Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom

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Project of Heart gestures of reconciliation

Project of Heart gestures of reconciliation

By Krista McCracken

Teaching about an emotionally charged, important topic like residential schools can be daunting, especially if like many Canadians you weren’t exposed to residential schools in any great depth during your own education. My job includes the delivery of educational programming relating to residential schools.  This most commonly takes the form of historical tours of the Shingwauk Residential School site, presentations, or workshops focusing on the history of residential schools.  All of these activities can be engaging and are worthwhile.  But from my experience the most impactful way of learning about residential schools is talking with residential school Survivors and Elders.

The inclusion of oral history and providing students the opportunity to speak with someone who attended a residential school can have profound impacts.  It brings history alive, it sparks the realization that residential schools didn’t happen in some distant past, and help make the history much more tangible and relatable to students.

I’m fortunate to work for an organization that has strong ties to a group of Survivors – the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA).  The CSAA have been instrumental in preserving the history of the Shingwauk Residential School and they have built a network of Survivors that support education initiatives.  But not everyone has the same relationship with survivors or access to communities.  Approaching the topic of residential schools can be challenging for teachers, particularly those with little exposure to First Nation, Métis, or Inuit communities. Educators may want to teach their students about residential schools or invite an Elder into their classroom but have no idea where to start.

There are some excellent educational resources and programs that educators can turn to when looking to incorporate residential schools in their classrooms.  The following list is by no means exhaustive but is meant to serve as a starting point for educators and those interested learning more about residential schools.

The Project of Heart

A national project dedicated to encouraging individuals to examine the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada, commemorating the lives of Indigenous children who died at residential school, and calling Canadians to action through social justice initiatives.  Project of Heart is a hands-on, collaborative, artistic project that provides simple steps for learning about residential schools.  The Project also includes guidelines on how to contact a Survivor or Elder and support for finding a survivor in your geographic region.

Project of Heart is suitable for any group wanting to learn about residential schools – children, college and university classes, families, faith groups, social workers, etc.  The Project can be easily adapted to suit education and age levels and allows for a much more tangible way of learning about residential schools than a textbook.

100 Years of Loss

Developed by the Legacy of Hope Foundation the 100 Years of Loss project focuses on educating Canadian youth aged 11 to 18 about residential schools.  The 100 Years of Loss material is designed for use in classrooms and provides practical tools to teachers.  The Edu-Kit package includes videos of survivor testimonies, a teacher guide with lesson plans, a wall-mounted timeline of residential schools, and teacher resources.  The package includes information on the establishment of residential schools, the student experience, lasting impacts of residential schools, and the Canadian government apology.

The teacher bundles and Edu-Kits can be ordered online at no cost.  Many of the program’s resources are also available digitally.  A visual timeline, videos, and education program can be accessed online.  The Our Stories…Our Strength and the We Were So Far Away videos are particularly powerful and are a good resource for incorporating Survivor voices, especially if you can’t have a Survivor physically visit the classroom. There is also a 100 Years of Loss app that can be downloaded on iTunes or Google Play.  The app contains a lot of the information covered in the residential school timeline and acts as a nice companion piece to the website and physical resources.

Embodying Empathy

This project aims to encourage education and commemoration relating to the residential school system.  It also addresses the fact that very few residential school buildings still exist today and very few of those buildings are accessible to the public.  Embodying Empathy aims to create a virtual residential school that can be used for educational purposes and to increase historical knowledge.

The initiative has partnered with Survivors, communities, archivists, scholars, and tech experts.  The project is still being developed.  But the draft ‘storyworld’ is promising and shows the creation of digital representations of spaces most associated with residential schools, the integration of oral history, and creating interactive digital learning spaces.  It will be interesting to see how this project continues to develop as it has a potential to be a great resource for educators.

Where Are the Children? Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools

A website initially designed as a counterpart to the Where Are the Children? touring exhibition curated by Jeff Thomas is another resource created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation.  The website allows users to explore the images and text included in the exhibit and listen to accompanying audio clips.  The site also includes a selection of Survivor stories from the Our Stories…Our Strength video project.

The Where Are the Children site does not provide educator specific resources such as lesson plans. But it does contain a lot of useful content that can be incorporated into educational programming.

In 2014 the Province of Alberta announced that the curriculum for all grades will include content relating to residential schools and treaties.  In 2012 the governments of Northwest Territories and Nunavut launched a mandatory curriculum component for high school students on the legacy of residential schools.  At this point none of the other provinces have made teaching about residential schools a mandatory component of the curriculum.  This lack of inclusion has also meant a lack of supports for educators wishing to include the legacy residential schools in their classrooms. There are many resources out there but teachers are often left to find them on their own.

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is a co-editor of

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5 thoughts on “Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom

  1. Maggie Archambault

    Thanks so much for this Krista! I’ll be passing this along to some of my fellow MA students at Queens, as a way to compile resources for research that includes an Indigenous perspective. Love the important work you do!

  2. Nathan Smith

    I’ve tried incorporating this history into a standard Canadian history undergraduate survey and it was, indeed, a major challenge. Thanks for informing us about these resources!

  3. Krista McCracken

    Thanks Maggie and Nathan.

    Nathan – I know a number of undergraduate courses have used excerpts from the “Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools” book as a means of introducing residential schools and discussing the long term impacts.

    The book includes a number of survivor perspectives on residential schools, healing, and resilience. The ebook or pdfs of each chapter can be downloaded from You can also order hard copies at no cost.

  4. Kaleigh Bradley

    Great post Krista!

    I would also suggest a screening of “We Were Children”, (2012) directed by Tim Wolochatiuk. The movie recounts the experiences of two residential school survivors of Guy Hill IRS and Lebret IRS.

    I just finished reading Paulette Regan’s “Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada.” This book was written for non-Indigenous Canadians and outlines strategies for decolonization, reconciliation, and healing.

    Regan’s main message is that healing can only begin when non-Indigenous Canadians (settlers) fully acknowledge and “make visible” colonial practices (such as residential schools), and their devastating impact on Indigenous societies. Reconciliation truly starts with educating non-Indigenous Canadians about the horrors of the IRS system. Regan also talks about the mindset of “benevolent paternalism” that continues to plague Indigenous and settler relations today. I recommend this book to anyone that plans on teaching the history of residential schools. It asks some uncomfortable questions and promotes self-reflection among settler-Canadians.

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