âpihtawikosisân, or Chelsea Vowel, is a Métis writer and lawyer who has worked with Inuit youth in Montreal, and runs a popular blog and twitter account centered around Indigenous issues. The piece featured below is an extract of « Ruby’s Story » that she has allowed us to share, which focuses on the impact of residential schools on First Nations languages.
Ruby’s experience, in her own words
As a mother of children Ruby’s age, I long ago got rid of any belief I may have had that children cannot speak for themselves. It baffles me utterly that anyone who works with children could forget this simple fact. My daughters were also very curious to hear Ruby describe her experience and I sent her a number of questions so that her voice could be heard as well.
I am very grateful to Ruby for her courage. It is clear that this experience impacted her deeply and by answering these questions, she has been also asked to relive that hurt.
Below are the questions, and Ruby’s answers.
How old were you when you first heard about Residential Schools?
I think I was about 6 years old.
How did this topic come up?
When I was in Grade 1, my teacher said that I was only allowed to speak English at school. I didn’t know why people didn’t want us to speak our First Nations language. I talked to my Mom and Dad about it. Then my Dad told me about Residential Schools. He also told me about his hair getting cut off at school, even though he didn’t go to a Residential School. Then my Dad showed me the movie of the apology from Prime Minister Harper. When we talked to my Grade 1 teacher about it, she said that she was sorry about it and I forgave her.
What do you think Residential Schools have to do with First Nations languages?
They took away our language by taking kids from their moms and dads. At school, the sisters and brothers were split up and couldn’t even talk to each other either. The teachers at Residential School thought their ways and their language were better. And now we speak English and do not know much of our language. Our family is taking a language class together now so that we can all learn.
What did you want other students in your class to learn?
I chose the topic of Residential Schools because people need to know about the past. I wanted to tell my classmates why I couldn’t speak very much of my language. The past is our history and everybody should know. Our class learns some history like Remembrance Day and wars, so we should also talk about Residential Schools so that it won’t happen again.
How did your teacher’s actions make you feel?
I felt mixed-up between sad and hurt when my teacher didn’t want me to tell the class about Residential Schools. Then when she did let me share, she stopped me before I could tell about the Prime Minister’s apology or pray for healing for people who went to Residential School. My teacher didn’t tell me anything good about my presentation, she just said that I should choose a shorter topic next time. But I still think that this was an important topic.
How did the other students react to what you shared with them and how did that make you feel?
One student was fooling around but the rest looked serious and listened. Some of the students looked sad when they heard about Residential Schools. Lots of kids had questions during question time, more than any other presentation. It made me feel good that they were interested and wanted to know the truth. They thought that the Residential Schools were totally not fair or right.
Why is teaching people about Residential Schools important to you?
No one is First Nations like me in my classroom. So there are quite a few people who don’t know about my culture or about the past. I think that all kids in Canadian schools should know about Residential Schools because this happened here and justice and truth are very important. I don’t want something like this to ever happen again in our land.
Do you believe that you are too young to learn about or teach about Residential Schools?
No, I am not too young because I started learning in Grade 1. I talked with my family about it. I read Shi-Shi-Etko and Shin-Chi’s Canoe in Grade 1. Then later in Grade 2, I read more books for kids about Residential Schools. I know enough to teach others about it and I am still learning more about Residential Schools.
Is there anything you would like to say to other young First Nations, Inuit or Métis youth after this experience?
Be brave. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right. You may face some troubles, but it is worth it. Because you can do it with God’s help. The Creator gives us our culture and gives us courage. When I prayed about it, I felt better because I knew that God was with me.
Don’t stand in their way
A few weeks ago, I asked, “How do you teach children about Residential Schools?”
I think Ruby’s story tells us that we should avoid standing in the way of children when they want to learn about something, and when they want to take on the role of teacher. There are many young people in our communities who have wisdom to share and the passion to lead. They should not be impeded by adults who feel threatened by these children and by the knowledge they wish to share.
If we want our children to be invested in their education, we need to invest in them. It sounds trite and obvious, but it is clearly a truism that has not actually sunk in yet.
I suspect however, that children like Ruby, Shannen Koostachin, Chelsea Edwards, Ta’Kaiya Blaney and so many others, will make it impossible for us to continue ignoring uncomfortable truths. They make it impossible for us to believe that children do not possess wisdom, spirit and bravery. Children are not merely “the future” who can only make change once they become adults. They are making change now.
Many, many thanks to Ruby and her parents for telling this story, and many thanks as well to those in the community who supported the right of a child to not only learn about her history and culture, but also supported her right to share that learning.
Read more by âpihtawikosisân here !