By: Maitland Shaheen*
In 2016, the Liberal Ontario government unveiled an updated curriculum that would include Indigenous history for elementary and secondary schools. The program, crafted in collaboration with residential school survivors, First Nations, Métis and Inuit partners, was considered a step forward both in the province’s education system and their commitment to reconciliation.
While original updates are expected to remain in studies this coming fall, all ongoing consultations and writing sessions have been cancelled by the new Conservative government. A spokesperson for the Minister of Education described the cuts as a cost-cutting initiative, ignoring key recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Max FineDay, Executive Director of Canadian Roots Exchange, observed in the Globe and Mail, that, “[i]t might be easy, maybe even fair, for Canadians to assume that reconciliation is well on its way. But reconciliation is far from accomplished; in some areas, we’re going backwards”.
FineDay illustrated the serious consequences of ignoring Indigenous history. While only 8% of Canada’s youth are Indigenous, 46% of them are in custody. This number is over 90% in Saskatchewan. “Canada is now curating another generation of Indigenous children,” he explains, “who will have to recover from their childhoods”.
“When youth learn where they come from, understand how and why colonization happened and how it affects them today, and are supported in charting a better path for themselves, they have more chances to break cycles of crime,” says FineDay.
Max FineDay stands in front of the Canadian Roots Exchange office building in July 2017. Photo by Kenya-Jade Pinto for Level.
For me personally, as a young person who finished high school recently, I genuinely don’t remember much education about Indigenous peoples in elementary school. I do remember a vague explanation of residential schools in middle school, and I remember confusion. There was no context for what colonialism meant for the Indigenous peoples who have been on this land since time immemorial. Indigenous nations, languages, and cultures were barely discussed. It’s an ongoing process for me to continue learning not only about the cultural genocide that has had an impact across generations, but also about the many stories of resilience and strength that define Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.
Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, who called the curriculum a “huge step forward,” said, "With reconciliation, you need truth. Part of the education effort is to actually get to the bottom of the real history of the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people."
The notion of truth was widely discussed at a recent event held by the Canadian Roots Exchange and the Economic Club of Canada. Both organizations partnered to hold their second “North Meets South” exchange, in which 10 Indigenous and 10 non-Indigenous Canadian youth spent two weeks studying Indigenous history and culture in Toronto and Manitoulin Island, sharing personal stories and learning about the realities of Indigenous people.
On July 13, the youth presented four public policy initiatives following their weeks of work, including four themes: education, food security, mental health and addiction. One group of young teenagers called upon the Ontario government to reinstate the curriculum. Without truth, they explained, there cannot be reconciliation. The Economic Club’s CEO, Rhiannon Traill, explained this in her opening statement: “Our country has a wound,” she said. “We have to acknowledge that”.
Civil Society Steps Up
The positive thread throughout all of this is that there are leaders and civil society organizations who continue to provide enriched learning opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks alike. We’ve put together a list of folks who are helping us all do #OurLevelBest to be educated, and have open honest conversations with the youth in our lives about our collective history.
Canadian Roots Exchange: With a focus on youth, this organization provides learning opportunities through exchanges, conferences, leadership training, and more. You can find recommended reading at the “Resources” tab.
Indigenous Arts & Stories: A product of an Indigenous youth writing competition, IAS provides writing and history resources for youth, teachers and parents.
EdCan: The recent issue of Education Canada provides a variety of suggestions and stories by Indigenous leaders and teachers.
KAIROS Blanket Exercise: An interactive learning experience that immerses participants in the history of Indigenous peoples following the arrival of European settlers.
OISE: A librarian from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has compiled a guide for providing quality Indigenous education for grades K-12.
You can also find a reading list by Indigenous scholars and leaders published by CBC here, and the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 here.
Maitland Shaheen is a Level volunteer and incoming senior at the University of Ottawa, studying a joint honours BA in Communication and Political Science. An aspiring lawyer, she is passionate about human rights, feminism and justice.