“Education must not simply teach work — it must teach life.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois
FERGUS, ONT.—There are times when Colinda Clyne finds herself acting on her traditional responsibilities in a very public way.
In July 2018 when the Ontario government cancelled pre-arranged summer sessions to revise and look at the curriculum to incorporate Indigenous content, Clyne, who is the Indigenous curriculum lead for the Upper Grand District School Board, felt compelled to call it out.
It was her tweet that alerted the rest of the province that this wasn’t business as usual, that the government was reversing revisions that had been put in place in response to the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Clyne, who is Anishinaabe, talks about her responsibilities as bear clan member: medicine and healing, policing and justice.
“I can tell you, I have been policing other people since I was 2 years old,” she said in a café in Guelph.
At a workshop on Grade 7 and Grade 8 curriculum enhancements at the Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus in November 2018, Clyne told teachers, “When I look at the new curriculum additions, I know about half of them. So don’t feel badly.
“I’m asking you to be vulnerable in embarking on work that you’re not confident about,” she said.
Making headway on the anti-oppression continuum is multi-layered work for teachers. If critical self-reflection is the foundation of that work and recognizing the hidden curriculum is the next step, a logical progression is engaging in an official curriculum that explicitly includes non-European viewpoints and knowledge.
This means teachers have to know what they don’t know.
Clyne asked the teachers to write their hopes from the workshop on one sticky note and fears on another, which she then posted on a wall in two clusters.
“What I see coming up a lot is that people are worried that they don’t know enough. And it’s true,” she told them. “You weren’t taught Indigenous content when you went to school on purpose. You weren’t meant to know that we still existed. We’re supposed to be fully assimilated and we’re not.”
Storytelling is a powerful teaching method, and Indigenous leaders and early-adopter non-Indigenous teachers used it that day.
They shared names of books such as We’re All Treaty People and introduced Indigenous worldviews such as connectedness to land. They showed wampum or beaded belts used in ceremonies but that also signify ongoing peace agreements, such as the Dish With One Spoon Treaty that covers most of southern Ontario.
It’s the airing of a dark chapter of Canada’s colonial history that is prompting these discussions in education. At least 462 children died in Ontario residential schools while an unknown number are listed as missing. In response to the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ontario created a Journeys Together plan in 2016, committing to curriculum changes and supporting “mandatory learning about residential schools, the legacy of colonialism and the rights and responsibilities we all have to each other as treaty people.”
In 2017, the province asked all school boards to hire a dedicated Indigenous education lead.
The Ontario education system operates with a high level of trust in teachers’ professional judgment, allowing them flexibility in choosing the specific content within a prescribed curriculum. But it falls short on accounting for the diversity of that content. Training sessions are optional, unless they are held on board-mandated professional development days.
In the course of her work, Clyne noted, “usually, it was the same 60 or 70 folks who were becoming awesome allies” that were coming to workshops.
After about three years of training teachers, she once sat down with a few Indigenous high school students. “So I’m all excited. I say, OK, so tell me, what are you seeing in your classrooms?
“And nothing. They had seen nothing. Because they didn’t have any of those 60 teachers. I cried because I felt I’d been working so hard and I missed the mark.”
Clyne said she was fortunate to have a superintendent who understands the importance of this work in Indigenous education. When teachers signed up for sessions, Clyne kept a list of the schools that were represented.
“So my superintendent got on the phone to every single principal who didn’t have someone signed up and said, I need you to send somebody.
“I hope that other people consider this.”
The trauma of colonization isn’t limited to the 86,000 people who sued the government, leading to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that gave rise, in part, to the TRC. It isn’t limited to survivors of the Sixties Scoop, in which provincial governments forcibly removed thousands of Indigenous children from their homes and gave them up for adoption. And it isn’t contained in the past.
“As Indigenous people we live in a post-apocalyptic world,” writes the author Alicia Elliott in the foreword of the graphic novel This Place: 150 Years Retold. “Every Indigenous person’s story is, in a way, a tale of overcoming apocalypse.”
As a result, learning about the people of this land is often woven with stories of heartache, loss and tears.
This raises concerns about public expectations that Indigenous people expose their vulnerabilities to make a case for their humanity.
“Oftentimes those of us who share our stories feel a larger responsibility to our families and our communities to do this because we don’t want others to feel shame,” Jenna Joyce Broomfield, an Inuk from Nunatsiavut in Labrador, told a conference on Indigenous education in Edmonton in April.
“Sometimes I do this, so others don’t have to.”
One of the stories she shared was how her grandmother had needles stuck in her tongue every time she spoke Inuktitut in school. She bore 18 children, but never taught them the language lest they use it accidentally and suffer.
But if people like Broomfield’s grandmother were punished for speaking the language, others are now penalized for not speaking it.
Young Indigenous people, especially those who are light-skinned and don’t know their language, find their Indigeneity doubted, Broomfield said.
In Fergus, Nick Bertrand, a Haudenosaunee man from the Indigenous Education Office at the Ontario education ministry, also shared an intensely personal story. As a boy, his father was taken out of his mother’s home, a mother who was a product of Canada’s first residential school — Mohawk Institute in Brantford.
Bertrand’s father was given a good life by his adopted family, “but the part where I really, really struggle with is the house he grew up in was only about five kilometres from the rez,” where his biological family was, Bertrand said.
“That five kilometres might have been five worlds apart,” he said. His father “never engaged in ceremony, never engaged in his culture, in his language. So all that was lost.”
Bertrand managed to trace his father’s family and at Christmas five years ago, he placed a call to a man he had researched after being told the man had been looking for his father.
He called and said, “I’m pretty sure I’m your nephew and my dad is your brother.”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Then:
“Nick, I remember the day they came for us. We’ve spent the last 60 years looking for him,” his uncle said.
“We talk about loss of identity, loss of culture,” Bertrand said. “But the real loss for my dad was not even really knowing he had a sibling.”
The brothers met shortly after and his uncle placed a photo of a woman in front of his father and said, “That’s your mother.”
“I remember my dad looking down at that photo, poring over it, you know,” said Bertrand.
“Not knowing your mom looks like that. That hurts.”
Inuit Knowledge Keeper Tauni Sheldon introduced the teachers to history from an Inuit perspective, starting at about the 1500s. When it came to the more recent past, Sheldon choked up.
She was taken away on the day she was born in Nunavik in northern Quebec, and adopted by a white family.
The government took the kids. Then they took the dogs, too.
The RCMP slaughtered dogs in many northern communities, including in her mother’s community of Inukjuak, she said.
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“The 1940s and 1950s were really, really heavy times for our Inuit up north.
“Inuit relied on our dogs as a way of life. We would use them to travel from community to community,” Sheldon said. The slaughter “was a way to keep us in one spot and to also direct the people: You’re going to not live nomadically anymore.”
Federal and provincial authorities and the RCMP said the cull was carried out for health and safety reasons.
Sheldon suggested teachers talk to students about the High Arctic Relocation during the Cold War. Canada needed to populate the Far North and removed people from southern Inuit communities, forcing them to move to the High Arctic.
“So if you think about Inuit going from the Inukjuak to the High Arctic, which is a similar distance from here to Florida … how would we adapt?”
All Inuit families were impacted by colonial policies, she said. “You may have Inuit students like my son that may feel as emotional I did this morning.
“We need to create that space for any one of our children to say, you know, I had a hard day. Just understand.”
Bertrand wanted to end the day on a positive note. Don’t just talk about residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, talk about the good stuff, too, he told teachers. “Talk about what makes us strong.”
There are very visible signs of change in Ontario, he said. It’s in naming schools such as Oodenawi Public School in Oakville. “That’s the Ojibwe word that means ‘heart of the place.’ Think about that. Beautiful, right?”
Then there is Orange Shirt day, an annual day to mark the legacy of residential schools. “Those are all notches along that journey … but it’s deeper. It’s getting into classrooms where we have Indigenous knowledge stood up on equal platform with non-Indigenous knowledge … And that instills pride in our kids to see themselves and their way of understanding in the classroom.
“I was taught Louis Riel was a traitor. And there we are, raising a Métis flag at a school in Milton to acknowledge Louis Riel Day.”
Be allies, he urged teachers.
“It’s in the moments where you’re out with your friends and you hear the comment, ‘Why don’t those freaking people just get over it?’ I don’t fault people for that. But it’s very tiring. It’s emotionally taxing, doing this work. And in those quiet moments with the baseball team, at the social gathering on Friday night, that’s when we need allies to step forward.”
What Black Canadian students learn through omission
Ontario’s curriculum has no mandatory expectation about including Black Canadian perspectives.
“Students are required to learn about white, French and British people and, more recently, Indigenous people,” said historian Natasha Henry, who is also a curriculum consultant for the Peel District School Board.
“People of African descent have had a presence in what is now called Canada, going back to the early 1600s … along with European colonists. Yet this long history is not considered to be necessary knowledge for Ontario students to learn.”
This is called a null curriculum: “Knowledge that is excluded, the knowledge students did not receive in the classroom,” Henry said.
When Black children go to school, they learn through omission — and sometimes commission — that their ancestors never discovered any riches, never contributed to science or to the progress of humanity.
Does Black History Month every February balance that out?
Henry cites Carter G. Woodson, often known as the father of Black History Month.
“When he proposed Negro History Week (in 1926) and subsequently the month, it was really with the idea that throughout the year people would be learning about and teaching about Black history, Black experiences.” That one month would be for coming together and sharing all that has been learned throughout the year.
Instead, some teachers discuss a handful of Black people in that one month, or even just the last couple of weeks. Black male students interviewed in the “We Rise Together” report by the Peel District School Board complained that the few times Black history was discussed, teachers only focused on the contributions of prominent African Americans such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.
Absent were names such as Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first Black member of Parliament, or Marie-Joseph Angelique, the enslaved woman convicted of starting a fire in Montreal as an act of protest in 1734, or Toronto civil rights activist Harry Gairey Sr.
Black perspectives belong to more than just the history class. Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, N.S., offers an Africentric math course, using, for instance, Egyptian pyramids to teach trigonometry.
Henry, who is president of the Black History Society, specializes in developing curriculum resources that focus on Black Canadian experiences or experiences of the African diaspora for Ontario students. She guest-edited Kayak, the Canadian history magazine for kids, in February that featured Black Canadian history in Canada.
A common narrative taught in school is the underground railroad, she said, in which Black people from America flee here to Canada, the land of happily ever after.
“The story of the underground railroad characterizes Canada as a haven, a freedom for Blacks escaping enslavement in the United States that shows Canadians as good white abolitionists and Canada as free soil. This narrative is instilled in young students early on in elementary school. It is served to portray and maintain the notion of Canadian moral superiority over the United States.”
In The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto, authors Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper and Karolyn Smardz Frost lay out, among other things, how Black people helped to lay the foundation of Toronto from its beginnings as an important colonial town in 1793; founded some of the earliest churches in the city; and were politically active, persistently resisting, for instance, offensive Black minstrel shows featuring white people in blackface as early as 1840.
“History,” said Henry, “should also speak to Black agency, give a critical presentation of the struggles that Black Canadians endured, the collective actions they took to challenge anti-Black racism and how Blacks overcame multiple forms of oppression.”
Education Without Oppression — the 2018-19 Atkinson series — examines the continuing marginalization of Black and Indigenous students in Canada. It analyzes the challenges and breakthroughs nationally and in the cities of Baltimore, Md.; Lucknow, India; and Napier, New Zealand.
The Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy awards a seasoned Canadian journalist the opportunity to pursue a yearlong investigation into a current policy issue. The project is funded by the Atkinson Foundation, the Honderich family and the Toronto Star.