After a heartbreaking summer where the remains of over 1,308 Indigenous children were found in unmarked graves on former residential school sites, it is imperative that Canada creates an educational system that includes and celebrates Indigenous peoples and history. By deconstructing Canada’s colonial narrative, it enables reconciliatory conversations with Indigenous peoples, and sets the foundation for an inclusive future that acknowledges Indigenous peoples as an integral part of Canadian society and culture.
By no means is this a new idea. In 2018, educator Theodore Christou, argued in favour of indigenizing curriculum, noting that by not reediting our curriculum to reflect the truth of Indigenous peoples experiences, and the violence inflicted upon them by Settlers on this land, this policy – or lack thereof – fails Indigenous peoples, settler students, and teachers who repeat the narrative of English-French settlement as Canada’s origin story.
Alongside the curriculum, there must be resources and teaching methods for educators to instruct this information accurately. The only way to do this: in consultation and partnership with Indigenous peoples of their community. For example, University of Victoria professor Jean-Paul Restoule works with “non-Indigenous teachers to become more comfortable and competent in Indigenous curriculum.” It is crucial that this type of support is available for teachers and students to engage with the Indigenous history of their communities.
How are the provinces faring?
In 2019, the Ontario provincial government reversed the previous Liberal government’s commitment to include compulsory Indigenous courses in secondary school curriculum. Now under Premier Doug Ford, Indigenous courses can be offered as electives. In a statement to CBC following this announcement, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said that as long as these courses remain electives, “the system will continue to fail our students.”
For example, this past June saw Nova Scotia’s Education Department apologize for a racist Grade 10 correspondence course, which had asked students to list positive factors associated with residential schools. A few weeks prior, 215 unmarked graves were found by the Tk’emlups Secwepmc First Nation in British Columbia. These findings launched a renewed recovery search of children’s remains on the grounds of former residential schools sites across Canada, including the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia.
The irony of this example is devastatingly on brand for a country whose claim to fame is Multiculturalism and acceptance, but was built by colonial policies that aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the fabric of British-Canadian society and destroy their social, political, and economic systems.
Moving West, the province of Alberta has faced criticism because they have chosen to forgo including the history of residential schools in the curriculum until the fifth grade; with the education that is included, being incredibly limited. Yet, Alberta is not an outlier as nationwide students are lucky if their teacher chooses to assign novels such as Indian Horse, which details the trauma experienced by a residential school survivor, rather than Shakespeare.
Using “Peace, Order and good Government”
The Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act set national minimum standards for carbon pricing as a tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and achieve their target under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Because natural resources fall under section 92 of the Constitution, i.e. provincial jurisdiction, Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan appealed this Act arguing that it was unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the law was constitutional as global warming is a matter of national concern under the “Peace, Order and good Government” of Canada clause in section 91 of the Constitution of Canada. This enables the federal government to enact laws that may infringe on provincial jurisdiction due to emergency measures or if they are of national concern.
For a matter to be considered of national concern, the Court outlined the two steps that must be satisfied: first, an issue of national concern needs to be “based in evidence”; and secondly, an issue or matter does not need to be classified as “historically new” for it to be considered of national concern.
Indigenous issues have been, and will continue to be ongoing; however, if Canada truly wants to move forward, it is in the nation’s interest to implement policies that recognize Indigenous peoples’ self-determination and sovereignty.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published a report of their findings and accounts from families and survivors of residential schools. This report includes 94 Calls to Action, which are ‘calls’ by the Commission that must be achieved to work towards reconciliation. Paramount here is Call to Action 63, which urges the Council of Ministers of Education to execute changes to Aboriginal education issues by, “developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.”
However, in the Constitution education falls under provincial jurisdiction, and thus, it is currently not the role of the federal government to lead this. Yet, Indigenous issues are under federal jurisdiction and the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act has opened the door to enable Canada to mandate an Indigenous curriculum in all provinces. In association with the additional funding to fully implement the TRC’s Calls to Action announced by the federal government earlier this year, Canada not only has the moral responsibility but the legal opportunity to lead this solution.
In order to work towards reconciliation, teaching Canadian students the truth about Indigenous peoples, and their courageous resilience despite federal policies that sought to eradicate their existence is a matter of national concern. In a statement made following the discovery of 751 unmarked graves by Cowessess First Nation near a former residential school site in Saskatchewan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that this is “Canada’s responsibility to bear.” Noting that Canada cannot bring back those who have passed, but can work to ensure these experiences never occur again, Trudeau stated, “we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.”
One of the best ways to ‘tell the truth of these injustices’ is by teaching historically accurate accounts and lived experiences of Indigenous peoples to the next generation of Canadian students. Insomuch as the federal government continues to make statements of change, it is necessary for a standard of Indigenous curriculum to exist.
It is no longer acceptable (in the context of as acceptable as non-Indigenous people allowed it to be) to say ‘I didn’t know’ when light is shed on the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. But more than that, residential schools are only one segment of this history. The cultures, languages, and socio-political systems that exist in these First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities deserve to be celebrated and integrated, not appropriated, into the body politic as distinct aspects of Canadian society.
This is where Canada diverges from New Zealand who recognizes the sovereignty of Maori, and thus has created a system where Maori language, culture, and political influence is not just recognized but substantiated in law. Unfortunately, Canada has yet to legally bind themselves to such policies.
If we want to achieve reconciliation, we have to fully implement the Calls to Action, specifically the need to include Indigenous material into the Canadian school curriculum. Not only the inclusion of such curriculum (which has to be done in conjunction with Indigenous communities) but teachers have to also be instructed on correct and meaningful ways to teach such curriculum. This type of overhaul is too big for provinces to take on their own: the federal government needs to step up and mandate Indigenous curriculum in all provinces, and to stop placating Indigenous peoples and treating these as sideline issues.
Ensuring all Canadians know the true history of their nation is a matter of national concern, and will dictate whether Canada will remain stuck in colonial patterns, or shift to becoming a nation that shares sovereignty and establishes a true nation-to-nation Canadian identity.