By Jonathan Perez, Catholic Saskatoon News
The residential school system is a part of Canada’s history, and education is a key part of the truth and reconciliation process.
In schools, the history and impact of residential schools is taught to the next generation using age-appropriate resources and materials, depending on the child’s grade level.
This is the task of Jennifer Altenberg, the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education Learning Services coordinator, who participated in the Rock Your Roots Walk for Reconciliation on National Truth and Reconciliation Day Sept. 30.
Hundreds joined the walk from Avenue M South to Victoria Park in Saskatoon, where dances, songs, and games were part of the program.
Altenberg believes education helps Indigenous and non-Indigenous people understand the trauma that residential schools caused to the survivors and their communities.
“Our teachers use these materials, essential to open the discussion on the residential school system with our children and their families,” says Altenberg, who is proud of her Métis heritage. “When we educate and tell these stories, they learn how Orange Shirt Day started and its meaning.”
She describes how the class of her daughter, who is five years old and goes to St. Kateri Tekakwitha School in Stonebridge, watched a video on Orange Shirt Day and how their teacher read them a book about Phylis Webstad – who as a child had her beloved orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school.
The child-friendly materials explain the experience of being taken away from your family, and teachers discuss the history in an age-appropriate way.
Altenberg believes educating the general public and the healing journey of the survivors are connected.
“Everybody is on their healing journey. I would say people who inherited the legacy of residential schools and non-Indigenous also have to heal,” she says.
“Non-Indigenous people also need healing because it’s tough to understand how an institution such as the church could enact these tough, horrific things on another group of people.”
The residential school system was the Canadian government’s attempt to assimilage Indigenous Peoples into Western culture with most of the institutions run by the Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches.
“Understanding the history… why did the Canadian government and the church do this to Indigenous peoples, and you get to understand about those policies that are still very much real today,” says Altenberg.
“Events like this [the reconciliation walk] and education resources allow people to sit and talk. We all have to heal from that legacy. For the survivors, having their stories heard is healing. We can’t change the past, but we can listen to each other and come to a place of understanding.”
Jonathan Perez is a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.