Don't sugarcoat the residential school experience-that was the message the Chilliwack school district got loud and clear from local First Nations advisors when it asked for input on new Sto: lo versions of three high school English courses.
English First Peoples 10, 11 and 12-a set of English courses focused entirely on works by First Nations, aboriginal, Metis, Inuit and other indigenous people from around the world-have been available to B.C. students since 2008 (EFP 12) and 2010 (EFP 10 and 11).
But for two years now School District No. 33 has worked with local Sto: lo First Nations elders and advisors to customize the courses with local content.
"Boy were they tough on me," said curriculum developer Corinne Barber at a presentation to the school board last month. "When we got to the section on residential schools, I went back to the table many, many times until they felt it was told exactly in a way that made them comfortable and was reflective of the history that they've been through."
Unsure about how far the courses' texts should go in depicting the details of the residential school experience, she told the Times she originally erred on the side of caution and picked a resource she thought would be "palatable" to aboriginal students studying the material along-side non-aboriginals.
"It's their parents," Barber said. "There's abuse; there's sexual abuse. Was it my job to bring that forward?"
But residential school survivors on the school district's Aborginal Education Advisory Committee said Barber's choices were too sanitized.
They directed her instead to Stolen From Our Embrace, an account of residential schools co-authored by local Sto: lo activist Ernie Crey.
"It was just an eye-opener," Barber said.
That book is now part of the new curriculum, and the way it was picked underscored the importance of the school district and local First Nations working together, she said.
"If you're going to put local things in, you better be sure that you're putting correct information and that it's accepted by the community," she said.
About a dozen students have taken English First Peoples 12, which has been available through Fraser Valley Distance Education and Sto: lo Adult Basic Education for a year now.
Barber finished writing the Grade 10 course last summer and is about halfway through the Grade 11 course.
All three fulfill provincial English language arts requirements, and English First Peoples 12 is accepted as an English prerequisite at major universities including SFU, UBC and UFV.
For Barber, the new classes-all of which begin with a module that explores Sto: lo history-offer a fresh alternative to traditional English courses, especially since the "texts" studied can include oral stories, drama, dance, song and film as well as written poetry and prose.
One local resource in the new curriculum, for example, is a DVD that features G.W. Graham secondary student Ben Purcell interviewing Chilliwack aboriginal authors Theresa Point and Nicola Campbell.
Another example is a Sto: lo Research and Resource Management Centre book on the repatriation of T'xwelátse, an important First Nations artifact.
"We have so many local resources," Barber said. "This is just the beginning."