Publish at October 19 2021 Updated November 01 2021

Restoring the Place of First Nations in Education

Going beyond the Clichés and Basics of Culturally Rich Peoples

Since the end of 2020, two events have profoundly shaken Canadian society on their relationship with First Nations. Already, these were shaky at best when a large percentage of reserves still do not have access to a water supply in a country with 20% of the world's fresh water supply. Not to mention more than a hundred missing or murdered indigenous women since 2015 with little to no concern from law enforcement. And then, George Floyd fashion in the United States, two tragedies happened both in 2020 and 2021:

  • September 2020, Joliette Hospital in Quebec: Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, filmed herself on her hospital bed live on Facebook. As she agonizes, viewers can hear two nurses insult and scorn her as she dies. She was allegedly given morphine against her will even though she knew she was allergic. She will meet her death minutes later.

  • May 2021, Kamloops, British Columbia: A mass grave is discovered behind a former aboriginal residential school. Using ground-penetrating radar technology, experts unearth 215 bodies of children, some of them around 3 years old, buried in this place expressly designed to "rip out the child's Native American culture."

These two pieces of macabre news have revealed dark pages of Canadian history. Indeed, the colonization of Canada by European troops led to the massacre of various tribes living in the territory. Yet even today, Canadians who are not part of these communities know nothing about them. Worse, many despise them.

Because despite the protocol ceremonies and nice statements about their resilience, little is done to improve the quality of life of these First Nations. An example is an incidence that happened during the covid-19 pandemic, where Indigenous students were denied education for 10 months during lockdowns because they did not have access to computers and other equipment for educational continuity.

While it is unfortunate that it took these tragedies to open the eyes of the Canadian public even a little, it did at least start real discussions about the plight of Aboriginal people and especially their representation in education.

From Demons to Clichés

While it may seem crazy that the Canadian public has omitted these peoples so much from their land, it came from nowhere. The teaching of history has long served to dehumanize the First Nations. Indeed, textbooks spoke of fierce tribes who scalped their enemies alive, kidnapped settlers, and worshipped pagan gods. This was seen as an aberration in the 1950s and 1960s, which were very much influenced by the Catholic religion. Moreover, books were illustrated with terrifying images of "Indians" attacking missionaries or newcomers.

This was because of the desire to justify the colonial policy. There was a time when books also talked about "good" and "bad" tribes. An approach that lasted a very long time and that I acquired during my schooling. I remember very well a categorization of this kind in my history classes at the end of elementary and beginning of high school where the Iroquois, among others, were seen as thirsty warriors against groups such as the Abenaki who were more peaceful and agrarian. Information I received in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Not to mention that today, history teachers find the portrait of First Nations to be very thin. In both elementary and high school, the subject matter is repetitive and only superficially touches on Aboriginal culture, which is nevertheless extremely rich. Fortunately, some have claimed that Joyce Echaquan's death would change things.

In any case, in the wake of the body finds at Kamloops and other Canadian residential schools, Ontario has decreed that it will integrate an entire section of its history curriculum on residential schools. Thus, starting in September 2023, the subject will be discussed in elementary school. Hopefully, Quebec will follow because as of July 2021, many Quebec university students were still unaware of the reality of residential schools.

Integrating Indigenous Knowledge into Curricula

While curricula have long served to demonize First Nations, the events of 2020-2021 must be a springboard for changes to take place at all levels of education. This means communicating with existing people to create a program that goes beyond clichés and basics. It seems essential to talk about the components that anger, including residential schools as this youth-oriented vignette, does:

Canada's youngest population is Aboriginal. So it would be crucial for faculties from coast to coast to incorporate more knowledge of not only these dark parts but also the richness of these cultures.

The University of Ottawa seems to have embarked on this path of "decolonizing" history. This is not to say that the scuffles between whites and Aboriginals should be ignored. However, the latter were not only warriors thirsty for European blood. On the contrary, many tried to establish ties with the newcomers while the latter were not shy about transmitting endemic viruses that wiped out a good part of the Amerindian population (up to 80% would have died from these diseases).

Maybe teachers could seek advice from their native colleagues who necessarily have to deal with these subjects with their students. The latter could guide them in an approach that is both realistic and does not fall into excessive guilt-tripping. There is also an array of resources exploring First Nations history.

At the elementary level, various books and websites like Mikana go beyond clichés. The DestiNATIONS site offers cultural mediation where artists from Quebec's Aboriginal communities can participate in events, including visits to schools to show traditional arts. Besides, it can be good to remind little Aboriginals as well as whites that there have been important figures in sports and in the history of the country who came from various nations. Other resources also exist to understand current issues in communities such as the impact of residential schools, the missing Aboriginal women and girls inquiry, etc.

Finally, some dare to ask the question: what if Canadian and Quebec schools integrated the learning of First Nations languages? After all, Quebec in particular is familiar with this notion of a French language to defend in a sea of English speakers. Yet the residential school initiative nearly eliminated Mohawk, Innu, Atikamekw, Cree, and other languages without shocking anyone. What if schools made a pact with Aboriginal peoples to revive these founding dialects that were present long before the arrival of Europeans? Not to mention that little Canadians would then better understand the place names of many places, mountains, lakes, cities, etc. After all, Quebec City is an Algonquin word meaning: "Narrow passage" or "strait."

Illustration: Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash


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