’t that long ago is … the year that residential schools ended was the year that Toy Story — the first Toy Story movie — came out,” she said.
At readings and events for students over the years, Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law saw children from all walks of life connect and empathize with their books.
“She always wanted to show that children can go through really, really horrific things and that they could come out” of it, Jordan-Fenton said of her mother-in-law, who passed away in 2021.
Taking a step further, she emphasized a balance: teaching students about residential schools but also sharing positive stories about Indigenous culture and history.
“When we tell stories about Indigenous children or Indigenous people always suffering, never getting to be the winners… I see what that does to [Indigenous children’s] sense of self-esteem, to always be told stories of defeat.”
Learning in school and beyond
Students today seem more willing to learn about diverse cultures, perhaps even more so than just a few decades ago, according to Grade 11 student Isaiah Shafqat.
“Youth are a lot more open-minded and willing to learn — and I find they’re eager to learn,” said the two-spirit Mi’kmaw teen, who attends Kapapamahchakwew-Wandering Spirit School in Toronto.
But with the movement to boost Indigenous perspectives in classroom teachings still emerging, “educators may not be aware of the issues that Indigenous people face or the lessons and learnings that they can get from Indigenous people,” the 16-year-old said.
As Indigenous student trustee for the Toronto District School Board, Shafqat helps raise student concerns and represents an Indigenous voice on different board committees, but he’s also boosting awareness beyond school.
Indigenous educational content Shafqat helped create appeared on-screen in elevators and lobbies of Canadian office high-rise buildings throughout November. Staffers for digital signage company Captivate had reached out to the teen last summer, hoping to collaborate.
Appearing in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, the content included land acknowledgements specific to each location, introduced words and phrases in different Indigenous languages and shared cultural concepts and teachings.
The goal, Shafqat says, was to plant seeds of information for adults — who have likely haven’t been in a classroom for some time — to entice them to educate themselves further.
“I know plenty of people would love to learn more … and learn with Indigenous people but don’t have that accessible to them,” he said.
“They need to know [residential schools] happened and understanding that is a part of reconciliation … Education is really the best way to prevent history from repeating itself.”
Opening up conversations
Mi’kmaw biology grad student Leah Creaser knows the value of open-mindedness, conversation and action. She’s working to address the lack of Indigenous perspectives in science education by introducing students and educators to the concept of Etuaptmumk, two-eyed seeing, which means learning to view both Mi’kmaw and Western knowledge together.
A science lab based on Mi’kmaw traditional knowledge that the Acadia University student created is now part of what first-year science students learn in their core biology course. Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) has also asked the 27-year-old to continue teaching a new course she first ran last fall that explored incorporating Mi’kmaw knowledge into the daily work of scientists, researchers and technicians.
“The whole purpose of the [NSCC] course was to educate … people working in a science field on how valuable Indigenous voice is and that it shouldn’t be brushed under the rug,” Creaser said from Wolfville, N.S.
“If you’re doing research close to someone’s property, you’re probably going to knock on their door and say ‘Hey, if you see me, I’m working for Acadia and I’m doing this’… Why wouldn’t you do that with Mi’kmaw communities or any Indigenous group?” she said.
The in-person sessions last fall often ran an hour or two past when class officially ended, as the conversations — students sitting in a circle with her — regularly rippled out to topics like history, language use, addressing stereotypes and interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“We can talk all the time about how [people] didn’t have that true education,” said Creaser, a two-spirit member of Acadia First Nation. ” Well, what are we doing now? Let’s start educating. I think that’s a big part of reconciliation [and] that’s what I’m trying to do.”
After completing her master’s degree, Creaser plans to pursue a PhD in fish biology in hopes of becoming a research professor with her own lab, while continuing to push for greater understanding and connection to cultural knowledge.
“I also want to include bringing in that Indigenous perspective, partnership and collaboration — and creating those relationships — throughout my career.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.