Indigenous children in their dormitory at a Canadian residential school. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in the schools. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A school district in British Columbia has launched an investigation after a parent created a viral TikTok video revealing a disturbing homework assignment tasked to her daughter’s sixth grade class.In the video shared on November 24, Krista MacInnis, a 31-year-old Indigenous mother of three, held up an assignment that asked sixth graders at William A. Fraser Middle School in Abbotsford to “Write at least 5+ positive stories/facts from the residential schools from three different websites.”
MacInnis expressed her disgust in a series of six TikTok videos. “They are whitewashing the rape of our culture, the theft of our people, and the genocide of just everything in general when it comes to First Nations people,” MacInnis said. “They’re not teaching them the truth.”She went on to compare the assignment to asking children to list five positive things about Nazi concentration camps and slavery. Her videos have garnered tens of thousands of views on TikTok, and hundreds of enraged comments calling for the school district and administration to respond. In an emailed statement to VICE News, Abbotsford School District Superintendent Dr. Kevin Godden said an investigation has been launched after the district was made aware of the assignment on Wednesday morning.“Assignments like this are not acceptable. This incident is a disservice to the district’s commitment to truth and reconciliation,” said Godden.“Our school principal has spoken with the parent directly to personally apologize. We are deeply sorry for any harm caused to the parents, students, families, and the Indigenous community at large.” Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the residential school system in Canada facilitated the forced removal of thousands of Indigenous children from their homes and placed them in church-run “schools.” The children were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their own culture, and were frequently abused physically, emotionally, or sexually.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada estimates that over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken from their families and placed in residential schools. About 80,000 survivors are believed to be alive today. The last residential school in Canada was shut down just 24 years ago in 1996. The assignment is not a new one in the 21st century Canadian education system.Angela White, executive director at the Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society in B.C., said she recalls another recent incident in which the same question was posed to students at a different school in Canada. In September 2018, a school assignment in St Paul, Alberta asked Grade 11 students a multiple choice question on what “a positive effect of residential schools” was.The options were that children who attended the schools learned to read, they were away from home, they were taught manners, and they became civilized.In an interview with VICE World News, White says the most recent assignment in Abbotsford was “extremely uninformed, disconnected,” and an example of the colonial tendency to downplay the horrors of Indigenous history. “It is a very simplistic way of whitewashing that history to fit the comfort needs of a society that isn’t willing to open their hearts and minds to what that truth really is,” said White.The B.C. Ministry of Education said it is committed to teaching the harmful legacy of the residential school system.
“As the education minister, this incident is very concerning to me. When it was brought to the ministry’s attention, we immediately contacted the school district,” said Minister Rob Fleming in an emailed statement to VICE World News.
“Any teachings that detract or dismiss the realities of residential schools have no place in our education system. It is critically important for students to learn that this past legacy of abuse has created and continue to present a devastating legacy of the multi-generational impacts of residential schools.”While the school district says it has launched an investigation into the assignment, questions about whether the curriculum will be revised or what changes will be made remain unanswered.For her part, White says she wouldn’t go as far as to advocate firing the teacher who assigned the task, but says more training and higher education is needed for faculty.“There needs to be a more defined curriculum base,” she said.“The First Nations Education Steering Committee has actually spent money in developing a curriculum and it’s there online, available for all teachers in this province to utilize.”Taking steps like utilizing that curriculum and asking local Indigenous communities and organizations—such as the Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society—to provide context about residential schools to students would be one step in the right direction, said White.Another step she calls for is to require all teachers across BC to take cross-cultural Indigenous education courses available at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. “Don’t lose the context of why these Indian Residential Schools were established,” said White. “We know they were to eradicate, eliminate, and assimilate the Indigenous people of this country.”Follow Brishti Basu on Twitter.