Insights February 2024

K(NO)w More: As a Middle-Aged, White Professional Woman, I Refuse to Use the Excuse “I Didn’t Know” About Indian Residential Schools Anymore.

Ashley Holloway

residential school

Canada. Affaires indiennes et du Nord / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / e011080274

As faculty in a post-secondary institution in Canada teaching within a healthcare leadership program, I have a responsibility to my students, the institution where I work, and to the broader Canadian society to do my job and do my job well. Further, I am a nurse who has worked in a variety of settings, geographical locations, and institutions for almost 20 years. As such, much of my work in the past (almost) decade has been influenced by the 2015 release of Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 Calls to Action, which includes specific recommendations for healthcare institutions and post-secondary education, among many others.

I remember sitting in an academic departmental meeting in 2015 where these specific post-secondary education recommendations were introduced to us, and we discussed how they might be implemented and addressed within the curriculum. At the time, I felt confused as I didn’t understand why this was necessary. It was only around then that I started “first” learning about Residential Schools and the atrocities committed by church and state towards Indigenous people in Canada for over one hundred and fifty years. It may be convenient for many of us from the same vintage as I am to rest on our laurels claiming the truth of Canada’s sordid history was largely omitted from our curriculum and we have been left unawares However, as I reflect on my own learning journey within this realm, I cannot abide by this excuse any longer. 

I consider myself lucky to be working in a post-secondary institution that places high value on and deeply respects these Calls to Action and has been working very hard at addressing them in tangible ways, including faculty education and support. I was recently in a meeting focussing on the topic: Decolonizing Curriculum. Many of the audience members present at the meeting were new faculty, both new to teaching and new to the college. As we went around the (virtual) room introducing ourselves, we were also asked to offer a bit of information on our knowledge level of Indigenous history. Many of the responses, albeit honest and demonstrating vulnerability in doing so, expressed they had limited knowledge on Residential Schools, the Indian Act, and the TRC Calls to Action, because “I didn’t know this was even happening.” I, myself, once said that very same thing in a similar meeting years earlier, that “I didn’t know this happened.” It wasn’t until I sat in this Decolonizing Curriculum meeting that I realized the arrogance and ignorance of this response. And I am painting myself with the same brush here.

The last Residential School closed in 1996, unless, of course, you count Grolier Hall, which was not state-run at the time, but closed in 1997. This was around the time when, as a newly minted legal adult, I moved from British Columbia to Alberta to do the things that newly minted adults do at that age. In other words, there were Indigenous children attending Residential Schools at the same time as I was in public school. Growing up on Vancouver Island, where the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous was as visible as the lines painted on the street, where the signs were tangible and physically palpable, how did I not see this? In other words, it was right in front of my eyes. 

A few years ago, I attended a workshop where one of the Indigenous speakers said, “humans were born with two ears and one mouth because we should be listening twice as much as we are speaking.” I often reflect on this saying as of late and cannot help but feel that, as a population, we have been doing exactly the opposite: we have been talking twice as much as we have been listening. Again, myself included. 

Indigenous people didn’t just start telling their stories in 2008 when the TRC was initially assembled as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They have been telling them for centuries, we just haven’t been listening. With either of our ears. Nor have we been paying attention; I suppose because it was easier not to see its dirty truth. Privilege is often invisible because those graced with it are taught not to see its ugly truth. Just as I was. The same way white society perpetuates the notion that the one who feels the negative effects of racism and inequality is the one who is tasked with overcoming that burden. It’s not my problem, right?

I was recently listening to an episode of CBC’s Writers and Company where Eleanor Wachtel interviewed German graphic artist Nora Krug, who was discussing the concept of ‘nostalgia’ in German culture. According to Krug, this concept is problematic in that it is difficult to “idealize our country because of the atrocities committed in our recent past.” As someone who likely had family members that took part in the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in WWII, she bravely asks the question as to how you reconcile this notion of having a sentimental longing for the past when the past is full of darkness? How can one be wistful towards that? 

With the new year fresh on our doorsteps, I am left with the thinking that perhaps Canada should adopt a similar mentality towards the concept of nostalgia, that perhaps we should all examine the part we play(ed) in our collective history, whether we truly “didn’t know this was happening.”

About the Author(s)

Ashley Holloway teaches healthcare leadership at Bow Valley College in Calgary, AB, and is a nurse with a Master of Public Health


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