“Instead of the isolation and neglect of the past, a free and equal chance with children in urban centres.” This is the voice of a male narrator in a March 1955 CBC television piece about Canada’s residential schools.
Since that piece aired more than six decades ago, the way Canadians look at residential schools has changed. The federal government’s own examination culminated in the official apology, read in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in June 2008.
As a newcomer to Canada in 2000, I was astounded at the wide range of views that Canadians possessed whenever residential schools were mentioned. Some pointed the finger at the federal government, the clergy or both. Others staunchly defended the policy and described two solitudes that simply had to be forced to work together. Another person sounded like an adapted version of the 1955 CBC report. Residential schools, in his view, ultimately afforded a neglected group of Canadians the chance to compete with more privileged ones.
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The first place where we usually learn about historical wrongs is school. When looking at possible ways to survey how Canadians feel about residential schools, I settled on one sample source (adults who attended elementary and/or high school in Canada) and three simple questions: were you told about residential schools during your time as a student, what were you told and how do you feel about them now. In October, 812 adults responded to the survey.
The first surprise came in the massive differences related to the simple notion of even discussing the topic at hand. Almost half of respondents (47 per cent) say they did not learn about residential schools in any classroom. This includes majorities of those aged 35-to-54 (54 per cent) and those aged 55 and over (61 per cent). Among those aged 18-to-34, the proportion that did not discuss the topic drops dramatically to 21 per cent.
Millennials are more likely to have heard about residential schools during their time as students and to have started looking at the issue in elementary school. When analyzed by region, the data suggests that two school systems were far behind in discussing residential schools in the classroom. More than half of residents of Alberta (56 per cent) and Ontario (54 per cent) said they never reviewed this topic at their own schools.
When asked about what they were told about residential schools by their teacher (or teachers), 35 per cent respondents say the assessment that was provided in the classroom was “positive”, while a similar proportion (37 per cent) recall it as “negative”.
This time, it is Generation X that shifts the numbers, with 46 per cent of respondents aged 35-54 saying their teachers spoke about residential schools in a “positive” light, compared to 29 per cent for those aged 55 and over and 31 per cent for those aged 18-to-34.
Almost half of Millennial respondents (47 per cent) say they were taught in school that residential schools were bad. According to the Truth and Reconciliation commission, around 4,000 Indigenous students died in residential schools, which were operated from the 1870s to 1996, and sexual and physical abuse in these schools was rampant. Teachers were more likely to look at residential schools positively in Quebec (45 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (43 per cent), while British Columbia was at the lowest end of the spectrum: just 17 per cent remember their teachers speaking positively about the issue.
There is a significant difference in what students remember hearing in their classroom and their current assessment of residential schools. More than half (53 per cent) say their own personal assessment of residential schools is now “negative”—a proportion that includes 78 per cent of British Columbians, 62 per cent of Ontarians and 61 per cent of Albertans.
There is a noticeable generational gap that cannot be understated. Millennials, who heard more about residential schools in their classrooms, do not deviate too much from the assessment they received from their teachers (47 per cent say their teachers told them residential schools were bad and 49 per cent say their own view currently is “negative”.).
This research has allowed me to review how the topic of residential schools was addressed in Canada’s classrooms—and the fact that, in some cases, it was not addressed at all. Most older Canadians have become aware of the issue and view it in a more negative light now, even after one-in-four of them state that the “official story” delivered by their teachers was different than the reality they are now able to grasp, decades later.