When I think back to primary school and the dialogue surrounding First Nations in Canada, I can narrow it down to a handful of key terms/phrases: the fur trade, Métis, Inuit, igloos, teepees, wigwams, Christopher Columbus.
Secondary school took me a little further: residential schools, treaties, colonization, the Indian Act, reserves, the medicine wheel, two-spirited, reconciliation.
And then in university in a first-year course on Indigenous history: first contact, intergenerational trauma, cultural genocide, the 60s Scoop, the Millennium Scoop, land claims, the Oka crisis, Alcatraz, Idle No More, the Gradual Civilization and Gradual Enfranchisement Acts, missing and murdered Indigenous women… and much, much more.
If you grew up in Canada, where did your learning about First Nations history end? Although your answer is largely dependent on where you lived, what teachers you had and which electives you opted for, chances are you fell into the primary school level with or without some proficiency in the secondary school level. It should be no surprise that there is much more that could be included in the public school curricula, considering First Nations predate the existence of Canada as we know it.
Indigenous peoples have been here longer, have so much history which fundamentally impacts the way our society functions today and continues to influence the lives of millions of people in this country. Why then is so little attention afforded to Indigenous relations within the mandated curriculum in Canada?
On an individual level, the discomfort non-Indigenous teachers experience teaching about First Nations in Canada for fear of, “misrepresenting aboriginal cultures through their teaching practices… being judged for mishandling aboriginal content or unknowingly participating in cultural appropriation of indigenous cultural practices,” could contribute to the lack of education provided to students. Ironically this discomfort could stem from the fact that our teachers were not taught this part of history by their teachers for the same reasons. Another explanation could be teachers are not provided with adequate training to address such complex subject matter.
On a broader level, the rise of nationalism around the globe beginning in the 18th century may provide an ideological basis for the educational deficiencies in Canada. One manifestation of nationalism has been in education, because education allows for the promotion of a particular national identity based on a common understanding of history it presents. Since it’s difficult to convince the population of a state to internalize an identity which has antagonistic qualities, priority would not have been given to teaching historical accounts which compromise the legitimacy of patriotic sentiments.
When national image is at stake, you get controversies like then Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizing for residential schools in 2008, and later denying a history of colonialism in Canada in 2009. The unfortunate thing is, with an education as limited as the one I received, there are far too many Canadians that would not be able to explain just how ironic and problematic Harper’s contradiction was.
While there are a number of notable contributing factors to the lack of education on Indigenous history in Canada, there do seem to be more conversations happening in public schools about the history of First Nations in Canada thanks to efforts by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as Historica Canada. My professor of the Indigenous Studies course noted that every year her classes indicate a greater proportion of students have been taught more about the topic in their public schools, so perhaps we are getting closer to learning about history more holistically early on.
That being said, older generations are unlikely to directly benefit from such educational reforms. Let’s be sure to educate ourselves on the histories and contributions of groups we weren’t taught about to ensure our worldview is as well informed as possible.
If you don’t recognize any of the terms which I outlined learning about in the different levels of my schooling, I’d suggest beginning your pursuit of knowledge by searching them up. Once you’ve developed some familiarity with key concepts and issues, I highly recommend reading The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. This book does an excellent job explaining the problems First Nations people face today in light of their history with colonialism on this continent.
Beyond that, my final tip for learning more about the history of First Nations people is to learn it from Indigenous peoples themselves. Attend educational events they host, listen to what their activists have to say, read books published by Indigenous authors and watch documentaries made by Indigenous directors. Make an effort to learn from them before accessing material by non-Natives on their history.
Make no mistake: the chapter on Indigenous history missing from our classrooms is a long and unfortunately convoluted one. But it’s also a necessary one, and we’ll only be able to appreciate that by seeking the pages on our own.