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The news world needs another Peter Mansbridge

U of T’s new archive on the former CBC anchor reflects a time before the age of distrust

The news world needs another Peter Mansbridge

On the night of July 1, 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday, Peter Mansbridge appeared for the final time as Chief Correspondent for CBC News and Lead Anchor of The National. He charmingly signed off, “That’s The National for this Friday night. From CBC News, I’m Peter Mansbridge. Thanks for watching.”

It must have been strange for him. His almost three-decade-long dedication to sharing the news nightly with his country and 50 years with the CBC ended with the blink of a fireworks show on Parliament Hill. It was certainly strange for me, having never known a world without Mansbridge, though never truly recognizing his relevance to Canadian culture.

We Canadians are not overtly prideful. There are very few people that we may point to and say, “That person represents Canada.” But I think Mansbridge falls into that category or at the very least, he should be a contender. Now that U of T Libraries’ Media Commons has archived material from his long CBC career, his importance as a journalist is cemented in our history for all to see.

Once described by The Globe and Mail as one of “Canada’s best-known celebrities,” Mansbridge narrated numerous major moments in Canadian and world history from 1988–2017 in his cool and calm voice. Some stories were of grief, such as the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, and others of triumph, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, no matter what was being said, Mansbridge stood as a point of convergence between uncontrollable world forces and Canadians.

Canadians had faith in Mansbridge — faith because he was an upright citizen who had other Canadians in mind. Importantly, with his archives, U of T has received a memory of life before what now is dubbed the post-truth era. Newer generations will not have the kinds of experiences as those before them did with Mansbridge.

Fake news, the politicization and monopolization of broadcasting, the delegitimizing of truth, attacks on freedom of the press — these are what U of T students from my generation know. These are the realities of a social environment that is spoiling trust between news sources and the people.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 2019 is the year of “Trust at Work” because the mass population is repairing its relationship with its social institutions. However, 57 per cent of the general Canadian population continues to distrust the media. While this number is generally lower than that in other social institutions, it’s especially worrying when paired with the rise to 71 per cent of Canadians who are worried about the use of fake news as a weapon, and the only 43 per cent of Canadians who consider journalism as a credible source for information.

We are afraid, perhaps rightly so, that lies are seeping into the news cycle. And from this comes an uncertainty in media outlets themselves. Readers cannot and will not unconditionally accept information anymore, no matter the political leanings of the news source.

“You cannot be post-truth,” explains retired Cambridge University philosophy professor Simon Blackburn. History is characterized by deception and manipulation, and society holds everyday truths no less important than before. “What we do have, though, is a problem in other domains, like politics and religion and ethics. There is a loss of authority in these areas, meaning there’s no certain or agreed-upon way of getting at the truth.”

We have passed the era of trust in journalism, of an unthinking acceptance of facts and an unquestioning belief in sources, of readers not needing to refine the onslaught of constant information and not having to be the journalists themselves.

Mansbridge’s exit may be the final blow for Canadians. It was a trumpet calling the ‘era of trust’ to an end. Over a year into the Trump administration, with ‘fake news’ thrown disparagingly at journalists and political meddling emerging through social media, we have lost a faith in news coverage. Today, many call to defund the CBC.

Nowadays, I think we would all enjoy a little more stability and integrity in our lives. Canada needs another Mansbridge — a trusted figure who may arrive in our living rooms in one generation and stay with us for generations to come. And Canadians would readily accept one, especially on The National, as watchers are actively disengaging from the program because, as television critic John Doyle puts it, “The hour of news is confusing and [viewers] don’t feel they’re getting a definitive, authentic roundup of the important news of the day.”

For now, I propose to any fellow U of T students going through an existential crisis over the age of distrust to follow my lead. Go to the Media Commons, pull up Mansbridge’s archives, and try to relive any year before 2017. I’m sure it was interesting.

Emily Hurmizi is a first-year Humanities student at Victoria College.

Onward to a “Disability Justice Revolution”

Reviewing Sarah Jama’s timely Hart House Hancock Lecture

Onward to a “Disability Justice Revolution”

On March 14, U of T community members eagerly attended the annual Hancock Lecture at Hart House’s Great Hall to listen to Black disability activist Sarah Jama, whose talk was entitled “Moving Toward a Disability Justice Revolution.” The event was originally scheduled in February, during Black History Month, but was delayed due to severe weather conditions.

Jama is a Hamilton-based community organizer and a co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), an organization that seeks to “[create] a world where people with disabilities are free to be.” The DJNO does advocacy work, runs workshops and focus groups, and reports on various relevant policies and legislation. They seek nothing less than complete personal and political self-determination for people with disabilities in Ontario.

Jama was commanding and dynamic as she spoke forcefully to the room, pulling no punches and refusing to sugarcoat her language. She condemned the various superseding structures that have made life untenable for so many people with disabilities, including the role of specific anti-disability politicians, like Premier Doug Ford.

Part of what was so powerful about Jama’s speech was her ability to paint a holistic picture of the state of things that produce marginalization. “At the end of the day, all of the struggles that we care about are intertwined,” she insisted. 

Jama tied capitalism with ableism by asserting that it is the former’s unnuanced focus on productivity and individualism that devalues the lives of disabled people. She linked the legacy of colonialism with ableism by explaining how the enslavement of Africans constructed them as disabled in order to excuse their subjugation and to pathologize their desire for freedom.

But just as these legacies of domination are interconnected, so too must the work of resisting them be intertwined. Jama stressed the importance of building coalitions between seemingly disparate aims. “These conversations [are] tied back to the root cause of people not being able to create spaces or have their voices heard, and that matters to people [of all stripes],” she asserted.

All activism, whether it be for anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, or disability justice, is grounded in the desire of these communities to be able to exist freely and unapologetically in a society that actively works to marginalize and silence them.

Jama acknowledged that, as students, we have an unprecedented level of freedom afforded to us, and with it, the ability to make connections with others, get involved in social issues, and do activist work. She advised that on the campus level, we should start by learning about and involving ourselves with spaces that we don’t normally occupy. It is important to make ourselves uncomfortable and to ask questions.

In these ways, we can disrupt normalcy and learn to work with each other. As students, our aim is to not only learn about the world, but to engage in bettering it. This involves disrupting our perspectives and learning about disparate experiences and ways of being.

The systems that are in place have been made and maintained through human effort and are not timeless or impervious. They can therefore be dismantled through human effort.

Jama’s words are timely. We live in a time when governments worldwide are issuing austerity measures. Politics are increasingly divisive and many of us are becoming cynical and disenfranchised. In Ontario, the government’s attacks on the Ontario Student Assistance Program, public health care, Ontario Works, and the Ontario Disability Support Program, as well as the termination of the Basic Income Pilot, are all part of a larger project to undermine the lives of the province’s most marginalized people.

In this burning world, a lot of activism tends to be centred around rage and anger. This is a valid reaction, but approaching social issues from a place of cynicism only has so much potential for growth. “Figuring out how to organize from a place of love,” insisted Jama, is the crucial first step.

Indeed, we must love those around us — especially if we don’t understand their experiences. Only from this place can we move toward a revolution. As Jama noted, the institutions and structures that oppress and silence us desire us to be divided and pitted against each other, because they know that if unified, we will become a dangerous force.

The Hancock Lecture closed with moderator Loren Delaney reciting a poem with the line, “Underneath this skin, bone, and blood is you, me, us, and them, dressed as others.” To seek justice and move toward a revolution, we need to acknowledge our commonalities and learn to depend on each other, while resisting the superseding structures that seek to divide us to navigate activism and the world from a place of love.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

The wormhole of memory

New evidence suggests that ‘blocked memories’ are formed but can’t be retrieved

The wormhole of memory

Researchers at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research have made new insights into why some things can’t be learned — or rather, can’t be remembered.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, Daniel Merritt, a PhD student in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s lab, and his colleagues found that memory blockages in Caenorhabditis elegans, or nematode worms, are likely due to issues with memory recall, as opposed to memory storage. Merritt’s publication is the first to confirm that memory blocking occurs in worms and refutes the running theory that memory blockage is rooted only in memory storage.

Memory blocking: what is it?

The phenomenon of memory blocking was first characterized by American psychologist Dr. Leon Kamin in the 1960s.

Kamin devised a set of experiments in which he played a tone before giving a rat an electric shock. After repeated tone-shock pairings, the rat learned to freeze at the sound of the tone. Kamin then played a tone and flashed a light before shocking the rat.

Kamin was intrigued to find that when he later tested the rat’s reaction to the light alone, it didn’t freeze. It was as if the rat had never learned this newer light-shock association. It was ‘blocked’ from memory.

Kamin’s findings made an enormous impact on the way researchers viewed and studied memory.

“People [came] to believe that in order for memories to form, there needs to be something surprising about what is happening to the animal,” explained Merritt in an interview with The Varsity. According to this theory, the rats in Kamin’s experiments had already learned that the tone predicted the shock and therefore didn’t form a memory of the light’s association to it.   

But Merritt and his team’s research points to another explanation: while a new memory is formed, it just can’t be recalled.

The researchers trained worms to avoid ammonium chloride — a substance they normally crawl toward — by starving them in its presence. They then starved these same worms in the presence of both ammonium chloride and benzaldehyde, a compound that has an almond scent. Similar to Kamin’s rats, the worms didn’t learn to avoid benzaldehyde.

Switching the order of the chemicals yielded the same results. Worms that were trained first with benzaldehyde and later simultaneously with benzaldehyde and ammonium chloride didn’t learn to avoid ammonium chloride.

Blocking the minds of worms

The researchers used fluorescent tags to observe the molecular motions in the worms’ neurons during the memory-blocking tasks.

When a worm formed a memory of benzaldehyde, a protein kinase enzyme called EGL-4, which is important to cell signalling, moved toward the nucleus of the neuron. When a tag was attached to EGL-4, its movement could be visualized under a microscope.

Even in the blocking condition, when the worms behaved as if they hadn’t learned about benzaldehyde, the researchers saw EGL-4 moving toward the nucleus.

“We’ve shown that [the worm] does learn, it learns perfectly well, it just can’t remember afterward,” said Merritt. “So the memory is formed, it [just] seems to be inaccessible — like a sort of amnesia.”

The researchers hope to pinpoint the exact molecular mechanisms behind these irretrievable memories.

Memory blocking is difficult to study in humans for various reasons. However, where the human brain has an estimated 86 billion neurons, adult hermaphrodite C. elegans worms have just 302. These neurons are connected to each other in nearly identical ways across worms.

“I think worms are the perfect animal to [study] because, again, you can identify particular cells, [and the] particular molecular changes that are occurring in them,” explained Merritt.

“I think that memory is this really interesting thing. It’s ephemeral; it seems hazy, nearly intractable at times — very difficult to get a grip on,” said Meritt. “But at the same time it forms the narrative thread that unites our experiences and integrates the times in our lives to form us as people.”

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Addressing the systemic gender bias that pervades the free online encyclopedia

Wikipedia’s lack of representation

Wikipedia is not only one of the most popular websites on the internet, but it has also become a commonly consulted educational reference for enthusiasts and experts alike. The site is at once the starting point of scholarly research and the ending point of everyday research.

But “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” suffers from systemic gender bias.

“Everyone goes there, so making sure the encyclopedia is a fair representative of the world is a great thing,” wrote Farah Qaiser to The Varsity. Qaiser is a U of T graduate student who has organized multiple Wikipedia edit-a-thons to boost representation on the website.

A number of student groups, including Women in Chemistry Toronto, Toronto Science Policy Network, and Women Of Colour in STEAMM Canada, have helped organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons in partnership with U of T Libraries. Each workshop session teaches participants the basics of editing Wikipedia pages and lets participants build on and create new Wikipedia pages. The most recent Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at Gerstein Science Information Centre added 2,560 words on Wikipedia pages for Canadian female scientists.

Representation is important because it leads to recognition and acceptance. It’s especially important on Wikipedia because of its role as a central junction for obtaining information. Thus, editing Wikipedia has become the newest frontier in balanced representation.

A 2018 study by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, found that only 5.2–13.6 per cent of Wikimedia project contributors are women. Women also make fewer edits, which has resulted in fewer female administrators — gatekeeping positions with privileges like the ability to block others from editing.

There is also an overwhelming focus on English Wikipedia. A 2011 study by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 76 per cent of all Wikipedia users make edits to English Wikipedia. Focusing on regional languages not only pushes for greater diversity in contributors, but also in relevant content.

“While it shouldn’t matter who edits Wikipedia, their biases matter,” wrote Qaiser. “It’s reflected in facts like only 17.67 per cent of English Wikipedia biographies are about women. That’s a very tiny number.”

Wikipedia is an open-access community. Everyone and anyone with access to the internet can edit and create articles. However, the editorial community is still predominantly male. According to Alex Jung, U of T’s Wikipedian-in-residence, one of the reasons for this predominance is a culture of gatekeeping and pushback toward women.

“Female editors have anecdotally reported that they face targeted editing on Wikipedia,” wrote Qaiser. For example, Dr. Jess Wade, British physicist, challenged herself to create one Wikipedia page a day to recognize the achievements of female scientists.

This February, Wade wrote her 500th entry. Qaiser said that as Wade became vocal about her efforts, her pages have been specifically targeted for editing.

Another reason for Wikipedia’s gender bias problem is a lack of sources. Wikipedia is merely reflective of a larger trend of underrepresentation. There simply aren’t many sources on women and marginalized communities. To counter this, Jung advocates searching harder for sources that tell untold stories.

UNESCO recently organized #WIKI4WOMEN on March 8, International Women’s Day. It advocated for a public effort to help share the stories of extraordinary women.

Editing Wikipedia can also be done any time from the comfort of one’s home and is very easy to do because of the user-friendly visual editor that Wikipedia uses. “It’s like editing a Word document,” said Qaiser. Jung is currently working on a guide to editing Wikipedia, available soon on the U of T Libraries’ website.

Contributing could even be as simple as uploading images. “There are a lot of pages on professors at U of T, but none of them have pictures,” noted Qaiser. “It’s as simple as taking a photograph of them — with their permission of course — and uploading it onto Wikipedia.”

A look at the Master of Public Health in Indigenous Health

The program aims to educate students on Indigenous health with focuses on traditional knowledge and medicine

A look at the Master of Public Health in Indigenous Health

This is the inaugural year for the two-year Master of Public Health: Indigenous Health program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health through the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health.

Dr. Suzanne Stewart, Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute, designed the program alongside Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle, Assistant Professor at Dalla Lana and Associate Director of the institute. The program was created with the objective of “[offering] a program based in Indigenous knowledges that’s guided by our traditional knowledge keepers, our elders, our healers, our teachers.”

The involvement of knowledge keepers, she says, reinforces the importance of traditional knowledge, which “is at the core of Indigenous health.”

Stewart explains that increasing the number of researchers and professionals in Indigenous health was one reason for the creation of the program. Another was to increase the number of Indigenous people who can, thanks to programs like these, access education in fields like health care while feeling culturally safe.

“I think the objective of the program, overall, is to create a training program that ensures that everyone who’s a part of that program is a part of the solution,” says Stewart.

The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada. An improvement in this community’s health can lead to higher levels of youth employment and education and increase the overall life expectancy of Canadians, says Stewart.

Due to the poor state of Indigenous health care, Stewart says that “we need to have people who are trained and capable of actually addressing these problems.”

The program includes courses on general public health, quantitative research, and social determinants of health, as well as specific courses such as Indigenous Health, Indigenous Health and Social Policy, and Indigenous Food Systems, Environment & Health.

At the end of their first year, students must complete a practicum over the summer. The practicums are in collaboration with Indigenous communities and all levels of government nationwide, in areas such as policy, program development, and research.

Stewart says the practicum “gives students an opportunity to actually spend time in Indigenous communities, working with Indigenous people, and being able to learn what it’s like to be there and do this work from a cultural perspective.”

Traditional knowledge is localized, explains Stewart, as is healing and its interpretation, which can vary depending on the communities from which elders and teachers originate.

“Indigenous healing and spirituality and pedagogy are not objective,” says Stewart. By learning about traditional Indigenous knowledge, there is a departure from linear thinking. Through this, students learn about the interconnectedness of mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

Stewart notes that the spiritual aspect is important, but usually not incorporated in Western health care programs, including policy.

Stewart hopes that students learn “how to be the person that they’re supposed to be and that they continue to contribute to the solutions and stop being part of the problems.”

Speaking of the first year’s cohort, Stewart says that she is delighted. The students, she explains, are dedicated, open to learning, and committed to the work. Furthermore, she notes that specialized programs are unique because there is something that drives the students to be passionate about the issue. 

The existence of this program, and others like it, can aid in the process of decolonization.

Stewart explains that “all healing for us as Indigenous people begins with the spiritual, and all healing is spiritual. And for us to want to heal the system, we need to do that in a basis of traditional knowledge and spirituality, and that’s really what this program is about.”

A glance at the state of Indigenous health

Professors of public health shed light on generational barriers Indigenous people face in accessing health care

A glance at the state of Indigenous health

Though the number of studies are scarce, there emerges a consistent and worrying pattern on the status of Indigenous health.

A Statistics Canada study spanning 2011–2014 found that whereas around 60 per cent of the non-Indigenous population perceived their health as good or excellent, only 48.5, 51.3, and 44.9 per cent of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people respectively reported their health as such.

Life expectancy is also lower for members of Canada’s Indigenous population, with an average life expectancy of 68.9 for Indigenous men and 76.6 for Indigenous women, compared to 78 among non-Indigenous men and 81 for non-Indigenous women. The cause of this can be attributed to a number of compounding issues, some of which are not immediately related to health care. 

Racism and discrimination against Indigenous people in the medical system are a big factor in preventing them from accessing and returning for continual services, explains Dr. Suzanne Stewart, Director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health.

Stewart says that the issue regarding Indigenous access to health services is “about actually being able to go into a health care environment and feel like it’s safe to be there mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

This is made more difficult by the legacy of the residential school system, funded by the government, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their communities to undergo aggressive assimilation. From the nineteenth century to 1996, an estimated 6,000 children died in the system out of the 150,000 forced to attend.

Children were underfed and malnourished. One residential school experimented with feeding children just a flour mixture. This systemic malnutrition caused by residential schools has been linked to health issues such as diabetes.

Even today, biases remain in the system, says Dr. Anna Banerji, Associate Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “I’ve witnessed it first hand,” she said.

Banerji has been researching Indigenous health for 25 years, travelling to the Arctic over 30 times to study respiratory infections in Inuit people.

Banerji discovered that Inuit babies are more frequently infected by respiratory syncytial virus than the wider Canadian population. But, Banerji says, “there’s an antibody that’s cheaper than the cost of admission [to a hospital] and no one is implementing that [in Inuit communities].”

South of the Arctic, Cat Lake First Nation recently made headlines due to a housing crisis that developed into a health crisis. Almost 100 houses in the fly-in community contained black mould, which caused rashes and bacterial infections, including lung infections.

Stewart explains that current health issues in Indigenous communities were “created by the systemic factors of all colonization,” which in turn “created a group of people who are highly traumatized and who have no resources to cope within that very system that created the trauma,” leading to crisis.

Furthermore, Stewart says that resources tend to assist in the immediate aftermath of crises, but not to sustainable preventions of them, such as research and programs so that issues like addiction do not escalate into crises.

Traditional medicine and knowledge are ways by which Indigenous people can heal.

Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle, Assistant Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Associate Director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, also stressed the barriers to the Cree notion of “pimatisiwin,” which is a traditional conception of “a good way of life.”

“We can’t live that way because we have too many systems pushing down on us,” says Mashford-Pringle.

Stewart says that traditional healing and medicines are rather inaccessible and it is up to individuals to seek them out, despite the fact that Indigenous health is included in treaty rights.

Mashford-Pringle works with Cancer Care Ontario, which offers courses in cultural competency to inform health care providers about Indigenous history and knowledge.

Stewart echoes the need for courses, saying, “We haven’t done anything that’s more meaningful such as [to] require our staff and our health care workers to undergo cultural safety training, to collaborate with Indigenous communities, to provide culturally-based services, provide access to traditional medicines and traditional healing.” She says that this “would bring meaningful change to health equity and health access for Indigenous people.”

“Why is it okay for them and not for me?” asks Banerji. She notes a disparity in acceptance and that “what is accepted for Indigenous children would not be accepted for non-Indigenous children.”

Stewart says that it is essential for non-Indigenous people to understand the ways they have benefitted from the harm done to Indigenous people, including through health care accessibility.

“Spend five minutes and learn about Indigenous people,” says Mashford-Pringle, adding, “Don’t stand in our way, even if the only thing you ever do is stand aside so that we can push for our right, that’s better than standing in our way and making it [worse].”

Digitizing memories with Hippocamera

U of T professor is building a memory retention app to help Alzheimer’s patients

Digitizing memories with Hippocamera

Dr. Morgan Barense, Associate Professor in U of T’s Department of Psychology, and Dr. Christopher Honey, Assistant Professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, are collaborating to build an “external hippocampus” for smartphones, based on the seahorse-shaped part of the brain responsible for long-term memory.

The Hippocamera app mimics how the brain replays memories for retention. It lets its users record moments they wish to remember and plays these memories back repeatedly at increased speed, mirroring the hippocampus’ process.

“It’s different [from] you just scrolling through your photos on your phone,” explained Barense in an interview with The Varsity. “The way we’re having people look back at these videos is mimicking how the hippocampus steps through events of one’s life. It’s organized in such a way that is externally simulating the way that the brain is representing memories. Just looking through your Instagram feed isn’t doing that systematically.”

Barense added that the app gives reminders for when memories should be replayed to follow the best memory retention patterns.

Hippocamera was conceived in 2014, when Honey approached Barense with the idea for a wearable device to help Alzheimer’s patients. Barense compared the original idea to Google Glass — it would’ve created images of “word clouds” for its user as they went about their daily lives. These words would appear when looking at certain things to remind the user of their significance.

That idea was eventually scrapped due to concerns that it would be too distracting for its users.

The current form of Hippocamera was developed with the input of postdoctoral researcher Dr. Christopher Martin, Research Coordinator Dr. Rachel Newsome, graduate student Brian Hong, and undergraduate student Andrew Xia.

Hippocamera is still at the development stage and has only been tested on healthy older adults showing no signs of cognitive decline. The team has started trials with individuals showing early signs of cognitive decline, with the goal of moving onto trials with individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

There is still a lot of work to be done before releasing the app to the public. With funding from the Centre of Aging and Brain Health Innovation and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Barense and her team are now testing how artificial intelligence can be used to support the app. Their hope is to develop the technology to make meaningful connections by  grouping together similar memories, similar to how a regular human brain functions.

Other apps that aid patients with Alzheimer’s disease are on the market, but Hippocamera is the first to mimic actual brain function. While similar life-logging apps exist, they tend to leave the organizational functions to the user. Hippocamera demands minimal management, allowing it to be used even by disoriented users.

Beyond physiological well-being, the app may bring about psychosocial benefits. Those who have used the app say that it is fun and very easy to use.

Forgetting parts of one’s life can be very disorienting. Barense hopes that the app can help reduce anxiety and improve well-being with improved memory.

“We’re looking to see if memory enhancement, ways in which our memories get better, [is] related to improvements in psychosocial well-being,” said Barense. “Just having better memory [might] make an individual a happier person with a stronger sense of identity.”

Meaningful education on Indigenous peoples and cultures must start at schools

Canadian schools are failing students and the process of reconciliation

Meaningful education on Indigenous peoples and cultures must start at schools

When I think about the way Indigenous studies are taught in Ontario schools, I think back to an instance in grade eight where my class had to give presentations on the Métis people and Louis Riel.

I distinctly remember three of my peers continuously referring to Riel as “Lewis Rye-ell” and my teacher doing nothing to correct them. I had grown up in Winnipeg, where Riel led the Red River Rebellion in 1870, and learned about the ‘Father of Manitoba’ from the very start of my schooling. I was surprised that my classmates were not familiar with a rebellion and a man I had spent my entire elementary school career studying. I thought everyone knew about the history of Métis people.

But then I began to think about it, and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Indigenous histories of Ontario, or Québec, or Saskatchewan. Though extensive in this specific slice, my education was severely limited to my province’s borders, which left me acutely ignorant to the rest of Canada’s history.

Many think-pieces and op-eds have recently popped up regarding how we should approach and strengthen Indigenous studies — that schools should teach languages such as Cree or Ojibwe, or that Indigenous literature should be mandatory in the curriculum — but little legislation or action has come to fruition. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred.

Last July, the Ontario Ministry of Education cancelled plans for a curriculum rewrite with more Indigenous content. The update was intended to incorporate extensive studies of residential schools and would have been spread out throughout different topics, such as geography and social studies. An initiative that would have supported Indigenous languages being taught in kindergarten was cancelled at the same time.

The International Languages Elementary Program recommends and assists in incorporating languages other than English into a school curriculum, mainly through extended school days and weekend class offerings. Not every district school board in Ontario has implemented the program, but in those that did, 30,000 students learned 53 different languages — few of which were Indigenous.

This seems extremely incongruent considering that in Ontario many Indigenous languages are at risk of being lost. According to UNESCO, three of every four Indigenous languages in Canada are critically or severely endangered, yet no movements are being taken by the government, specifically on a provincial level through the Ministry of Education, to reverse this course.

“Stripping Indigenous peoples of our languages was a deliberate policy of the residential school system, and despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that acknowledges this, there is yet to be any concrete action to reverse this damage,” wrote Métis author Chelsea Vowel in 2017.

Those that view language as strictly utilitarian — meant only as a tool for communication and nothing more — may suggest that since Indigenous languages are spoken by a small minority, they are not as essential as French or English.

However, it is important to consider that language is more than just a mere tool: it conveys culture and history, and it can connect — or divide — generations of people. Teaching Indigenous languages in schools could help Indigenous children feel that their identity is secure and respected, facilitating and encouraging a new generation of children to speak languages that were suppressed and attacked during the era of residential schools.

Learning Indigenous languages could also instil empathy and appreciation in non-Indigenous children.

The fact remains: Indigenous education within Canadian public school systems is inadequate. A study conducted by Emily Milne, an assistant sociology professor at MacEwan University, found that despite good intentions, teachers have difficulty teaching Indigenous studies, often misappropriating terms or making grand generalizations. Because of this, it is important that support for the integration of Indigenous content is offered by the Ministry of Education, so that regulations can be implemented to ensure that educators have adequate preparation and materials to teach these important lessons.

I am not Indigenous myself, but I lucked out in having a teacher at a very young age who was adamant on incorporating and teaching extensive Indigenous content in her curriculum, albeit limited in scope. Others who didn’t have enthusiastic teachers were left largely uninformed.

Implementing proper, respectful, and effective Indigenous content, through language, history, or literature, is essential for all schools and curriculums in Canada.