Shocked reaction to B.C. residential school discovery highlights lack of Indigenous education in Canada: experts
TORONTO -- After many Canadians reacted in shock over the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at a former residential school site, experts are calling out the lack of Indigenous education in the Canadian curriculum.
The Kamloops, B.C. residential school was just one of over 140 residential schools that were operating in Canada, funded by the federal government and run by churches since the 1880s. With insufficient Indigenous history within school curriculums, some school boards across the country are sharing how they’re pushing to advance Indigenous education in the classroom.
The Calgary Board of Education and the Toronto District School Board have said that they’re committed to furthering Indigenous education in the classroom in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada’s Calls to Action. The Surrey School District has also announced that they will be collaborating with the Aboriginal Learning department to provide learning tools and resources on residential schools for teachers to introduce to students in the classroom.
Higher education institutions are also providing opportunities for learning.
Following the discovery of the children, a University of Alberta online course called ‘Indigenous Canada’ saw a surge in enrolments, with more than 43,000 registrants in the previous week, totalling approximately 282,500 learners to date.
Chris Andersen, dean of university’s Faculty of Native Studies, says that people might be turning to this course now for many reasons, including the fact that, especially in a time of truth and reconciliation, Canadians just haven’t learned enough about Indigenous history.
“I think very often people hold particular ideas in their head because they’ve never learned about it and their privilege of not growing up in situations as an Indigenous person,” Andersen told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“There are a lot of myths and a lot of inaccuracies about the relationships between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, and one of the things that we attempted to do with this course was to correct a lot of misapprehensions and myths from an Indigenous perspective.”
The course explores the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples in contemporary society from a historical and cultural point of view. It also dives into the facts and myths of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships.
Alexandra Gellé, a participant of the Indigenous Canada course who lives in Montreal, said that she signed up for the course because she’s heard a lot about Indigenous people in Canada over the years and wanted to learn more about their history.
“I had heard of residential schools and land acknowledgements, for example, but I knew I was missing the big picture,” she said.
“I came to work and chat with Indigenous people at conferences, etcetera, and it made me realize there was ‘far away’ history that I had heard and ‘more recent history’ that is barely discussed within white people because none of us feel comfortable, knowledgeable or disruptive enough to tackle such topics.”
Gellé also said that as settlers and immigrants, it’s important to understand the history of Canada and how everything was built, and that this course was a great start in helping her learn more about Indigenous history in Canada.
“Understanding history is essential to build a better and more inclusive future for us all,” she said. “It seems like most of us have heard about Inuit people through white lenses and only very cliché and ancient descriptions[s]. It doesn’t correspond at all to today’s reality.”
A ‘DISSERVICE’ TO INDIGENOUS POPULATION
For Mi’kMaw poet Rebecca Thomas, her attempt to share her experiences with students in Nova Scotia proved to be frustrating.
Thomas wrote a collection of poems called I Place You Into The Fire that explores Indigenous history and describes her experiences as a child of someone who is a residential school survivor. While the Nova Scotia Department of Education expressed interest in including her poems in the curriculum, Thomas says they wanted to remove and censor some of the content.
“They had an issue with six poems, one of which included a poem called ‘An Indian called Sir,’ which was about growing up with a father who went to residential school,” Thomas said. “I offered to do a teacher’s facilitation guide if the concern was around the word ‘Indian’ because it’s a loaded word – it has really deep history here in Canada – and I waited to hear back from them and I never did.”
While Thomas said that she has yet to be provided with a response as to why her story and experiences are being removed or edited, the Department of Education said in a statement to CTV News that “several included extreme profanity” and were not appropriate for students.
“The collection is currently being considered for possible use with junior high and secondary school students in language and social studies (ages 12-15),” the statement read. “As part of this process, materials are reviewed for age appropriate content and language, including the use of profanity. While many poems in the collection would be excellent for students of this age group, several included extreme profanity that would not be appropriate for the classroom.”
Thomas says that as she looked through her poems, she only used the ‘f’ word nine times in 124 pages, and four out of the nine times it was within the title of one poem that repeated itself in the table of contents. She also said that two of the poems that were being questioned did not have any swearing in them.
“This isn’t fair for a government institution to want to censor an Indigenous voice about experiences related to residential school,” she said. “They want to talk about reconciliation, they want to talk about these stories, but it seems that they don’t want to talk about the impacts – the real and hard and challenging impacts – that these have…and its impacts continue to affect so many Indigenous people generation after generation.”
Thomas says that censoring these stories and experiences is a disservice to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
“If you want to talk about this stuff, you’re going to have to prepare to be uncomfortable because nothing about this is comfortable,” she said, discussing that nothing about finding unmarked graves of 215 children is comfortable.
“If they want to sanitize or make this stuff easier to digest, they’re not doing service to the people who lived those realities and who continue to live these realities. It’s a disservice to the Indigenous population in the history and it’s a disservice to non-Indigenous kids who need to learn about this stuff, so that these things don’t get repeated in the future.”
In other provinces, leaders and activists in Indigenous education are continuing to fight for more inclusion and learning opportunities for Canadians.
Deborah Jeffrey is the executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) and is a member of the Tsimshian Nation. Jeffrey works with over 100 First Nations communities to develop educational opportunities for First Nations students and advocates for First Nations education.
“Canada describes two founding nations of the country, the French and the English, rendering us [First Nations] invisible,” Jeffrey told CTVNews.ca. “When we look at what’s taught in British Columbia, the province would say, ‘Yes we include First Nations content,’ but it’s roughly five per cent of all of the learning standards that exist and it’s not well taught because teachers don’t necessarily have the professional development necessary to effectively teach.”
Jeffrey and FNESC have been advocating for mandatory First Nations courses and learning in public education. In their last tripartite agreement with the government, they negotiated for more content on First Nations history and culture in the provincial curriculum. They were able to negotiate one day of teacher professional development to be focused on Indigenous education, and though she says it’s a start, more needs to be done.
“We need to ask ourselves in 2021, ‘What have public institutions undertaken in partnership with First Nations to bring that much needed change, so that British Columbia and Canada is in fact, a safe and respectful place for First Nations?’”
Jeffrey and FNESC have been working with the province on an anti-racism strategy and a capacity building plan for the Ministry of Education to build an education system that addresses First Nations history and advances First Nations education in the British Columbia education system.
Shanese Steele is the director of community relations and solidarity for a national education group Canadian Roots Exchange. She is also a member of the Crane Clan.
When it comes to learning about residential schools and its history, Steele says that Ontario hasn’t done enough for people to understand the history of it and how it affects Indigenous communities.
“I would say that Ontario is doing the bare minimum,” Steele told CTVNews.ca. “We’re not allowing for students in Ontario or in the country to have a deeper understanding of the way in which colonization has affected Indigenous communities.”
Steele says that she’s been seeing the inclusion of Indigenous voices and experiences in the curriculum on a smaller scale, but says it’s still lacking from a provincial standpoint.
“It’s not just about working with community members and having a conversation. It’s about including that in the creation of the curriculum, including that it’s a topic that will be taught in history and that will be shared, and making sure that voices are heard through our curriculum that we’re building.”
In her efforts to have more Canadians informed on Indigenous history, Steele has been focusing her efforts on educating youth on residential schools and the history of colonization.
Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer is a professor at the University of Alberta in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program. In the first year of the general education program, she teaches a mandatory course that touches on Indigenous education, including residential schools.
She says that many high school graduates come into the course stating they know about residential schools, but she says there’s way more to it than what they’ve learned in high school.
“The majority will claim that they’ve got some understanding of residential schools, yet that understanding proved to be very superficial because we’re teaching residential schools from a cognitive base,” she said. “I think in order for us to make any significant impact, people have to feel. They have to move away from their head to their heart.”
She adds that a lot of emphasis is often put on what residential schools are, but there are concepts that people need to understand that were a result of it.
“We have people that suffer colonialism, the effects of colonialism, that suffer the effects of racism every day. There’s not a day that goes by that some of us don’t experience racism and it’s just because of the way the institutions, the schools, and the way that everything has been founded…you need to understand all of these things.”
Steinhauer says that it’s not enough to just talk about residential schools. To move forward, it’s important for all Canadians to continue learning about the Indigenous perspective.
With files from CTVNews.ca writer Jeremiah Rodriguez, CTV National News associate producer Erica Giancola, and the CTV News Atlantic Bureau.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419