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Social Science Native American Studies

What We Learned

Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools

by (author) Helen Raptis

with members of the Tsimshian Nation

UBC Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2016
Native American Studies, British Columbia (BC), History, Post-Confederation (1867-)
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    Feb 2016
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    Feb 2016
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    Publish Date
    Aug 2016
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Stories of Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools have haunted Canadians in recent years. Yet most Indigenous children in Canada attended “Indian day schools,” and later public schools, near their home communities. Although church and government officials often kept detailed administrative records, we know little about the actual experiences of the students themselves.


In What We Learned, two generations of Tsimshian students – a group of elders born in the 1930s and 1940s and a group of middle-aged adults born in the 1950s and 1960s – reflect on their traditional Tsimshian education and the formal schooling they received in northwestern British Columbia. Their stories offer a starting point for understanding the legacy of day schools on Indigenous lives and communities. Their recollections also invite readers to consider a broader notion of education – one that includes traditional Indigenous views that conceive of learning as a lifelong experience that takes place across multiple contexts.

About the authors


  • Winner, Jeanne Clarke Award for Local History, Prince George Library and History Association
  • Winner, Publication Award, Canadian Association of Foundations of Education
  • Short-listed, Canadian Aboriginal History Book Prize, Canadian Historical Association

Contributor Notes

Helen Raptis is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria. The members of the Tsimshian Nation are 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

Editorial Reviews

In What We Learned: Two Generations Reflect on Tsimshian Education and the Day Schools, Helen Raptis reminds historians of education that not all Indigenous children were forcibly removed and sent to residential schools … Raptis and her collaborators challenge not only histories of Indigenous education that centre on residential schools, but also histories of British Columbia centred on white settlers.

What We Learned will be a significant resource for those seeking to widen and deepen conversations on our shared past.

BC BookLook

One of the few serious studies of the subject, [What We Learned] provides an unusually detailed account of the transition from on-reserve to integrated schooling through the eyes of those who were there … With its contextual richness, innovative methodology, sharp analysis, and poignant personal narratives, What We Learned is a book that deserves a wide audience.

BC Studies

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

BC Studies

Too many stories are still untold; too many memories have been lost to the ages; too many biases have coloured our view of the past. That is why a book such as this one is a treasure, an overdue and culturally aware look at a forgotten aspect of the education of Indigenous children in British Columbia.

Canada's History, Vol. 97 No. 1, February 2017

[Raptis] draws on a rich range of Indigenous scholarship, as well as the Tsimshian oral histories, in producing a nuanced account of learning that complicates the current focus on residential schools and that radically questions the equation of formal education with learning …The result is a perceptive, self-reflexive and important contribution, at once substantive and methodological.

Oral History Forum d'histoire orale

Helen Raptis has written an important book about Tsimshian educational history. It is also a book about building research relationships with Indigenous communities. It is a work that recognizes, implicitly, that Indigenous history does not run in a straight line but is more liquid and circular. The journey to understand the Indigenous past requires deft canoe navigation through riptides and crosscurrents, past colonization’s half-submerged debris. Landing on the beach, one discovers no conventional separation between past, present, and future. There are only the stories—the stories and the sacred landscape.

History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 57 No. 1, February 2017

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