By Maurice Switzer
You know those double-edged news flashes , like when you find out that you’ve won the lottery but your divorced husband has the ticket, or the car dealer agrees to give you $2,000 more on your trade-in but jacks up the price of the new car he’s selling you by $3,000?
Well that’s kind of how I’m feeling about the announcement that governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have joined forces to create a mandatory curriculum for high school students to learn the legacy and history of residential schools.
The good news is that it’s high time that Canadian students anywhere will be required to study any segment of their country’s history in order to graduate. In Ontario, for example, you can earn a secondary school diploma with only one history credit over four years of study, the same requirement that exists for physical education or French as a second language.
A study earlier this year indicated that nearly half of Canadians were not aware that July 1, 1867 marked their country’s constitutional debut.
Unfortunately, First Peoples pay a big price for this embarrassing national ignorance by Canadian citizens about their own past. That’s why there are over 800 unresolved land claims and the federal government feels little public pressure to honour and implement the treaty and inherent rights clauses in their own Constitution. It’s why the Harper government can get away with ignoring auditor-general reports about their mismanagement of the Indian Affairs file, and recommendations by its own commissions about the urgent need for comprehensive investments in First Nations education.
So it's good that governments in the far North are insisting on courses of study that require students to learn about residential schools. As Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson says, “We all need to realize this very, very key point: that residential schools are not aboriginal history; this is Canadian history based on Canadian laws that aboriginal people had no say in.”
Amen to that.
Now, as to the location of these new courses, it strikes me as odd that the first two jurisdictions to mandate this type of history education are the furthest from the Nation’s Capital, the only two territories in Canada where Aboriginal peoples form the majority of the populations – 50.3 per cent in NWT, and a whopping 85 per cent in Nunavut.
Those two places had some of the last operating residential schools and have Canada’s highest per capita number of residential school survivors. That sounds a bit like “preaching to the converted” to me.
Even after two federal government apologies for Canada’s role in operating the abuse-ridden network of 100 compulsory Native boarding schools, this country’s politicians and educators still seem timid in talking about what certainly qualifies as the darkest chapter in national history – the forcible confinement and brutal abuse of many of the 150,000 children taken from their parents’ care.
The official policy of aboriginal assimilation practised by Canada is surely as important for high school students in Sarnia or Peterborough or Orillia or Thunder Bay or North Bay or Pembroke to learn about as the study of the World War II Holocaust of European Jews.
They should also learn more about the contributions that First Peoples have made -- and continue to make -- to Canada and the world.
It’s not often that I have ever been known to agree with anyone in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, party, or species, but I think that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made a good point in a speech where he criticized the presentation of Canadian history as one about a country built on conquest. There are many heroic and uplifting aspects to this country’s past. How about the role played by usually anonymous First Nations leaders like Musquaquie and Shingwaukonse and Bemanakinang in leading 10,000 warriors in the successful defence of Canada in the War of 1812, when they supported a meagre contingent of 1,000 British troops west of Montreal?
How about First Peoples’ contributions -- the inventions of canoe, and dogsled, and snowshoe and kayak, cultivations of rice and over 70 hybrids of corn, and use of over 500 medicines still used in modern pharmacology?
This is not merely Aboriginal history – this is Canadian history.
It’s time it was taught as required study in all schools across Canada, not just in places that might be out of sight and out of mind....unless you're Santa Claus.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.