What We Learned: Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools.

What We Learned: Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools.

Helen Raptis with members of the Tsimshian Nation

Reviewed by Sean Carleton

The impetus for What We Learned, a collaborative book written by Helen Raptis and twelve members of the Tsimshian Nation, was Raptis’s archival discovery of a 1947 class list from the Port Essington Indian Day School on the Skeena River estuary near Prince Rupert. On the list were names of the last group of children to attend the remote day school before it was closed and the students were integrated into the local elementary school, four years before a government integration policy was established in Canada. Finding the list sparked questions for Raptis: how did students navigate traditional Tsimshian education and formal schooling? Why were Indigenous students at Port Essington integrated into a “white” school so early? How did integration shape the everyday educational experiences of students? What We Learned provides answers to these questions and, in doing so, makes an important contribution to our knowledge about Indigenous education in twentieth century British Columbia.

What We Learned, though, is not a standard academic text. While Chapters 1-3 provide the context necessary to understand the effects of the transition from segregated to integrated schooling in Port Essington, Chapters 4 and 5 are solely devoted to presenting reflections from twelve former Tsimshian students from two generations (those born in Port Essington before the 1950s and those born after the 1950s). These chapters are integral to the book and the participants are listed as co-authors: Mildred Roberts, Wally Miller, Sam Lockerby, Verna Inkster, Clifford Bolton, Harvey Wing, Charlotte Guno, Don Roberts Junior, Steve Roberts, Richard Roberts, Carol Sam, and Jim Roberts. In Chapter 4, the first cohort (pre-1950s) recount their experiences of having to navigate “two worlds of education” (4): the traditional Tsimshian teachings from community members that emphasized the importance of the land and natural world for subsistence, and the formal educational environment of the Indian Day School and then the integrated elementary school, which were focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic. By contrast, in Chapter 5, the second cohort (post-1950s) recalls receiving less traditional teaching as they mostly attended integrated elementary schools in Port Essington and then in Terrace. While both chapters highlight students’ common experiences of discrimination at integrated schools, Chapter 5 shows clearly how the post-1950s cohort gradually felt more disconnected from Tsimshian lifeways as they were forced to move away from Port Essington and as they were fully integrated into public schools elsewhere.

In Chapter 6, Raptis analyzes both sets of student reflections and makes a convincing argument for the need for further research on day schools in Canada. Indeed, day schooling for Indigenous children is an understudied aspect of the educational past. At the same time, however, Raptis puts forward a number of claims about research on residential schools that need to be challenged. She posits that the amount of scholarly attention paid to residential schools serves to block research on day schools, and, in the epilogue, she suggests that we move “beyond the shadow of the residential school” (155). This is dangerous terrain. While I understand the view that the “residential school system was just one plank in a larger colonization strategy” (153), as a scholar of Indigenous education I contend that we are only beginning to comprehend the Indian Residential School system, about which much more research still needs to be undertaken by academics, survivors, and community members. Now is not the time to back away from learning more about the devastating effects of Indian Residential Schools. What is needed, then, is more research on residential schools and on day schools -- and public schools as well -- to fully comprehend the relationship between education and colonialism in Canada.

Despite this concern, What We Learned offers a fascinating account of the complexities of everyday educational life for Tsimshian students in twentieth-century British Columbia that will be of interest to many inside and outside of the academy.

What We Learned: Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools
Helen Raptis with members of the Tsimshian Nation
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017