The Children Already Knew That Every Child Matters
Written in September 2023:
Yesterday my breath caught, and my chest felt tight.
I was speaking to my class of first year early childhood education students about the importance of hard conversations with children, and ensuring that Indigenous cultures and communities are represented throughout the early learning environment to explore all year, not just on one day. In a previous lecture we discussed the importance of respect and value and how it pertains to each child as an individual, so it tied beautifully into this topic. You see, Indigenous children deserve to see themselves reflected in the spaces they play and learn, their loved and familiar foods valued and served on the menu, and all their interests, including their communities and cultures represented as an equitable part of their curriculum. In my experience as a mentor and now as an instructor, new educators, and many seasoned ones understand the deep social and emotional benefits this has for children but are unsure where to begin, and how to approach the hard conversations that can come as a part of making that commitment. They have a desire to make changes and are wary to make mistakes.
With that in mind, I shared some local resources such as early childhood education officers that are offered from a local band in our province, who are knowledgeable on offering developmentally appropriate experiences and education on Indigenous cultures for young children, and together we watched Cree author David A. Robertson read his story “When We Were Alone”.
I shared with them that the title of this book made me nervous first when I thought of sharing it with young children, until I read it, and now it has become a beautiful way for me to introduce the topic of residential schools to young children and acts as a conversation starter that presents a scary history in a way that isn’t scary, but doesn’t water it down.
I quoted some of the questions, concerns, and comments that children have had after talking about residential schools and was instantly brought back to a haunting feeling; A moment of clarity I’ll never forget as I learned alongside a group of preschoolers in 2021.
I paused, collected myself, and said something like “these children understand what is morally right, and you need to respect their understanding and find ways to tell them these heavy hard things.” The moment I was brought back to always gives me such an instant physical and emotional response. I documented it and shared it publicly on September 30th 2021 as follows:
Yesterday I cried.
In preparation for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation we read Phyllis’s Orange Shirt, and like they always do the children had questions. Why couldn’t she wear her shirt? Why is her hair cut? We had read and talked about residential schools before, but I guess yesterday it sank in.
I explained they had the children dress the same and cut their hair, so they all looked the same. They were wrong to do it and couldn’t see that every child is special, and so are their languages, choices, and culture. What they did was wrong.
They sat for a second in silence and then said “but that isn’t kind at all. Why would they do that?”
And then my eyes filled up and I just said “it’s not kind and I don’t know why they did it. It’s not ok.”
There was something in that moment, looking at children the same age as those who were taken from their families, searching for understanding in their eyes. To them it just doesn’t make sense because it simply doesn’t make sense. It was almost haunting, heartbreaking, and scary.
Every child matters. Every single one. The children know that. It’s horrific that we didn’t.
Questions for reflection
1. How have you approached conversations about colonization, decolonization and reconciliation with children and other early childhood educators in your lives?
2. How might early childhood educators take action towards reconciliation in moments of uncertainty? What does it mean to hold commitments to truth and reconciliation while being sensitive to the different journeys and pathways of others?
3. Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair of the Ojibway Nation has stated that “education is the key to reconciliation,” adding, “education has gotten into this mess, and education will get us out of this mess” (as cited in Watters, 2015). What does this quote make you think about the role of early childhood education in contributing to a more just future?
Government of Canada. (2018). Indigenous early learning and child care framework. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/indigenous-early-learning/2018-framework.html
Marker, M. (2006). After the makah whale hunt: Indigenous knowledge and limits to multicultural discourse. Urban Education (Beverly Hills, Calif.), 41(5), 482-505. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085906291923
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/trc/IR4-7-2015-eng.pdf
Tuck, E. & Yang, W. K. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society,1(1), 1-40.
Robertson, D. & Flett, J.(2016). When we were alone. HighWater Press.
Watters, H. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation chair urges Canada to adopt UN declaration on Indigenous Peoples. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca.
Webstad, P. & Nicol, B. (2019). Phyllis's orange shirt. Medicine Wheel Education.
About the Author
Sarah Kirby is an Early Childhood Education Instructor at the College of the North Atlantic, in Newfoundland and Labrador, while she continues her own studies at the University of New Brunswick. She has diverse experience throughout the early learning sector and is a passionate advocate for quality, accessible early learning and childcare and developmentally appropriate practice.
In 2022 Sarah was recognized as a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education for her commitment and leadership to inclusion in early learning. Sarah is the CAYC provincial director for Newfoundland.
Photo permission by Sarah Kirby