How teachers at Quebec’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board are learning about truth and reconciliation

Quebec’s third-largest English school board, whose vast territory includes the Kanien’kehá:ka community at the center of the 1990 Oka Crisis, wants its teachers to have a better understanding of Indigenous issues and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

On Tuesday, a group of educators from across the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board gathered at Laval Junior High School to learn about the Oka Crisis and the importance of teaching about the conflict from a Kanien’kehá:ka perspective.

The group screened filmmaker Tracey Deer’s movie beans, which is inspired by her experience as a 12-year-old during the turbulent 78-day standoff in Kanesatake and in Deer’s home community of Kahnawake. The teachers participated in a panel discussion with the principal afterward.

The event was part of a push by the school board over the past five years to incorporate more teaching about Indigenous issues, history and culture into its schools.

“It means so much to me because when I went to high school … I was surrounded by white kids, and the very little that we spoke about Indigenous people, it was like two pages in a history book,” Deer told the 40-or -so teachers, designated as liaisons for truth and reconciliation at the schools where they work.

“So even within my own school, I felt invisible and not important,” Deer said.

The teachers were invited to ask questions. They’ll be expected to share what they have learned with their students and colleagues.

The Laurier board’s efforts come as the Quebec government is working to implement recommendations made by retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens in his damning 2019 report on how Indigenous people are treated by the province.

Viens found “systemic discrimination” against Indigenous peoples across the spectrum of public services in Quebec, and he recommended the school curriculum be overhauled to properly reflect the history and contributions of First Nations and Inuit.

The Laurier board’s initiatives, including Tuesday’s workshop, are funded by a $51,000 grant from Quebec’s Education Ministry to raise awareness and training for educators about “Indigenous realities” in the province’s schools.

Beans is portrayed by Kiawenti:io Tarbell in the movie by Tracey Deer, which was screened for a group of teachers in Laval Tuesday. (Matt D’Amours/CBC)

One scene in beans is depicted exactly as Deer lived it in 1990, when she and her sister were being driven onto Montreal island in a convoy of women, children and elders evacuating Kahnawake, on Montreal’s South Shore.

As they drove into the city, an angry mob pelted their vehicles with rocks, as police stood idly by.

In the scene in the movie, Beans hides on the floor of her mother’s car as the vehicle’s back window shatters.

Deer has described that moment, along with others from that summer, as the most traumatic of her life.

‘It really hit home’

Vicki Fraser, a teacher at McCaig Elementary School in Rosemère and one of the liaison teachers at the event, said the movie changed her perception of the Oka Crisis.

“Watching the film today, it really hit home,” said Fraser, who was also a child at the time of the crisis. “We need a clear picture of history so that we can do things to make the future better.”

Fraser said the movie has given her a sense of urgency to act. She said she’d been reluctant at first to take on the role of liaison, out of fear that she didn’t know enough about Indigenous issues, “but you know, after today, I was thinking, it’s also my job to learn. ”

Elementary teacher Vicki Fraser is one of the truth and reconciliation liaisons for the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. (Matt D’Amours/CBC)

Deer became emotional while thanking the teachers.

“Events like this, I’m so happy to get the call, so happy to say yes. Events like this bring me healing. I’m so thrilled to see you all here and that you’re all putting in this effort, and you all care,” she said.

Michael Quinn, the school board’s assistant director of pedagogical services, said the board hopes to expand the scope of its program to spread awareness.

“We really want these issues to permeate the whole life of the school. What we’re trying to avoid is tokenism, which is very easy for our schools and for us all, to fall into the trap of wearing an orange T-shirt on Orange Shirt Day, maybe doing a charity event, and then that’s it. It’s done,” Quinn said.

“We want something that’s long-lasting.”

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