By Michael Boriero
In the weeks leading up to Canada’s first official National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Knowlton Academy students were taught about the devastating impact residential schools had on Indigenous communities, and the broken families left behind in the aftermath.
As a way to honour the thousands of children who lost their lives to the residential school system, the entire student population gathered in the front yard to participate in a silent march. They were also given orange shirts with the words ‘every child matters’ on their chest.
“[Indigenous communities] don’t have the same systems as us, they’re getting bullied, and yes, people are waking up, it’s great, let’s talk about it, but so much more needs to be done,” said Laura Carpenter McConnell, who has a 9-year-old daughter at Knowlton Academy.
It was an emotional day for Carpenter McConnell, who was responsible for putting together all of the shirts, which were privately sponsored by community members. She moved to Knowlton 15 years ago, but she grew up in Maniwaki, a small town north of Gatineau. “My sister is the last generation that went to those schools, so this is really close to me, and it’s not just this, I think this is the tip of the iceberg, like there are so many other problems out there,” said Carpenter McConnell, who held back tears during the interview.
She told The Record that two of her childhood friends remain missing to this very day. Canadians need to accept that this is a real and present issue, she explained, adding that Indigenous communities lack fundamental human rights, like access to clean water.
Carpenter McConnell owns Le Loom, a spiritual shop in Knowlton, where she provides an insight into rituals and practices common to Indigenous communities. She believes the most important change among Canadians will come from the youth population.
“I think that the new generation that’s coming will be open to it. We’re spending millions of dollars on bicycle paths but we can give them millions of dollars for clean water, so what can we do? We can’t do anything. I think it’s the government that needs to step up,” she said.
Olivia Brown-Gauthier, a 12-year-old student at Knowlton Academy, felt as though she was never truly taught about Indigenous history until recently. She was only ever told about the European settlers, how they stole Indigenous land, and created Canada.
“We never really learned about their traditions, their languages, what they did before everything happened, and I think it’s really important to learn about that, so you can really understand our history and what we need to change to make it a better place,” said Brown-Gauthier.
She was saddened by the stories of families ripped apart by the church, and the thousands of graves filled with children across the country. Children should never go through that, she explained, and it’s up to future generations to educate the population.
Her classmate, Jamie Smith, shared similar thoughts. Smith believes many students, especially the younger ones, are unaware of the atrocities committed on Canadian soil. She added that they would appreciate learning about this history, rather than remaining silent on the issue.
“I think we’re very lucky, us kids, not to have to go and it’s just, we don’t really think about how lucky we are most of the time because they were all separated from their families and well I couldn’t be separated from my family for over a couple weeks,” said Smith.
Knowlton Academy Principal Renalee Gore told The Record that the school truly adopted Orange Shirt Day last year. And they dove even deeper after news broke of large grave sites discovered at abandoned residential schools across Canada last spring.
“We’ve had a real focus on, you know, Black Lives Matter and I realized last year that I was sadly lacking in Indigenous books, so it really made me, when the whole residential school graves came out, it just really hit me,” said Gore.
She made a concerted effort to acquire more Indigenous literature, written by Indigenous authors. She also purchased a digital copy of a play called Mistatim, about two children, one living on a ranch, the other on a reservation, working together to tame a wild horse.
While Gore believes the school curriculum will eventually include a thorough look at Indigenous history and culture, she said that it isn’t anywhere close yet. This is why she has decided to change it on her own. She wants to foster a brighter, and kinder, generation.
“I want the kids to know when they have the shirt on, ‘every child matters’, that some kids didn’t have that, some kids didn’t get to live the lives that they live, and every child has a right to have that kind of life,” said Gore.