Teaching about Residential Schools in a Catholic Context

Full disclosure: I grew up in the Catholic education system, and my family identifies as Catholic. I am also not currently aware of any official policy or guidelines from any board which answers this question. Perhaps this is why I struggle so much when I get asked, "What can I say about the Residential School system?" by teacher candidates who wish to work in the Catholic education system and teachers already employed there. 

I interpret these inquiries as indication of a strong discomfort, the lack of sustained response from the Church on the topic, and that not enough dialogue is occurring in some boards. I also have experienced that discomfort and even fear when faced with bringing these topics up in a religious context. 

I know of great examples of teachers who are doing bold and honest work in this realm, and so I want to begin there!

When I interviewed Catholic High School educator Laryssa Gorecki for this blog, I asked her specifically about teaching about Residential Schools in her English classroom and the concerns some express about a perceived conflict. Her response really resonated with me. She said,

"Actually this is the perfect thing to teach in the Catholic system because we are en embodiment of social justice, of equality and forgiveness and peacemaking and so we need to teach that."


If you  listen to my interview with Laryssa posted here, you can hear more about how she made the topics of Residential School and colonization relevant and compelling to her class of largely newcomer students. 

I have also been invited into classrooms to speak to students about what I learned from my time working in Indigenous communities, and the teachers in Catholic schools have always been enthusiastic about me speaking about understanding how some current issues and stereotypes have their source in the Residential School system. Never have I heard of any issue taken with the material I presented. I also know that most teachers had prepared their students with information about Residential Schools beforehand and debriefed with them after I left. 

One thing of relevance to this discussion is the current position of the Catholic Church. I am disappointed in the lack of action and response that the Church has put out since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as compared with other Christian denominations who have developed vocal campaigns and concrete actions. In The Inconvenient Indian, author Thomas King reports that by 1932, there were more than 80 operational Residential Schools in Canada, with sixty percent run by the Catholic Church, which to me signals the disproportionate responsibility of the Church and its members to reveal the truth of what happened, make any amends possible and wanted by Survivors. However, it is still true that the Catholic Church is the only denomination involved in the Residential Schools that has not issued a formal apology.

Call to Action #58 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reads

We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada

While it is true that this apology still has not been issued, in 2009 Pope Benedict did formally express his "his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. " I believe this statement can be used as the doorway to speak about the injustices and trauma perpetuated by clergy and staff at the schools. 

If you teach in a Catholic context, or even a Christian or context, I would love to know more about what you are doing, or feel you can't do in your classroom. Let's keep talking about this.

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