Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver says a recent assignment about residential schools shows the need for better education for teachers on the topic. (File photos)

Sumas First Nation chief ‘dumbstruck’ by residential school assignment, says more education needed

Dalton Silver says school officials are trying to improve understanding, but much work is needed

Dalton Silver attended a residential school for two years. He has the same English language name as an uncle who died at the age of 10 while at another residential school. And he knows elders who still can’t talk about the trauma of residential schools.

So the Sumas First Nation Chief was “dumbfounded,” he says, when he heard that students at an Abbotsford middle school had been asked to list the positive aspects of residential schools.

“I thought, ‘This is 2020.’ My first thought was that it’s ridiculous to think that somebody would consider anything positive from the residential schools experience. It’s a big mistake on someone’s part. I was dumbstruck.”

Silver’s uncle died during a period in which nutritional experiments were being performed on children in residential schools. Numerous other horrors in the schools have been well-catalogued. But Silver says the assignment shows many people still don’t really understand the scope and scale of the abuses that occurred in the schools.

“It was a bad mistake made by an educator,” he told The News. “The school district and others are looking to educate students about this, but I think what happened with that assignment, it’s evident that the educators themselves need to know a little bit more about the experiences our people who went through in the residential school system.

RELATED: Abbotsford mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

“I think this is going to be talked about for a long time as an example of what not to do, and maybe through that people will consider all the options before doing or saying something like this.”

Silver has spoken to school district superintendent Kevin Godden and school board chair Stan Petersen.

“There needs to be some steps to undo the harm that happened,” he said. “Their minds and heart, I think, are in the right place in trying to move things forward and work on things together.”

(Godden has also written a letter to parents saying the school district took responsibility and would work to repair the harm caused.)

RELATED: Abbotsford school district must make amends for harmful residential school assignment: superintendent

But repairing the damage and improving awareness across Abbotsford will be neither easy nor quick, Silver said.

“We’re making progress but it’s a slow thing for the general public to really get to know us. There are so many misconceptions and so many things that need to be untaught. We have to go back a step and say, no this isn’t what happened, this is the way things really went.

“There were so many misunderstandings that I think it’s going to take some time for people to come to an understanding of who we are.”

Silver says things have improved in the last 30 years. And he said that Abbotsford becoming a more multicultural city, with more visible minorities, has helped broaden minds and increase inclusion, including for Indigenous people.

“I think now, with the influx of a lot of people from different walks of life, I think people are really now open to developing an understanding of one another.”

But he said the process will take time. More interactions with First Nations people could help teachers, parents and others learn more about residential schools, he said. But such interactions can also impose a burden on Indigenous people still dealing with the very-personal legacy of the schools.

“There are some elders who have yet to even talk about their experience at the schools. It’s so devastating, so traumatic to them.”

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