A Delicate Subject
How Aboriginal History Is(n’t) Being Taught
In this country, it’s completely feasible to graduate high school with more knowledge on the Irish potato famine or awareness of the bubonic plague than an understanding of aboriginal history throughout Canada’s history.
“I have a daughter who is in Grade 5, that has a textbook from 2011, that is for her social studies class, covering the 1700s to the 1930s,” said Chelsea Vowel, Albertan Métis, currently living Montreal. “Native people are mentioned twice in that book—the Métis people’s rebellion, and there is a picture of a totem pole.
“How can you talk about our history—Canadian history, indigenous history—how can you call something a history text, when we are not in it?”
When looking at current secondary school curricula, it seems as though there is a very significant block of time missing from the textbooks. Canada’s beginnings are well-documented; students are taught about colonialism and Confederation, the difference between the Métis and Cree and the geographical territory of aboriginals.
However, very little of this transcends into a contemporary context.
The Indian Act is taught, but its importance and amendment changes in the past 50 years rarely are.
“It’s not clear to most Canadians, because this stuff is still not being taught,” said Vowel.
Considering the aboriginal people of Canada still face injustice today, this is a delicate subject matter. The Indian Act is being consistently amended and debated, and the school curriculum is not changing at the same rate.
However, provincial and national politics are being taught to-date, so why are students not learning aboriginal politics and issues at a similar pace?
Educated, Yet Uninformed
Karl Hele, the associate producer and program director of the First Peoples Studies program at Concordia, says that he sees students with various levels of prior knowledge coming into the program.
“I can tell from teaching some of these courses that you have shaken some students’ world view,” said Hele. “You can tell just by the way that you’re presenting the information.”
Many of the misconceptions that he sees arise in classes do not come courtesy of a lack of information, but rather a lack of context. Students hear tidbits of information throughout their education, but are never taught about aboriginal issues in depth.
“It’s never learned about, or they’ve learned about it, but think things like that the Indian Act protects Indian lands—like they cannot be seized for debt,” he said. “Well, you can’t seize any government land for debt, and reserves are government land. You know, some people see this as a great benefit, but it’s a highly problematic benefit.”
To Vowel, it’s concerning that students are being taught about injustices faced by people around the globe, but too often don’t know of those closer to home.
“I think Canadians can look overseas and see injustice and recognize it, whether it’s colonialism in another nation, or whatever, they can look at it and say, ‘That is unjust,’” she said.
“But I think that familiarity—or in this case, ignorance—breeds contempt, because people in Canada can say, ‘They are like that ’cause it’s their fault,’ and we need to address that.”
One of the issues behind this lack of education is that it is often unclear who should teach aboriginal issues. Although History teachers teach about atrocities across the globe, students have expressed concern that educators may have biases or insufficient understanding that may affect the quality of their teaching.
“This is also about Canadians figuring out their own history and realizing that it’s crappy and coming to terms with it. It’s not just indigenous history—this is your history, and there are a lot of skeletons in Canada’s closet,” said Vowel.
“That can be uncomfortable, because it’s going to make you feel like you should feel guilty or bad, and a lot of people get defensive.”
Mikayla Cartwright, a Concordia graduate and self-described “archetypical urban aboriginal,” admitted that aboriginal issues weren’t really acknowledged or taught during her secondary education.
“It’s a sticky thing to go into,” she said. “I didn’t learn much about it until university. I started taking First Peoples Studies as soon as they became available and it was a whole new experience.”
Nadine Montour, coordinator of the Aboriginal Student Centre at Concordia, has hope that, because of the growing popularity of movements like Idle No More, this generation will have the knowledge to help teach the next.
“The way I see it is that Mikayla and all of these younger people are the future for that, to be able to change the system, to be able to teach I think it’s going to take time,” said Montour.
“I’m starting to see the change in mainstream focus on aboriginal issues […] I hope it’s the start.”