Linda Isaac, a member of Alderville First Nation, spent 33 years as an educator in Ontario, and in that time, she can’t recall teaching a lesson about residential schools or Indigenous history.
“I never taught it — it was never part of the curriculum for me when I was a teacher,” the retired Toronto principal recalls. “If it was part of it, it was so small. And it was not what we know to be the truth today.”
It was like being two different people. Isaac said she would spend weekends in her community, about an hour and a half drive east of Toronto, and come Monday, she’d be back in Scarborough teaching her students, never really letting the two overlap.
That divide between her school life and her First Nations culture, for Isaac, started when she was quite young.
Growing up, hunting had always been a part of everyday life for Isaac, as with most First Nations communities. When Isaac was five years old, a hunting party from her community killed a bear — no small feat — and when everyone was cleaning and preparing the animal, her father offered her a paw to take to school for show and tell.
The next day at her school in Scarborough, when Isaac’s turn came around, she went to the middle of the circle and excitedly pulled the paw out of a paper bag. The kids started screaming and pushing away from the circle with their feet.
“The teacher jumped over the kids, basically, grabbed the paper bag, grabbed the bear paw, threw it in the garbage and said don’t ever bring anything like that into this classroom again,” Isaac said through tears. She looked to the side and said, “Here I am, 70 years old, and I still haven’t gotten over it.”
What that teacher did, Isaac says, was she threw her life in the garbage.
“I went home that night. And my dad asked me how it went,” Isaac continued. “I said it was great. Everybody loved it. He said, ‘I knew they would.’”
“I didn’t tell anybody after that, that I was First Nations until I was 21 because I was afraid that I’d be ridiculed,” Isaac said.
She eventually did start telling her story. Including at a 2016 conference at Nelson, one of Canada’s biggest education publishers, where she started working in the sales department a couple years after retiring as an educator in 2006.
Isaac was asked to give a presentation on residential schools and afterwards she said she had colleagues approach her saying, “Why did I not know? Nobody taught me this in school.”
She is now the national director of Indigenous education, equity and inclusion at Nelson, and has been helping the company push forward its goal to better represent First Nations and other marginalized communities in its materials, and equipping teachers with tools to do communities justice.
As part of her job, Isaac travels coast to coast and makes connections with Indigenous peoples to develop and keep conversation around Indigenous education going. She’ll take their comments, thoughts and suggestions back to Nelson to influence resource development.
All of the current resources and textbook entries that have to do with Indigenous communities are written by Indigenous authors, as are the illustrations. And through Nelson’s online platform Edwin, the company is able to help teachers integrate news stories and video to more quickly update and customize lessons.
There are also additional book series, like Under One Sun, which is for Grades K-8 and tells more contemporary stories from Indigenous peoples — poems, songs, recent articles and more — to encourage age-appropriate conversations.
“That’s the mantra of Indigenous people: ‘nothing about us without us,’ ” Isaac said.
Attention to these conversations about truth and reconciliation was renewed recently, as communities across this country have been reeling over the discovery of 215 children’s remains in an unmarked burial site at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in late May.
Since then, additional grounds have been searched in former residential schools looking for more graves. Documented deaths at residential schools have long been believed to be under-reported.
The discoveries have reignited awareness of the national atrocity — a network of more than 130 federal schools designed to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Until this discovery, two-thirds of Canadians say they knew a little or nothing about this country’s residential school system, according to a recent survey by the Canadian Race Relation Foundation and the Assembly of First Nations.
Isaac herself only really learned about the schools through conversations with her cousins, putting pieces together slowly. The painful history was not often talked about among older generations.
“You don’t hear people talking about it,” she said. “The pain is too great.”
“Can you imagine — just picture this: kids being swiped up, placed in a truck and hauled away right outside your door and gone.” Isaac paused. “Then imagine that happening within your community over and over and over again to the point where there’s no children left in the community … take a small town … imagine all the kids in that town gone ... Some kids came home and others didn’t. And parents didn’t know why.”
Over the past five or so years, Isaac and all of Nelson have been driven to create more truthful resources for teachers and students.
Nelson CEO Steve Brown said Isaac’s voice is not a sole one within the company by any means.
“If we cannot create equity and inclusion in a classroom, what chance have we got in society?” said Brown.
“We had an obligation as Canada’s largest and oldest educational company ... to ensure that the history, the story, the atrocities (are taught),” Brown said. “The people who these dreadful things happen to deserve to be heard in an authentic, accurate and truthful way. And that’s part of our mission.”
Still, there is room for improvement. Indigenous scholars who spoke with the Star would like to see language change, from “assimilation” to “genocide,” for example, and chapters that bring the past to the present, and integrate traditional teachings.
Even with Indigenous authors and contributors, the language used and amount of content taught is still constrained to fit the curriculum laid out by the province. And beyond that, teachers doling out the curriculum need to be well-equipped on how to guide students through Indigenous lessons.
Textbooks and education resources are only one piece of improving education on the Indigenous experience. Another big chunk lies with the province.
In a statement to the Star, Ministry of Education spokesperson Caitlin Clark said dialogue with Indigenous partners is ongoing and, “Starting in 2019, Ontario ensured learning about First Nation, Métis, and Inuit perspectives, cultures, contributions and histories in areas such as art, literature, law, humanities, politics, including topics of significance such as residential schools and treaties, became a mandatory component of every student’s education in Grades 4 to 8 and Grade 10.”
Still, Ontario was heavily criticized in 2018 when it cancelled the continuation of an Indigenous-led rewrite of curriculum. And a few weeks ago, MPP and former premier Kathleen Wynne asked in Queen’s Park whether the government had plans to make residential school teaching mandatory, a question which House leader Paul Calandra didn’t directly answer.
A curriculum audit at the end of last year found that “a substantial portion of the current curricula in Ontario was developed many years ago” with over 65 per cent of the curriculum authored more than 10 years ago. Social studies was last published in 2018, and updated in 2019 to include more Indigenous teaching.
Keeping up with the curriculum even as it’s updated can be tough, with some schools in Toronto still using to some extent outdated textbooks no longer approved by the ministry.
One resource within districts that teachers can look to are their Indigenous education leads.
Troy Maracle is a member of Kenhteke Kanyen’kehá:ka or Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and is the Indigenous education lead for the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board.
He said he’s seen more desire from teachers across grades to teach Indigenous education, “so there needs to be more time spent in and given to helping teachers navigate these pieces.”
And as much focus as there is on residential schools recently, there is more to learn, including treaties, and current impacts. And in other subjects entirely.
“One of the things that I try to stress to people is, it’s not just residential schools. It’s not just history, because the legacy of residential schools (is) still happening today,” Maracle said.
“We don’t just have to look at Indigenous people from that historic perspective, or the social studies lens, there are so many connections that can be made to science.”
One example he mentions is bringing in Indigenous scientists to talk about star knowledge. “Every culture in the world has stories about the stars, because at one time, we all lived under them.
“We have to celebrate and recognize the resilience of Indigenous people. And it goes beyond social studies and history, to science and math and language.”
For Isaac, working in education to make sure these textbooks and materials are inclusive is linked to the ways her culture was absent in her own learning, and that painful memory at show and tell.
“I think that’s why I do what I do now,” Isaac said. “That’s why these resources are so special to me because I don’t want kids to feel like that.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org