Content: this post mentions racism and genocide.
If you’ve been following headlines, you’ve likely heard of a horrifying discovery in Canada—an unmarked mass grave of 215 children on the grounds of a former Indigenous residential school in British Columbia. Here’s a quick primer on the situation, followed by an explanation of how to talk to kids about residential schools, and some age-appropriate book lists for family learning.
What were residential schools?
Residential schools (called Native Boarding Schools in the US) were institutions created by the government and run by various churches between 1880 and 1996. Although they were called “schools”, the education they provided was minimal, and focussed mainly on training Indigenous children to perform domestic and manual labour—a deliberate attempt to limit their future potential. Politicians publicly said that the real goal of these institutions was to strip Indigenous children of their “savage” cultures and assimilate them into Euro-North American and Christian culture. This strategy was chillingly called “killing the Indian in the child.”
How many children were affected?
In Canada, over 150,000 children were taken from their families and forced to attend 139 residential schools. In the US, at least 350 of these boarding schools existed. Families and communities were devastated by the loss of their children, who were sometimes kept away for as long as 8-10 years.
What was life like in a residential school?
The institutions were run by priests and nuns, many of whom abused the children physically, emotionally, and sexually. Children as young as 3 were re-named, forbidden from speaking their own languages, and harshly mistreated. Abusive experiments were conducted, including deliberate malnourishment. In the cramped living conditions, deadly epidemics of tuberculosis and influenza were common, and medical care was inadequate.
What were the harms of residential schools?
Records list the deaths of 3200+ children in Canadian residential schools, but many more deaths were not recorded. The now-adult survivors of residential schools, and the communities whose children were taken, have endured immense trauma and inter-generational harm. “Genocide” is a word that should never be used lightly—but it is absolutely an appropriate way to characterize this situation.
What should happen now?
For decades, survivors have spoken about abuses, deaths, and mass graves at residential schools, but their accounts were mostly dismissed by the government. In this case, since the government would not fund the search, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation themselves led the research that discovered the undocumented mass grave of 215 children in Kamloops, proving that these survivor testimonies have merit, and that going forward, widespread investigations are needed. These are not atrocities of the distant past; the Kamloops Residential School only closed in 1969.
Today, Indigenous children are disproportionately taken from their families by the foster care system, communities are systematically denied infrastructure like clean water and proper medical care, there are thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People whose disappearances need to be investigated, and First Nations land rights are consistently threatened by resource extraction.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has called on the government to bring the truth to light. In the US, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) works to advance the rights of groups and individuals. Only when the truth is fully uncovered can the long process of reconciliation begin—and these processes must happen with the leadership of Indigenous nations.
How can I talk to children about these issues?
This topic is vast and disturbing, so discussing it with children may seem daunting, but it’s important for families to have age-appropriate conversations about inequality, and prepare children to become the next generation of adults who can bring justice to the world.
Starting at birth: Provide positive modern representation of Indigenous peoples
Remember that Indigenous nations and people do not only exist “in the past;” Indigenous people and communities are thriving today. Ensure that your kids see many positive examples of present-day Indigenous characters and real-life people. Make sure the stories they’re exposed to aren’t just about overcoming racism and trauma—introduce happy, successful, relatable storylines. Our book lists below can help get you started.
Starting at birth: Get specific
It’s inaccurate to think of just one “Indigenous culture.” There are hundreds of Indigenous nations, each with their own language, culture, traditions, and relationships with the land and other nations. It’s important not to flatten these many nations into one made-up “pan-Indigenous” identity—specificity is more correct, and shows respect.
As a family: Learn whose land you’re on
Use a resource like the Native Land map to find the specific nations near where you live. As a family, learn about these nations, their stewardship of the land, and their specific calls to justice, which you can help to amplify.
Read, and introduce language diversity
Read books by Indigenous authors, and support Indigenous-owned businesses whenever possible: here’s a list of Indigenous-owned bookstores in the US and Canada. Choose book versions that include an Indigenous language: not only does it expand kids’ minds to learn about other languages, but it also encourages publishers to contribute to Indigenous language revitalization.!
Great books for kids age 0-2:
- Little You / Kîya-K’apisîsisîyân (English & Plains Cree) – A beautiful, peaceful story of a family’s respect and love for their new baby.
- Sweetest Kulu – A bedtime poem, describing special gifts from Arctic animal friends.
Age 3-5: Talk about fairness, and help kids develop empathy
Preschoolers can’t process historical timelines, and violence is too intense for them, so don’t introduce historical oppression at this age. Instead, activate kids’ strong sense of fairness, to lay the foundation for further learning as they grow. In everyday life, discuss “what’s fair,” and help kids recognize and enact fairness through play.
Develop children’s empathy by discussing facial expressions and body language with story characters, prompting kids to imagine how each person might feel in a situation: “Hmm, what do these kids want? They both want to play with the blocks. How does she feel? She’s frowning; she looks frustrated! He’s crying; he looks sad! How could they solve this problem fairly?” These conversations model how to be observant and receptive to others’ needs. This empathy-building is especially effective if the children in the images look different from your child, as this provides a window into the universality of human emotions, beyond our visible differences.
You can also teach kids clear, direct language to set boundaries and address unfairness: “Please be kind.” “I don’t like what you said.” “That wasn’t fair to Tate!” “Tannis, does this feel ok to you?” “Cheyenne, would you like to come play with me over here?” This empowers children with agency and confidence to speak up—important tools for creating a more just world!
At this age, continue to present children with lots of positive representation of Indigenous characters and real-life Indigenous people, in present-day storylines that aren’t about trauma.
Great books for kids age 3-5:
- You Hold Me Up / Gimanaadenim (English & Ojibwe) – A lovely way to introduce language diversity while discussing how community members care for each other.
- Tanna’s Owl – Sweet story of an Inuk girl’s hard work to raise a baby Ukpik, or snowy owl
Age 6+: Talk about historical injustice…with a double dose of modern positive representation
This is the age to begin discussing oppression (still minimizing kids’ exposure to violence).
Always aim to double the amount of positive, modern-day representation of any group whose oppression you’re discussing. That way, the overall proportion of what kids take in won’t inadvertently emphasize trauma narratives.
Choose language that puts the accountability on the people who did the harm, not the people who experienced it. For instance, avoid saying “children were taken because they were Indigenous” or “children were forced into residential schools because of the color of their skin”—these framings victim-blame the children’s culture or appearance. It’s more accurate to say, “Children were taken because the government and church didn’t respect Indigenous nations.”
Great books for kids age 6+:
- When We Were Alone / Ispík kákí péyakoyak (English & Swampy Cree) – This book is outstanding, a respectful and survivor-focussed look at residential schools. The simple text is appropriate for kids of most ages, and gives a lot of room for discussion and reflection with older children.
- Nibi’s Water Song – Young Nibi goes on a journey to find clean drinking water for her community.
- Go Show the World – An inspiring tribute to Indigenous heroes, from historic and modern-day contexts.
Acknowledge bad feelings, but never dwell in them… use them to fuel action
These are hard, unfair situations, and in many ways these same injustices continue today. It’s healthy and authentic for kids to see that you feel badly about them, but the goal of this learning isn’t to wallow in feelings of guilt or sadness:
The goal is to empower children to strive for justice in the world!
So whenever you discuss injustice, always empower kids by moving forward into concrete action.
Take action: As a family, research the Indigenous nations whose land you’re on, and learn what those communities are asking for. Then, include your children in supporting Indigenous communities’ calls to justice:
- Write and illustrate a family letter to a politician, amplifying the priorities of an Indigenous nation near you.
- March in a protest (making sure to follow Indigenous organizers’ lead, and observe any social distancing or capacity requirements). You could also donate protest supplies along the protest route, like kid-made signs and packaged snacks.
- Ask your school and community groups to hire Indigenous educators, and bring in Indigenous leaders for talks and workshops.
- Learn about cultural appropriation. Since Indigenous peoples have been barred from practicing their culture, it’s unfair for others to participate casually. Treat Indigenous cultural practices with high respect, and participate only by direct invitation.
- Ask your school to add more Indigenous-written books to the library and curriculum, ideally in versions that include Indigenous languages.
Always choose actions that have been specifically requested by Indigenous leaders, and that move money, justice, safety, and self-determination towards Indigenous communities.
Involving your children in these actions will empower them, preparing them to be caring, engaged citizens who will help repair harm and build a more equitable world.
Further resources for adults
- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action
- National Congress of American Indians
- Jordan’s Principle – To ensure First Nations children have access to needed services
- Shannen’s Dream – To ensure fair education opportunities for First Nations children
- Native-Land.ca – Learn whose land you live on with this fascinating interactive map
- The University of Alberta’s free open online course in Indigenous Studies
- Indigenous Crisis Support, Canada
- Native Americans Crisis Support, USA
- Residential Schools Crisis Line | free 24-hour support for survivors | 1-866-925-4419
Lovevery has made a donation to First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, to honor the children who were taken and those who never came home, and to support education in First Nations communities today.
0 - 8 Years
How to discuss injustice toward Indigenous Peoples with your children, age 0 – 8
Here’s a quick primer on residential schools, followed by an explanation of how to talk to kids about them, and some age-appropriate book lists for family learning.
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0 - 8 Years
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