As we hear more news of mass graves being discovered at residential school sites across the country, a local teacher is encouraging people to start from a place of curiousity when learning more about the indigenous experience.

Brett Schmall is with Hanover School Division, splitting his time between teaching at Niverville High School and a divisional coach supporting teachers and is also involved in indigenous education support.

Schmall recalls a conversation with his nine-year-old daughter that took place during Orange Shirt Day. They were reading a book about residential schools that told the story of a family that hid their children to avoid sending them to residential school.

His daughter, recognizing her Metis heritage with her grandmother and father asked, ‘If this was to happen to us, would you have hidden me or would you have let them take me?’

Schmall remembers having to keep his composure as he replied, telling her that of course, he would have hidden her.

‘It's really eye-opening when a moment is made available to you where you consider, what was going on and what if that was me in that situation? And then if she was taken, how do I go on with that? It got even more real.’ That moment was what he called a brand-new invitation into deeper consideration of the history of residential schools.

It’s been 6 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Report was released in 2015 including the 94 Calls to Action, and Schmall hopes that the country is starting to wake up to the indigenous situation with news of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country.

‘It's sad that it takes a release of information like this and I don’t think this is the last we’re going to hear about unmarked graves around and amongst former residential schools.’

Schmall has attended many learning experiences with indigenous knowledge keepers and elders over the years and referred to what author and professor James Sinclair said in response to the question of guilt. ‘You're not being blamed, Canada. But it is your inheritance, and what is going to happen next, is up to you.’

Over the years, Schmall has learned to look at the idea of reconciliation as one of relationship and friendship.

‘I think Canada will always be in relationship with indigenous people. What kind of relationship do Canadians want to have? There will be hard things that need to be talked about. But I think if people are willing to enter the room and stay in the room for those discussions, and recognize that if Canada as a country, is going to move forward, we've got to take care of all of our people.’

Schmall often comes back to teaching and the classroom when thinking through the response to the indigenous experience and wanting all his students to have the best learning experience. ‘I think that that principle, that notion, that concept, extends Canada-wide, a need to care for all the people that share the space. But we're all treaty people. And what does that mean and what are we doing about that?’

So, what does that look like? How do individuals move forward into reconciliation?

According to Schmall, it involves making time and asking questions. ‘When one of us hurt, we're all hurting, so recognizing that people are hurting and getting curious about it, especially if we don't know.’

When Schmall came through the education system, residential schools were not discussed or covered in any detail at any age of his educational experience. And he is thankful that it is now being discussed and that he is able to be part of creating that learning experience for students.

He is hopeful for what students will be learning and says it’s almost like they are excited to move forward in learning about it. ‘They're aghast that this would have happened, but they're wondering about how do we collectively care for each other and move forward? And I know those conversations are going home and greater conversations are being had.’

He shared a lesson he learned from an elder at a land-based learning session on the value of listening. 'She reminded those gathered that we have two ears and one mouth and invited us to consider that maybe we have two ears because we should be aiming to listen twice and then speak once and double up our listening time in an intentional way.’

Reading the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation is where Schmall often recommends people start when they are wanting to learn more about residential schools and the indigenous experience and steps that need to be taken.

Schmall also encourages people to recognize that we've got indigenous neighbours not too far away in Roseau River First Nation and Buffalo Point First Nation. ‘It takes a lot to be intentional and wanting to enter into a relationship, but I think that intentional first step is so necessary.’  

As people are hurting Schmall suggests that we aim to care for people and get curious. Acting on the things we’ve learned, read and researched, and growing with the people we’re having an opportunity to learn about and be to also be a good neighbour.

Schmall is grateful for the learning experiences he’s had with his indigenous educators. ‘I've never seen grace embodied so readily and so consistently by people as I'm asking as I'm learning as I'm hearing stories and some hearing responses to lived experiences.’

As a teacher Schmall has an interesting perspective on what is going on in the school for indigenous students. ‘I'm hearing students who are indigenous lending their voice being empowered. I'm hearing students who have a strong sense for justice and recognizing injustice saying ‘if this is the way it has been or if this is the way that we've used to understand, then there's this whole new wave of understanding and we need to take and act on it.’

Schmall is excited for the opportunities for his students, ‘it's been cool to see some students thinking about that and then starting to recognize that their voice matters and that they can speak and be heard in ways that adults sometimes can’t be.’

Students are learning more about residential schools which has the opportunity to make a big difference in the classroom and then out from there into homes and communities and the greater world. Schmall says, ‘I'm hopeful as they recognize and, move on and think about how they can move on what they're learning and what they can do with it.’

Reading list as suggested by Brett Schmall

  • Indian Horse and Keeper N' Me by Richard Wagamese. Wagamese is an amazing storyteller. These two texts invite readers to consider the topics of residential schools and reconciliation through narrative/fiction.
  • Two Families- Treaties and Government by Harold Johnson and Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. Both Johnson and Vowel are lawyers, but each of their texts is sans the legalese one might expect. Informative specific to Treaties and current Indigenous issues in general.
  • 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act by Bob Joseph. A small book that packs a big punch! Some Canadians may know of the Indian Act, but this book opens it up and explores the topic in detail.
  • When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! & Lucy & Lola by Monique Gray Smith and Richard Van Camp- A novella with middle schoolers as the target audience. That said, both stories are a great read and invite further learning around reconciliation.
  • When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson- This one is a children's book that focuses on the theme of reconciliation but is absolutely FANTASTIC for readers of all ages