In December, Shaye Bear was shopping at Walmart in Prince Albert, Sask., to buy Christmas gifts for her family when she heard a man make a comment under his breath.
“There are a bunch of Natives” filling up the busy store, Bear heard him say. Bear, a 15-year-old from the nearby Muskoday First Nation, describes his tone as “disgusted.”
“People still think of us like low life people,” she said, adding that it’s one of about four instances she can recall where people made racist comments around her in public.
Bear is not alone in her experience in Prince Albert. The city of about 35,000 people — roughly 40 per cent of whom are Indigenous — struggles with racism. In 2015, Kijiji pulled down an ad for a three-bedroom home in Prince Albert because the title read, “3 bedroom east flat house, no natives please.” In 2017, an Indigenous woman said she was racially profiled at the local Sears, something the company denies. The separation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples that took root in the residential school era is still alive today, said Bear and her classmate Aleah Tait.
But there’s hope that the younger generation here will grow up with a different understanding of history and reconciliation. These two students, along with their non-Indigenous schoolmates, are being taught about how residential school history still affects their community today.
Those lessons are in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “education for reconciliation” call to action. One of the goals is to “make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.”
“There are some white people that are really helpful and that are actually pretty cool,” who give a glimmer of hope that things are changing, Tait said.
Schools aren’t alone in their work to support reconciliation; it’s something that the police department is working on as well. But Prince Albert remains a deeply divided city in a province that continues to struggle with racism.
Reclaiming Indigenous identity
In November 2017, Saskatchewan’s then-Minister of Education sparked controversy when she critiqued the integration of Indigenous history into schools during her Throne Speech response.
In the legislature, Bronwyn Eyre referenced her son’s school work, saying European settlers — which include her Norwegian and Ukrainian ancestors — were portrayed in schools as “colonialists, pillagers of the land who knew only buying and selling and didn’t respect Mother Earth.”
In her speech, she cited a desire to look into whether certain topics have become too “infused” in the curriculum.
Following calls for Eyre to resign, which then-premier Brad Wall dismissed, Eyre said she was committed to working toward strengthening the province’s mandatory treaty education and she made a public apology. After Scott Moe won the leadership of the Saskatchewan Party, succeeding Wall as premier, Eyre was moved to the Energy and Resources portfolio.
In the view of Bear and Tait’s teacher Victor Thunderchild, a member of Thunderchild First Nation, Eyre should have been better informed on her file before she made her comments in the legislature.
“She should have gone and taken a look at more of these things, done more research on her part” on the evolution of Indigenous education in schools before using the single example from her son’s work, he said.
“I always tell people [infusion has] been a long time coming.”
Every Monday morning, Thunderchild invites the more than 1,700 students and staff at Prince Albert Carlton Comprehensive High School to join him for a smudge. On the final Monday before Christmas break, he pulls out sage that his students handpicked in the fall, lights it and walks around a circle of 24 students and teachers. They cup their hands around the smoke and pull it into their chest and over their heads.
“When you go through the process itself, that’s when the real learning takes place. And when the kids began to see that, we began to see a change in them. We began to see a change on thinking there’s recognition for who they are,” Thunderchild said.
Thunderchild’s parents were banned from doing smudges when they attended residential school elsewhere. Prince Albert was home to Saskatchewan’s largest residential school, Prince Albert Residential School, which closed in 1996. Today, Carlton is the largest high school in the province, and its student population is about 60 per cent First Nations and Metis. Thunderchild sees the smudging, pipe ceremonies and round dances the school now hosts as a means of connecting young people to a culture and identity that was deemed lesser in the residential school era.
For Thunderchild, reclaiming Indigenous identity is part of reconciliation in his school.
These days, students at Carlton are learning about residential school history, and describe feeling a sense of shock, sadness and upset over the way First Nations children were ripped from their families and punished for speaking their language.
“It’s just crazy how people could just take kids from their families and just make them think that who they are is not the right person, that they can’t be who they want to be and who they should be,” said Grade 9 student Carter Kristensen.
Understanding residential school impacts
When Thunderchild joined the faculty at Carlton 25 years ago, driven by a desire to help young people understand Indigenous history, residential school history was not being taught at the school nor was it a part of the curriculum for high school students across the province.
Over the years, the development of the Native Studies curriculum brought lessons on residential schools, and in 2007, Saskatchewan became the first province in Canada to mandate treaty education in all courses and all grades.
Although Indigenous history is now well-integrated into schools across the province, longtime Carlton teacher Jana Wilkie said it’s only within the past four or five years that students have really come to understand residential school history. To do this the school hosts interactive sessions on Indigenous history, and teachers at the school have discussed residential schools alongside atrocities like Nazi Germany and the Ukrainian genocide, Wilkie said.
She said, in her view, residential schools created a vicious cycle that affects graduation rates and classroom performance for First Nations and Metis students.
“For a student, a vicious cycle is if they haven’t had that nurturing loving parental environment,” she said. “They’ve seen alcohol and drug abuse, because maybe many of those people had seen that from their parents and so it’s passed on from generation to generation.”
In Wilkie’s current job as co-ordinator of the Following Their Voices program, which has been touted by the province for boosting First Nations and Metis graduation rates, the goal is to build relationships between students and teachers.
However, the steps the school is taking with First Nations and Metis students are not always well-received by people in the city. For eight years, Principal Dawn Kilmer received anonymous letters from someone who asked disapprovingly why First Nations drumming took place during their graduation ceremonies. Her response?
“I just said, ‘because we do.’ That’s who we are… Until you want to come and talk to me, I don’t pay attention to that,” she said, adding that the drumming speaks to over 50 per cent of the grad class who are self-declared Indigenous students.
Wilkie’s job also includes helping teachers add Indigenous ways of knowing, like the medicine wheel, into the classroom.
While Wilkie’s goal with Following Their Voices is to “help our teachers help our kids see their self worth,” she said it’s an uphill battle when some students don’t have supports at home, classroom sizes are growing and cuts to education keep stacking up.
Wilkie questions if other sectors in Prince Albert are putting in the same efforts to seek reconciliation.
“I really feel like lots of time education gets — we always get — the job of making things right for society. In fact, I think it’s many people’s responsibility, many sectors of society,” she said.
‘The city of jails’
A key sector in Prince Albert that interacts frequently with the Indigenous population is the justice system, notes Prince Albert Residential School survivor Violet Naytowhow. The city has a federal penitentiary as well as correctional facilities for youth, women and men, all of which, Naytowhow said, are full of Indigenous people.
“In PA it’s like the city of jails,” she said.
Naytowhow worked with the justice system for years as a social worker in Prince Albert, and said she frequently saw inequity in how Indigenous Peoples were treated in the process.
“The reason why all our people are institutionalized today is because of residential school,” she said. “It’s not like it’s over, it’s not like it’s in the past. It happens every day still with the child care system, the child and family system, now it’s just moved to there and to the jails.”
Prince Albert police officers like Sgt. Kathy Edwardson and Police Chief Troy Cooper are acutely aware of the large number of Indigenous people they deal with on a daily basis.
“You would have to be blind not to realize the over-representation that’s there and it’s been there my entire career,” said Cooper.
As Cooper has risen the ranks — with a recent promotion that will see him become the chief of police in Saskatchewan’s largest city, Saskatoon, at the end of February — he has used his influence to educate staff on Indigenous Peoples. Edwardson is now in charge of delivering four-hour long residential school training to staff, along with a fellow officer who shares his own story of attending Prince Albert Residential School.
Cooper said, despite having a workforce that is near-representative of the community, with 36 per cent of the police service identifying as Indigenous, he worries about something called “implicit bias.”
“The officers that only see negative over and over and over, if they see it within one culture then they’re implicitly going to feel biased toward that culture,” he said.
The police have created an Indigenous Women’s Commission and a subcommittee “aimed at figuring out meaningful ways of educating staff and members that work here about residential school so they have empathy and [can] be educated about it,” Edwardson said.
Naytowhow sees Cooper, who is Metis, as a strong supporter of Indigenous Peoples.
“He doesn’t put up those walls of authority like others would,” she said.
Looking ahead to reconciliation
While some progress is being made in education and policing, Naytowhow is critical of the leadership at city hall. Unlike the nearby city of Saskatoon, they have not created a committee on reconciliation.
“I find it really unfortunate that right in this day and age that… there’s no policy on reconciliation, there’s no movement on it on the city’s part,” she said.
“I guess it’s the underlying truth that they don’t really believe, believe in it, reconciliation.”
But Mayor Greg Dionne said that despite not having a specific reconciliation committee, including Indigenous people is something the city does on a daily basis and is committed to.
“We have economic development committees with [Indigenous people], we have housing committees, we have planning committees,” he said. “As a leader you just have to make sure that that happens. And in the past I think it was an oversight.”
While many in the city continue to grapple with reconciliation efforts, teacher Victor Thunderchild thinks reconciliation in Prince Albert will take time.
“I was asked a while ago, ‘How long do you think true reconciliation would take?’ I looked at my grandson and said, ‘When he’s got children, we’ll be fully considered everything will be equal.’ Because what’s happening is, it took what, four generations to get where we are today? It’s going to take other generations to heal all that. It’s not going to be an overnight thing.”
This story was edited by Lindsay Sample with copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim.