Manitoba school division apologizes after students asked to list ‘positive’ qualities of residential schools

The superintendent of the Hanover School Division is apologizing after a recent homework assignment in which students were asked to list “positive” qualities about residential schools, despite the well-documented atrocities these schools inflicted upon Indigenous children. 

Bambi Bertholet, who has Cree ancestry, said a family friend brought the Grade 9 class assignment to her attention. 

She said she immediately contacted the school division. 

“When it came up here, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this still happening?'” said Bertholet, whose friend’s daughter was in the social studies class at Steinbach Regional Secondary School. The student said the question may have been inappropriate, Bertholet said.

The take-home assignment asks students to “make a list of what you think are two positive and two negative effects of residential schools.”

The question then acknowledges students hadn’t read about any positive effects yet, “so you will have to come up with your own answer to this part of the question.” 

A piece of paper on a wooden table.
The question on the take-home assignment asks students to list two positive and two negative aspects of residential schools. It also says students will have to ‘come up’ with their own answer about the positive elements. (Submitted/Bambi Bertholet)

Hanover superintendent Shelley Amos said the teacher sourced the material from an out-of-date provincial course package that’s no longer in use. She said the material doesn’t represent the school division.

“The study questions shared in this instance do not reflect the values we strive to uphold: truth, reconciliation, respect, and collaboration with Indigenous peoples,” Amos said in a statement, posted to the division’s website.

“We extend our deepest apologies to all those affected and will take steps to ensure this oversight does not happen again.”

Bertholet, who lives in Steinbach, has relatives who are residential school survivors and members of the Sixties Scoop.

She wondered how a question asking students to look for positives out of residential schools could surface once again, considering the blowback when similar questions have arisen elsewhere in Canada.

“I think the teachers are just trying to do their best and they’re pulling from whatever is approved curriculum is my assumption,” she said.

Bertholet said she approached the division in early April, but didn’t receive any update on how Hanover School Division was responding, if at all. 

The division explained Friday the outdated material was taken from a Grade 9 social studies curriculum, created by Manitoba Education, that purports to explore “Canada in a contemporary world.” The publishing date wasn’t known, the division said.

The province said the document has been subject to revision over the years.

Education Minister Nello Altomare said his office received Bertholet’s complaint in early April as well, and his office took “immediate action to ensure Hanover School Division is enforcing the use of the provincial curriculum and has eliminated outdated teaching materials.” 

Finding positives shortsighted: Bertholet

Residential schools removed Indigenous children from their homes and stripped them of their culture and language. It also led to abuse, and some children never made it home.

Trying to find positives out of these schools “perpetuates a stereotype” that invalidates what Indigenous people endured, Bertholet said.

“Settlers who have been fed these kinds of lies are saying, ‘Oh, but there were good things, though,’ and it just minimizes people’s very real experiences.” 

Woman with glasses smiles in a closeup.
Bambi Bertholet, who has Cree ancestry, complained to the Hanover School Division and the provincial government about the residential schools homework assignment. She says she’s been pleased with their response. (Bambi Bertholet/Supplied)

She’s pleased the division and province has acted. She considers what happened to be an educational opportunity. 

“If I want to honour my Cree ancestors, it’s to stand up and say something when something needs to be said.” 

In the school division’s apology, Amos said Hanover has adopted the provincial Indigenous education policy framework, which strives to incorporate Indigenous pedagogy, languages and culture into the classroom.

She added the division regularly invites speakers and educators from the Indigenous community and an Indigenous learning and assessment coach is on staff.