Talking to Your Children About Residential Schools in Canada

As my family and I prepared for the last weeks of school this year, news was coming out about the bodies of Indigenous children found on the land of residential schools in Canada.

My twins came back from school one day and said that a girl in their class was wearing her orange shirt. They asked me if it was Orange Shirt Day. My answer was no, it wasn’t, but their friend wore her shirt in solidarity. That began our conversation.

Growing up in Quebec, I have to be honest with you, I heard little about residential schools. Call me ignorant, call me privileged, it is all, unfortunately, true. But today, in the year 2021, the world we live in is vastly different than it was even one year ago for so many reasons.

A good thing that has come out of 2020’s pandemic life has been that as a society, we are more awake to all that life (people and environment) is going through. And for those that are not awake, they are choosing not to be. Once you know, you know. There has been a lot to know in the past 18+ months, especially for our children.

So, when is it the right time to talk to our children about racism, genocide, and hate? I would have to say the sooner the better. Of course, how to explain to our children depends on their age and their comprehension of the life around them. Explaining these horrendous acts seems like a part of their innocence must be stripped away. Unfortunately, in a way it will be. But if there is anything to be learned from all of this, it is to explain to our children that with the telling of grief for others allows those people, cultures, and lives to live on. This is an extremely deep subject for young ones but let me put it into perspective for you with a personal example. When my mother passed away, my twins were only three years old. I could not hide the situation; I could not ignore it either. Their grandma was everything to them. I had to tell them that she died, and I had to tell them how she died. So many questions came at me from these little mouths. And as hard as it was, I answered them all.

Questions are what can build the conversation with the right tone and understanding for your child. Through their questions, you can see how they are processing the information and how deeply you can go with the details of any subject, be it good or bad.

The Great Canadian Cover Up

Canada the great. Canada the friendly neighbour of the US, open to all who come and stay. Really? For years, this has been the Canada portrayed to other countries. Not anymore. Also, let’s be very clear, who was here first? The systematic genocide of Indigenous peoples came from the colonists that travelled to Canada and declared it their land. And it has never, never stopped.

As a mother simply looking for information, I was ill-equipped to handle the topic of residential schools in Canada without research. No one can live in the age of technology and access to the internet and say they do not know about residential schools in Canada now. Aside from the horrendous news coming out of the residential school findings, a quick Google search will lead you to reputable sources, documentaries, books to read and resources for further education.

One site I frequently visit is the National Film Board of Canada for documentaries. And while they have created phenomenal pieces for the education of many Canadian stories, this 1958 piece made me see something through the eyes of my parents (it’s only eight minutes long, but the residential schools are mentioned at 5:35).


b’Off to School’, , provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Of course, the film now has a footnote including this statement:

Please note that this film was produced in 1958 and reflects the attitudes and thinking of its era.”

What my mother and father learned as they grew up was that the Catholic Church and the government of Canada were doing these Indigenous children a favour by educating them and giving them room and board when their own families could not provide any of those things for various reasons (broken homes, orphans, etc.). IMAGINE. This was the story they were told. All the while, we went to a nice elementary school and high school. Not centuries later, not decades later, AT THE SAME TIME. So as my parents sent my sister and I to public elementary school and high school, these Indigenous families lived through the terror of this Canadian cover up.

I encourage you to go the visit the NFB site for Indigenous-made films, under the subject Indigenous Cinema.

One short film I enjoyed was called Woman Dress, by Thirza Cuthand. Towards the end of the film, is a powerful quote: 

“As long as we tell the stories, they’ll live” – Woman Dress

Truth and Reconciliation for Canada Day

Instead of celebrating, we took time to reflect on what is going on in Canada right now.

Before school let out, my twin boys learned about residential schools from a conversation their teacher initiated. They told me that the text in their books was not covered this year, as they ran out of time. The text in their books is basic at best. This is the history they are learning about Canada in 2021. So, when the news started to break about the residential schools and the finding of hundreds of bodies in unmarked graves, there was much more to the story that needed to be discussed.

Sadly, at this stage, it is truly up to us to learn and teach our children. Unless your children have exceptional teachers that will go above and beyond the curriculum, this is not widely taught in schools in an honest and true way yet.

Something we as adults can do to better educate ourselves is to take the one and only course of its kind in Canada called Indigenous Canada form the University of Alberta. The 12 module course is free of charge and it gained massive popularity last year with Canadian actor, Dan Levy, took the course and was part of the discussion each week.  I am signed up now and the course can be done at your own pace. Through this, I know I will have excellent resources for furthering my knowledge and educating my children.

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a three part series of podcasts on residential schools found here, with accounts for survivors (recommended for adults).

It truly isn’t hard to find books, documentaries to learn more about the history of Indigenous peoples. Residential Schools in Canada have been documented as well, it is up to us to search and find the best books for our children to approach this subject.

CBC Kids is a good starting-off point for discussions with your kids. And if they are old enough, it is a good website for them to browse themselves and then come back to you about what they read.

For tweens and teens looking for Indigenous influencers, two people I follow are @notoriouscree and @shinanova on Instagram (and they are both on TikTok too). Here is an example of what you will find from them:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Shina Nova (@shinanova)


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by James Jones (@notoriouscree)

What Can Parents Do?

When my children ask me about hate in this world and question it with ‘how’, ‘what’, and ‘why’, I find it very hard to answer, but talking about these subjects needs to be done. This cover up was done by the Canadian government and the Catholic church, two institutions our children have been taught to respect and value. I do feel a sense of embarrassment and denouncement of both institutions. To ignore these feelings to our children would be a disservice to ourselves and to them. One thing that has not waivered is my personal faith. My faith is in God, in Jesus Christ and His love and respect for all. How any people that share my faith were able to participate in this act is not something I can understand. It is the polar opposite of our faith.

I have dwelt with grief, and I write about it here for others to know they are not alone. However, I have never dwelt with a loss of my children taken from my home, never to be seen again. What kind of living hell that must be? And what is worse, to watch the country you live in boast about freedom, inclusion and liberty, while you are dealing with the most deceitful cover-up our country ever created.

As a white mother living in the suburbs of Eastern Canada, I have no idea what Indigenous mothers and their children have gone through. But that doesn’t mean I will pass it by any longer. As a Canadian mother, I will continue to educate myself, educate my family and do better.

Canada needs to mend the broken hearts of Indigenous families. To do that will take money, time, and so much work.

While this story has only scratched the surface of the destruction that our country has placed on Indigenous peoples, I pray that this story of genocide is consistent in our news to force Canadians to listen, learn and change.

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Catherine July 5, 2021 at 4:58 pm

Thank you for writing about such a difficult subject, and you are so right in saying that we need to have these difficult conversations with our children. If Indigenous children as young as 3 were old enough to be taking from their families and sent in to a system designed to abuse their culture, language, identity, and family away, then yes even our toddlers are “old enough” to learn about this, in an age-appropriate way. Read books, draw a picture, donate $, volunteer with a local organization. They will begin to understand through loving action.

Julia a.k.a Mama MOE July 7, 2021 at 12:11 pm

Thank you, yes, action, absolutely. Donating time and money if possible are two ways to help for sure. And it shows our children we are helping further than the conversation.


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