• Charlene Bearhead

    Charlene Bearhead was formerly the Education Lead at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. She is now Education Coordinator for the National Inquiry of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. (Photo: Tony Hillier)

Updated June 30, 2017

Charlene Bearhead has spent her career as an educator sharing the truth of Canada’s residential school system and its devastating impact on generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. As Canada kicks off celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Bearhead, formerly the Education Lead for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba and now the Education Coordinator for the National Inquiry of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, shares her thoughts on why it’s more important than ever for Canadians to engage with the reconciliation process.

On her role with the NCTR

I work with ministries of education, school boards, and other organizations to help ensure that they have what they need to share the truth of residential schools, whether that’s records and documents from our archives specific to their territories or survivor testimony from within that territory. But I think the most meaningful part of my role is the networking — connecting people across the country to share what they’re working on. There’s so much work to be done, and everyone’s at different places along the path, but they all know it’s important to make a difference.  

On residential schools and the loss of indigenous knowledge

There’s a line in the 1986 United Church apology that always resonates with me. It says, “We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer.” Truth and reconciliation is also about acknowledging the fact that every person in this country is worse off because of that interference with indigenous knowledge — the very knowledge that kept this land well and vital and the water drinkable and the air clean for thousands of years before contact. We wouldn’t be in the state we’re in with our environment in this country if it hadn’t been for that interference.

On including residential schools in provincial curricula

Every province and territory is working on that at one level or another. In Alberta, for example, it’s currently being built into the professional practices standards for every teacher, superintendent and school board trustee, and it’s also mandatory in the curriculum. The residential school experience is just one part of the history of colonization, so it’s critically important that we also teach First Nations, Métis and Inuit history. People look to the territories as the leaders in this because they were the first to develop mandatory northern studies courses for high school students. 

On why it’s essential to teach the truth about residential schools

In my view, it’s the most foundational injustice that’s happened in what we now call Canada. There have been many injustices — the Chinese head tax, for example, and the Japanese internment camps — but what could be more foundationally unjust than the taking and holding of children as a means of controlling their parents, as a means of land acquisition?

On making sure indigenous voices are included in Canada 150 celebrations

It’s been exciting to see non-indigenous organizations working with indigenous people and communities to make sure indigenous knowledge and practices and people are honoured and celebrated. I think it’s really important for anyone who goes to any Canada 150 celebration to have their mind wide open and think, “What is the back story to this? What has been dispossessed or interfered with or destroyed or pushed out of the way so that what we’re celebrating could happen?”

On barriers to reconciliation

There are many layers to reconciliation, and one is the nation-to-nation relationship. If we look within the treaties, the only entity that Canada can actually have a relationship with is an individual First Nation, so reconciliation means working within that to ensure equity in funding and the return of the ability for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to govern their own lives. 

On why education is the key to reconciliation

To me everything goes back to education, because that’s the one common experience that all Canadians have. No matter what your cultural background, everybody has to go to school. So if we do it right and we do it in a respectful way, it’s the best opportunity we have to provide every child with the truth and the chance to consider what makes a just society.