A commitment to reconciliation

Advocating for an Indigenous content requirement at U of T

A commitment to reconciliation

The curriculum of British Columbia’s grade 11 social studies classes involves learning about Canada’s past relations with Indigenous peoples. A large segment of this topic is dedicated to the discussion of residential schools and their impacts on Indigenous people in Canada.

I grew up in BC and I very much recall this section of the course: my teacher told my class that residential schools had all closed by the seventies. Knowing this to be false — as the last school closed in 1997 — I corrected him. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he qualified his statement by saying, “All of the bad ones closed well before then.”

This statement implies there was such thing as a ‘good’ residential school, which is clearly not the case. All residential schools removed children from their families, communities, culture, and languages. Indigenous people who did not attend residential schools are experiencing the lasting intergenerational impacts of this system, including poverty, alcoholism, family breakdown, and systemic violence.

This statement also illustrates the lack of knowledge that many high school teachers have about Indigenous issues; these misrepresentations of the truth only serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.

[pullquote-features]A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information being taught about their cultures. [/pullquote-features]

According to the 2016 People for Education Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools, only 31 per cent of elementary schools and 53 per cent of secondary schools provide professional development opportunities for staff in the area of Indigenous cultural issues — just under half of secondary school teachers are not provided with up to date information to adequately instruct their students on these topics.

Additionally, only 29 per cent of elementary schools and 49 per cent of secondary schools bring in Indigenous guest speakers. A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information taught about their cultures.

Given the lack of meaningful Indigenous education at the high school level, education on Indigenous issues should be incorporated into every student’s university education. Several Canadian universities have already implemented an Indigenous content requirement in order to make up for these gaps and to introduce international students to the problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is now time for the University of Toronto to do the same.

In January 2016, the university announced it would convene a committee to review the recommendations made by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that they would implement any recommendations found relevant to the university. Through this commitment, U of T demonstrates an interest in reconciling with Indigenous peoples. In following through with this interest, the university should feel an obligation to ensure that all of its students understand the realities of colonization, residential schools, and the impacts that have followed for Indigenous peoples.

Although not expressly laid out as a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, implementing a mandatory Indigenous content requirement would ensure that all U of T undergraduates have such an understanding upon completion of their degree. Then, students would be able to bring this understanding forward to enlighten other members of the population on these issues.

Some of those opposed to such a requirement suggest that this information should be taught in high school. The reality is that the majority of high school teachers do not have the knowledge to accurately teach about Indigenous issues, if they teach about Indigenous issues at all.

Many people in opposition to a mandatory Indigenous content requirement have a problem with any mandatory courses at all, arguing that university is a paid educational experience and students should be able to take what interests them. Rather than requiring specific courses like many other institutions though, U of T breadth requirements ensure that students are well rounded while still able to maintain their freedom of choice with respect to course selection.

U of T can simply implement this requirement in a similar way to the University of Winnipeg, which incorporated a multitude of Indigenous studies courses from which students can choose. Indigenous content could be fused with program objectives, which would allow students to learn how these issues impact all fields and ensure all students graduate with knowledge of such issues. Indigenous students could be included in designing and facilitating courses, ensuring accuracy and giving them influence on what is taught.

[pullquote-features]By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.[/pullquote-features]

At U of T, this requirement could easily be incorporated into the current breadth requirement system, by designating any courses providing sufficient information on Indigenous issues as a breadth category and including completion of a credit in this category as a graduation requirement. The university can also avoid increasing the number of breadth courses students must take by granting credit for the Indigenous requirement in addition to any breadth categories the course currently fulfills.

By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. Prioritizing Indigenous content will empower students to understand their position in Indigenous matters and acknowledge any related privileges they may hold. It will also give Indigenous students the opportunity to see their culture embraced by the university, creating a more inclusive, engaging environment. This is an important step that the university should take, if it truly wants to commit to reconciliation.

Madeleine Freedman is a third-year Innis College student studying Canadian Studies.

Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives to be renamed Centre for Indigenous Studies

Change to take effect in July pending Governing Council approval

Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives to be renamed Centre for Indigenous Studies

In keeping with the growing trend away from using the word ‘aboriginal,’ the Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives within the Faculty of Arts & Science will be renamed the Centre for Indigenous Studies, after a unanimous agreement in favour of the name change from faculty, staff, and students.

The centre currently offers undergraduate specialist, major, and minor programs in Aboriginal Studies. In July, these programs will be called ‘Indigenous Studies’ pending approval by the Governing Council on June 23.

Other universities that have made the switch to Indigenous Studies from Aboriginal Studies or ‘Native Studies’ include Trent University, McMaster University, Queen’s University, University of Saskatchewan, University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, and McGill University.

Similarly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renamed the federal ‘Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development’ to the ‘Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs’ last November. In addition, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced in May that the provincial ‘Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs’ will be renamed the ‘Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation’.

In recent years, numerous Indigenous groups, including the Anishinabek of Ontario and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, have opposed the term aboriginal. According to the word’s detractors, it can be interpreted to mean ‘not original’, with the Latin prefix ‘ab-’ meaning ‘not.’

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Indigenous and northern affairs minister signs U of T NSA petition

Carolyn Bennett joins call for mandatory Aboriginal studies course

Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of Indigenous and northern affairs, voiced her support for mandatory Indigenous studies classes for every university student. At a talk on January 25 entitled “Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic” at the University of Toronto, she highlighted the importance of educating all Canadians about Indigenous knowledge systems, traditions, and cultural practices.

Bennett, the self-described “minister of reconciliation,” said that “we have to begin work in our understanding with the reconciliation with the people of the north, but also of course a reconciliation with the land, which is in some ways what climate change and all of this is about.” 

“It is important that northern voices be fully heard in the formulation of the Canadian approach with recognition of the place of Indigenous knowledge,” Bennett added.

When asked about what the Canadian government plans to achieve in terms of implementing the recommendations put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with regards to education, Bennett remarked that she has been pleased to see many universities taking up the Calls to Action of the TRC. She praised the University of Winnipeg in particular for implementing a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for all students.   

“If people don’t understand the Indian Act, Residential Schools, the effects of colonization, if even the clinicians don’t understand PTSD in that lens, we aren’t gonna win,” Bennett said.

Members of the Native Students’ Association (NSA) caught up with the minister to ask for her signature on their petition for a mandatory Indigenous Studies course for U of T undergraduate students, which she did.

“I feel overwhelmed and a sense of great pride to be a part of the wonderful community. So many kind and generous people are supporting our cause. The response has created a new community, one that is dedicated to diversify our education and hear the voices of my ancestors,” said Audrey Rochette, crane and governance leader of the NSA. “The next phase in our petition will be to draft a proposal which will be reviewed by our council and select faculty members to ensure it meets the criteria of such a strong call to action that it simply can not be dismissed with a no,” Rochette said.

Minister Bennett also suggested that book clubs across Canada begin adding works by Indigenous authors or allies to their reading lists. “Ninety-six per cent of Canadians who are not from an Indigenous background have to actually get with the program and realize what they don’t know. That’s what Justice [Murray] Sinclair has been saying about ‘the secret of shame,’ the fact that it was still a secret, and that what we’re hearing from so many Canadians now is ‘How come I didn’t know that?’ and ‘How come I never learned that?’”   

Bennett is a University of Toronto alum. She said that when she graduated from U of T, swimming the length of a pool was a requirement. “So I’ve now changed my view; I think you shouldn’t be able to graduate unless you’ve done at least one course in Indigenous studies,” a statement that was met with applause.