Orange Shirts–Understanding Residential Schools for Brownies

This is a difficult topic. Most units don’t have First Nations representation*, and this can be problematic when discussing issues around Aboriginal Rights, History, and Reconciliation. Still, do not shy away from discussing and exploring these important issues with your Brownies, but proceed with care whenever you are representing other cultures, especially those currently fighting for their rights.

This unit is even more enriching if your Brownies have done the Virtual Meeting: Rally for Rights or something similar. I refer back to it a lot during discussions in this meeting. If you have not done that meeting yet, it makes a great follow-up too!

Meeting Plan

Orange Shirt/Residential Schools

Activity DescriptionWho is leading it?Program to be coveredMaterials NeededTime needed
GatheringShannen’s Dream Word SearchRODifferent Together, Gender Power, Canadian Connections, Your VoiceShannen’s Dream word Search5-10 min
OpeningOpening songs and promise
Activity 1Read Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell and discussionRODifferent Together, Your Choice, Canadian ConnectionsEpic Bookshttps://www.getepic.com/app/read/5316715-20 min
Activity 2Make a Memory bag or boxRODifferent Together, Canadian Connections, Being YouMarkers, Paint, stickers, glue, scissors, magazines to cut up, images/OR scrap fabric, needle and thread20-25
Activity 3Read and Discuss Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. CampbellRODifferent Together, Your Choice, Canadian ConnectionsEpic Books https://www.getepic.com/app/read/7361015-20
Activity 4Draw and talk about Canoes ROArt Studio, Canadian ConnectionsPaper, drawing/colouring tools5-10min
Activity 5Read Learning from Generation to GenerationROCanadian Connections, Different TogetherBlackline Master 2 Activity5-10 min
ClosingClosing songsRO3 min

Opening Activity

Shannen’s Dream word search

Shannen Koostachin was a Youth Education Advocate from the Attiwapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario. I use her word search as an icebreaker activity to introduce some of the words and language of the meeting. If meeting online, you can share the word search in the share screen of ZOOM, allowing the girls to annotate gives them a way to circle the words.

During this time, I also like to talk a little bit about Shannen and her all to short life journey. She is a very empowering female figure, and especially for Guiding as she was a child. Shannen had a dream: safe and comfy schools and culturally based education for First Nations children and youth. First Nations schools receive less funding per student than provincial and territorial schools, and zero dollars for things like libraries, computers, languages, or extracurricular activities. Many schools are plagued by serious health concerns such as extreme black mould contamination, high carbon dioxide levels, rodent and reptile infestations, sewage fumes in schools and unheated portables.

Shannen worked tirelessly to try to convince the Federal government to give First Nations children a proper education before tragically passing away at the age of 15 in 2010.

Activity 1

Read and Discuss Shi-shi-etko

Shi-shi-etko is gently moving and poetic account of a child who finds solace all around her, even though she is on the verge of great loss — a loss that native people have endured for generations because of the residential schools system.

in just four days, Shi-shi-etko will have to leave all that she knows to attend residential school. She spends her last days at home treasuring the beauty of her world — the dancing sunlight, the tall grass, each shiny rock, the tadpoles in the creek, her grandfather’s paddle song. Her mother, father and grandmother, each in turn, share valuable teachings that they want her to remember. And so Shi-shi-etko carefully gathers her memories for safekeeping.

You could discuss what it might feel life to be going away from your family to go to school, how would you feel? Talk about the fact that these children had no choice, and their parents had to way to advocate for them.

Activity 2

A Memory Bag

To build empathy around this story, I have the girls discuss what they might put in their own memory bags to remember about home, if they were going on a long trip. You may even wish to make some memory bags with your unit and encourage them to put the important things about the land they live on and the people they love into it, just like Shi-shi-etko. For online meetings with Brownies who have not learned to sew yet, you could use a box that they decorate or something a little simpler than a bag.

Activity 3

Read Shin-chi’s Canoe and Discuss

Shin-chi’s Canoe is a poignant story about a devastating chapter in First Nations history is told at a child’s level of understanding. In this story we return to Shi-shi-etko’s home to see what happens when it’s her younger brother’s (Shin Chi’s) turn to go to residential school.

He learns that they can only use their English names and that they can’t speak to each other. For Shin-chi, life becomes an endless cycle of church mass, school, and work, punctuated by skimpy meals. He finds solace at the river, clutching a tiny cedar canoe, a gift from his father, and dreaming of the day when the salmon return to the river — a sign that it’s almost time to return home.

In Shi-shi-etko, we don’t get to see her experiences at the Residential School. In Shin-Chi’s Canoe we will get a glimpse into that grim life. The children in your unit will be able to relate to Shin-Chi’s experiences and will likely share their outrage at the treatment of Residential School students before it is even time to discuss the book. However, I will also recommend asking the following questions:

  • What do you think about how Shin-chi kept track of time? (Dad said the spring salmon come up the river first, then the sockeye come in the summertime. That’s when we can go home again.)
  • Why did Shin-Chi have to keep his canoe hidden at all times?
    • What do you think the teachers would have done if they found the canoe?
  • Do you think Shi-shi-etko and Shin-Chi prayed and went to mass at home?
  • How do you feel about the food the children were given?
  • Why did the boys steal food?
    • What do you think about that?

Try very hard not to answer these questions for the Brownies, let them struggle with it a little. These are very big and complicated concepts, the likes of which most of the girls will be encountering for the first time. Let them work it out, but give them guidance and reassurance that they are on the right track. Do talk about the symbolism of the canoe, however. The canoe is a connection to Shin-chi’s past and future. it represents the hopes and dreams of First Nations Youth that they will be able to follow their own cultural path. This is a salient point as we move to our next activity.

Activity 4

Draw a canoe

Start with a discussion about the history of canoes:

The Canadian Canoe Museum suggests that “in the history of watercraft, the canoe of the Aboriginal Peoples is perhaps the ultimate expression of elegance and function. All its parts come from nature, and when it is retired, it returns to nature.” This sentiment is echoed by the craft’s historical importance.

Canoes were an essential part of life for most First Nations People. Save for the tribes of the Plains, it was the principal means of transportation across the country. Each Aboriginal group could be identified by their canoe designs and materials. Some boats were skillfully carved from the massive trees of the northern Pacific coast, transformed either into large vessels ideal for trade, war and hunting great whales or smaller crafts suited for creeks and small waterways. Outside the Pacific coast, Aboriginal builders used the rind of the White Birch tree to create the birch bark canoe. This canoe was a masterful invention. It could manage the rigours of early travel in the Canadian wilderness while carrying a great load but still be carried as the need arose.

Canoes are still used all the time across Canada, by aboriginal people, and many Canadians. Its a great time to mention that when your Brownies become Pathfinders, they will likely have the opportunity to learn how to properly canoe and go on extended canoe adventure trips!

Next, lets draw a canoe! This is the part where I remind my Brownies that Rainbow Owl is not very good at drawing, but that doesn’t stop me from trying!

Activity 5

Learning from Generation to Generation

I like to finish off on a positive note, by explaining what a First Nations Education was like before residential schools, and what many First Nations communities are trying to re-introduce components of into educating their youth. Most school-aged children love to hear about this, because it is so different (and appealing!) from our own experiences in the mainstream. Most of the kids think the way Aboriginal children learn is super-fun. It’s a great time to discuss how just because different cultures do things differently, it doesn’t automatically make it better or worse. We could benefit from really listening and appreciating how others do things and find ways to move forward together.

I use this document from The First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC):

*Full Disclosure: I identify as white, within the framework of the dominant white Canadian culture. My maternal grandmother’s people are Choctaw. I grew up experiencing and visiting her people and culture. The Choctaw are a People from the south western United States. I attempt to lend my knowledge and experience when discussing First Nations issues in Canada, however, neither the Choctaw Nation nor I speak for our brother and sister First Nations in Canada, but we stand with them, in solidarity as allies.

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