Ruby was seven years old and in Grade 2. She was to prepare a class presentation on a topic of her choice, and decided she wanted to tell the story of why she doesn't speak her First Nations language.
Ruby wanted to share information about the effects Indian residential school had on her family and community in terms of language loss. This was a very important topic that meant a lot to her. She wanted everyone to know about how wrong Indian residential schools were.
Ruby and her father spoke to Ruby's teacher to describe the intended presentation. The teacher suggested Ruby instead teach the class a few words in her language or about hunting or fishing. Ruby explained once more that she wanted to share the reasons why she doesn't know much of her language. The teacher approved the project.
However, the next day after school the teacher informed Ruby's mother that the topic of Indian Residential Schools was inappropriate. Ruby's parents sat with their seven-year-old daughter and talked about what happened. Ruby usually loved school, but she started saying that she didn't want to go back.
Her school had given her the message that her story is unacceptable and unimportant. That she, because of her culture and how residential schools had had an impact on shaping her life, is unacceptable and unimportant.
A meeting was set up with the principal, and the end result was that Ruby's teacher very reluctantly agreed to allow Ruby to share her story. The following day, the teacher apologized to Ruby, but then told her she had better not scare anyone or give them nightmares because of her presentation.
I had a chance to interview Ruby about her experience. I am grateful for her candid answers and her courage in reliving what was for her, a very painful experience.
How old were you when you first heard about residential schools?
I think I was about six years old.
How did this topic come up?
When I was in Grade 1, my teacher said that I was only allowed to speak English at school. I didn't know why people didn't want us to speak our First Nations language. I talked to my mom and dad about it. Then my dad told me about residential schools. He also told me about his hair getting cut off at school, even though he didn't go to a Residential School. Then my Dad showed me the video of an apology from Prime Minister Harper. When we talked to my Grade 1 teacher about it, she said she was sorry about it and I forgave her.
What do you think residential schools have to do with First Nations languages?
They took away our language by taking kids from their moms and dads. At school, the sisters and brothers were split up and couldn't even talk to each other either. The teachers at residential school thought their ways and their language were better. And now we speak English and do not know much of our language. Our family is taking a language class together now so that we can all learn.
What did you want other students in your class to learn?
I chose the topic of residential schools because people need to know about the past. I wanted to tell my classmates why I couldn't speak very much of my language. The past is our history and everybody should know. Our class learns some history like Remembrance Day and wars, so we should also talk about residential schools so that it won't happen again.
How did your teacher's actions make you feel?
I felt mixed between sad and hurt when my teacher didn't want me to tell the class about residential schools. Then when she did let me share, she stopped me before I could tell about the Prime Minister's apology or pray for healing for people who went to residential school. My teacher didn't tell me anything good about my presentation, she just said that I should choose a shorter topic next time. But I still think this was an important topic.
How did the other students react to what you shared with them and how did that make you feel?
One student was fooling around but the rest looked serious and listened. Some of the students looked sad when they heard about residential schools. Lots of kids had questions during question time, more than any other presentation. It made me feel good that they were interested and wanted to know the truth. They thought that the residential schools were totally not fair or right.
Why is teaching people about residential schools important to you?
No one is First Nations like me in my classroom. So there are quite a few people who don't know about my culture or about the past. I think that all kids in Canadian schools should know about residential schools because this happened here and justice and truth are very important. I don't want something like this to ever happen again in our land.
Do you believe that you are too young to learn about or teach about residential schools?
No, I am not too young because I started learning in Grade 1. I talked with my family about it. I read Shi-Shi-Etko and Shin-Chi's Canoe in grade one. Then later in grade two, I read more books for kids about residential schools. I know enough to teach others about it and I am still learning more about residential schools.
Is there anything you would like to say to other young First Nations, Inuit, or Métis youth after this experience?
Be brave. It takes courage to stand up for what's right. You may face some troubles, but it is worth it. Because you can do it with God's help. The Creator gives us our culture and gives us courage. When I prayed about it, I felt better because I knew that God was with me.
Ruby's name has been changed to protect privacy
A more detailed version of this article was published on the author's blog âpihtawikosisân.