Teens lead letter-writing campaign to educate public on residential schools

Students at a Winnipeg school have put pen to paper to share how learning about residential schools for the first time has impacted them.

Students at a Winnipeg school have put pen to paper to share how learning about residential schools for the first time has impacted them.

Earlier this month several grade eight students at Ecole Golden Gate Middle School completed a letter-writing campaign sharing this new knowledge with others.

For Kate Neves, 14, this is the first time she is learning about Canada’s history of residential schools. With the help of videos, books and her teacher she says she’s been able to understand what happened, but it’s listening to survivors share their stories that has resonated with her.

“It’s one thing when you hear of it in a book or on a paper, but when it’s someone you can just connect to them and it just becomes so much more real,” says Neves.

In the letters, students share what they’ve learned about residential schools, how it has affected them and what Canadian society can do to educate themselves. The goal of the campaign is to educate not only their peers but larger groups as well, according to project creator Shannon Smith.

“In the past we’ve written to other grade eights or grade sixes in the building just to inform other people in the building about what we’ve learnt,” says Smith. “But this year the students really wanted to get in touch with organizations that have a bigger reach.”

Among them APTN and the True North Youth Foundation, a group which provides programming to underprivileged youth.

Smith started the project three years ago as a way of responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Call’s to Action. She says most students have an idea of what happened in residential schools but the campaign gives them an opportunity to dig deeper in the experiences of children who attended the schools.

There was no sugar-coating children’s experiences. Part of the project touched on abuse at the hands of teachers and priests, and the number of children who died while at the schools.

“We learned…one in 25 children died at the residential schools and one in 26 died in the Second World War,” says Neves. “I think that was the most that stood out to me. That you had a higher chance of dying in residential school.”

Elise Gottzmann, 13, says working on the project involved a lot of “heavy” topics.

“It was really shocking the types of abuse they went through,” she says. “I thought it was just physical and they would be hit one time, but it was a lot. There was a lot more to it.”

Gottzmann has shared her newfound knowledge, some of who are hearing about residential schools for the first time.

While Smith navigates the student’s learning experience, she considers herself a student as well.

“Every year I feel like I’m learning more and more that I didn’t know before,” she says.

“The more I talk about it, the more comfortable I am talking about it.”

She encourages other teachers to reach out to Indigenous educators for assistance in tackling some of these subjects.

And as classes wrap up for the year, learning about Indigenous history is not over for these kids. It’s actually more important than ever.

“I feel like Canadians don’t know as much as they should about residential schools, and I feel like it’s all our job to know what happened and how [can] reconcile,” says Neves.


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