In this article, I would like to present a series of anecdotes. Stories are the most potent form of communication since they allow us to share experiences and perspectives. In this article, I will share my stories as an Indigenous student in the Canadian education system.
I have always known that I am Indigenous. Although it isn’t an all-consuming identity, it is a part of me and my life. However, all the Anishinaabe and Indigenous teachings that I have learned have always been taught outside of the Canadian education system. When I was younger and my family rented a small house in Toronto, I went to an incredible Indigenous preschool called Head Start. I learned to say the days of the week, introduce myself, and count in Anishinaabemowin. I scarcely remember it and now, I can barely speak the language. Once I was removed from the city, there were no Indigenous resources, nor did I have access to Indigenous education.
Indigenous education only reentered my classroom in middle school. My mother had given me children’s books about Indigenous history. One of those books was about a little girl who was taken away to a residential school. I brought that book to class and read it as a presentation. I was nervous and stuttering as I stood in front of my classmates.
But they were bored, confused, or didn’t care all that much. They probably didn’t understand what I was talking about when I spoke of residential schools. I don’t think they even knew of or had thought about Indigenous peoples in Canada.
I remember how eager I was to share with the class but also how nervous and uncomfortable I was to present. Why was I the only person who brought up Indigenous peoples? Why was this not taught by my teacher? In complete truth, I think she knew just as much about Indigenous peoples as my classmates. So I, as the only Indigenous kid in the school, was left as the only person to teach about it.
The first time Indigenous peoples were brought up by a teacher was in seventh grade. She had been teaching us about Canadian history. All we focused on were the ‘great’ explorers, John A. Macdonald, and my teacher’s particular fascination with the Acadians. Despite the fact that all these people contributed to colonization, Indigenous peoples did not feature much in these stories; they felt like background props — never fully explained and only existing as cardboard cutouts.
On this day, my teacher decided to discuss the Indigenous peoples from our region. I entered the class so excited to share and see people’s reactions to Ojibway, Cree, or Mohawk culture. Instead, my teacher talked about Huron-Wendat. I was disappointed and confused when they were the only culture she discussed, and she never even brought up their history. It was only after the class, when my friends and other classmates started asking me if I was Huron-Wendat, that I became frustrated. When I told them that I was Ojibway, they were confused. They couldn’t understand that more than one Indigenous group lived in Canada. But how could they, when they were only taught about one group and only once a year?
The story, or lack of history, continued in the eighth grade. Little was taught or said about Indigenous peoples. My history textbook had three pages that discussed Indigenous history but only focused on brief mentions. And yet, one teacher suddenly went on a crusade. She brought different magazines and pamphlets discussing residential schools and tried to tell the entire school about the atrocities that happened in one week.
Finally, it felt like Indigenous history was being taken seriously in schools. Students started to react and remember. My pain and my family’s pain felt validated and recognized. This moment made me believe in the possibility of a future where Indigenous history and culture could be embraced and remembered. However, not all the effects were positive.
One particularly memorable occasion occurred in a high school history class. A student asked why he should care about Indigenous peoples and why people expected him to feel guilty. It happened hundreds of years ago, so why was it important to learn about Indigenous peoples now? He didn’t understand how these events still affect people today, or why it was important to discuss and remember them.
Indigenous peoples were brought up in short bursts once a year. Teachers were learning at the same pace as students. Some were sympathetic, but others were dismissive. It was all forgotten after one class. So when schools started doing land acknowledgments, I was confused. It was a nice gesture, if nothing else, but it was hollow. Especially considering the fact that they acknowledged the wrong people.
My latest experience with land acknowledgements has been at U of T. A political science teacher had just spent two weeks introducing us to Indigenous political philosophy when he asked our class, “Should land acknowledgements mention or include the violence done to Indigenous peoples?”
Most answers were shallow and hesitant, except for two. One audience member suggested that the land acknowledgement should discuss the violence inflicted on settlers by Indigenous peoples. Additionally, a student from the balcony ranted about how everyone was a settler and contributing to colonization. Yet, the point they made about the number of settlers in Canada being the reason “why Indigenous people can’t get jobs” was just as insulting.
The point I’m trying to make with these anecdotes is that misconceptions and judgements about Indigenous peoples still exist. While Indigenous education is improving in Canada, many gaps and prejudices are fuelling people’s perspectives.
Not all of my experiences have been negative. There have been two remarkable occasions when my friends applied their education on Indigenous peoples and reached out to me personally. One friend sent my family orange flowers after the residential school bodies were uncovered in British Columbia in May 2021. Another friend used the education she was getting at Lakehead University to begin a productive and deep discussion with me about the current state of Indigenous peoples.
These moments give me hope that, in the future, there will be more Indigenous education. While I can’t tell you exactly how learning about Indigenous peoples will impact your life, it does impact mine, and the lives of all other Indigenous students.