I am a pretty big Tragically Hip fan. I own all of their CDs and have seen them in concert seven times. I watched tearfully with the rest of Canada this past summer when the CBC aired what is likely to be the band’s final concert live from their hometown of Kingston.
Lead singer Gord Downie, well known for his popular in-concert rants, delivered few of them on his final night. But the few that he did give were focused on one important issue. Nearly 12 million Canadians tuned into the broadcast, and Downie chose to use the powerful pulpit he was given that night to draw attention to the plight of Canada’s northern and indigenous people
“It’s going to take us a hundred years to figure out what the hell went on up there but it isn’t cool and everybody knows that,” said Downie. “It’s really, really bad, but we’re going to figure it out. You’re going to figure it out.”
His popularity and creative talent have now been parlayed into his latest independent project, The Secret Path. A collaboration with author and illustrator Jeff Lamire, The Secret Path is an album, graphic novel and film (which aired last Sunday on CBC) that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died 50 years ago while he was trying to walk 400 miles home from the Kenora area residential school where he had been sent.
Downie’s work here is part of an incredibly powerful cultural awakening that’s currently occurring in this country. The awakening is creating a very profound and palpable shift in the relationship between Canada and its indigenous peoples.
Personally, I felt embarrassed when I started hearing the stories of the dark history of residential schools in Canada — which really only started to happen for me in the last 10 to 15 years. I was ashamed that I had somehow missed this aspect of our history in both my K–12 and post-secondary education. But that personal shame and embarrassment went away, shifting into a national shame as I learned more about the history of residential schools and about how the knowledge about what happened was being systematically kept from us. As Downie said in concert, “we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.”
The awakening is so late, but it is so important. Only now can we begin to heal the deep and widespread wounds that are the legacy of this act of cultural genocide. It will take generations to repair the damage caused to indigenous families and communities.
As stated by Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair: “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.”
We, as teachers, will play an important role in educating future generations about the history, perspectives, culture and contributions of Canada’s indigenous peoples. It will not just be taught in social studies class, either. All of us will play a part. The new Teaching Quality Standard that is in the final stages of development will include a number of FNMI standards for all teachers.
But, there will be many teachers, like me, who knew and know too little about this knowledge that was actually being kept from us. And so the Alberta Teachers’ Association, supported by Alberta Education, has taken on the Walking Together professional learning project to ensure teachers are well-informed and prepared to take this important learning forward. In the next three years, you will hear more about the professional development opportunities being made available through this project — stay tuned.
We should all be proud of the work being done and that will be done in education for reconciliation. Engaging in it ensures that the tragedies of the last 150 years are never repeated. ❚
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