05/14/2015 07:00 EDT | Updated 05/14/2016 05:59 EDT

Cree students and non-indigenous teachers bridge cultural gap

Betty Anne Forward works at Voyageur Memorial School, a high school in Mistissini, Que., where most of the students are Cree, and most of the teachers are non-indigenous.

Forward says because she is of mixed Cree and non-Cree ancestry, she often feels caught in the middle when there is friction between well-meaning teachers and frustrated students.

That's what happened when a history teacher came to her for advice about how to talk about residential school history and assimilation.

"Obviously they [students] hear about a lot of the bad things that happened, a lot of the abuse and they feel terrible … And I guess a lot of times they bring those things up and say …. 'the white man this, the white man that,'" she said.

Forward wanted to find a way to help the non-indigenous teachers and Cree students work through their differences, and she turned to her network on Facebook to get ideas.

She asked, "How can I get students to stop blaming the 'white man' for all their problems?"

One of the people who commented on her Facebook post was Allan Cooper, a residential school survivor from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi. He suggested inviting someone who had experienced residential school to speak to students and faculty. So Forward asked Cooper to do just that.

Foreman knew she was on to something when she saw how the students reacted.

"When Allan first spoke, it was silence. I think he spoke for an hour I don't know the time just seem to go, we didn't even notice. He told his story, he explained he was five years old the first time he left his community and went to school," she said.

Cooper said to the students, "I am more than a survivor. I am a conqueror."

The school organized group discussions and also asked the students to share what they learned from Cooper's presentation.

"I was amazed because almost every single one of them shared something they learned," Forward said.

"For example one student said, 'One thing I got from your story is I really need to appreciate things a lot more,' and then someone else shared, 'I really learned about forgiveness how important it is.'"

It wasn't just the students who learned something valuable.

"Speaking for myself, this was the first time anyone has ever shared their experience with me. I learned that we don't need to look too far from our own backyard for teaching resources … Our people are our teachers. We need to learn from them to maintain our own identity," said Forward.

She has also noticed a greater understanding between the teachers and students since the event.

"It was amazing. It was above and beyond what we had expected."