On September 30th, I led my grade seven class to the Quay for an outdoor break in the fresh air and sunshine following our chemistry quiz. On our way back, we took a moment to pause and view the Fraser River. A teachable moment arose when we noticed a small uninhabited island covered in poplar trees.
Before colonists arrived, Poplar Island and the New Westminster side of the Fraser River belonged to the Qayqayt First Nation (pronounced Kee-Kite). In 1879, after British Columbia joined confederation, the 27-acre island was allocated as a reservation and the Qayqayt people were moved there by the federal government. When a smallpox epidemic devastated the local people in 1889, their reserve was turned into a smallpox victim quarantine area for aboriginals. A poorly funded hospital was built. It received only $100 for building costs and staff, the approximate equivalent of a city electrician’s monthly wage. Smallpox reduced their band numbers from 400 to 100.
Before I shared this history with my students, I asked them if they understood why many members of the JKCS staff and student community were wearing orange shirts today. A student shared Phyllis’ story; a young girl whose new orange shirt, a gift from her granny, was taken from her at the age of six when she attended residential school. Today, we wear orange in recognition of the harm the residential school system caused to thousands of First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children.
We imagined how the residential school experience would have felt, and we discussed how systemic racism is still a problem in Canada. We talked about what it means to reside on the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish people, that our school resides in this territory, and how non-indigenous Canadians continue to benefit from the use of land and resources taken from First Nations. As a Christian community, we felt called to pray for healing for those who were harmed by residential schools, and forgiveness for our country’s past and present discriminatory government policies. We asked for guidance for our society as we take steps to support healing and reconciliation.
This important learning opportunity compliments Mr. Carey’s grade seven Social Studies unit which includes Sylvia Olsen’s story, “No Time to Say Goodbye,” written to honour the First Nations people who experienced residential schools. Beyond academic mastery, our students are learning about the redemptive work that Jesus Christ invites us to participate in within ourselves, our communities, and the created world.
Secondary School Principal