Social Studies and Social Justice
Over the past month or so, I’ve started a new position – teaching Social Studies and ELL at an independent High School in Richmond, BC. I started a bit late into the year, so have spent much of the past few weeks planning Social Studies courses. Social Studies 10 focuses a lot on the Confederation of Canada (how Canada essentially became the Provinces and Territories we know today). However, a fair portion of the curriculum also discusses the impact of European settlement on the First Nations, from the fur trade to the Indian Act and reserve system. We also take time to discuss immigration by non-Europeans – to build the railway, dig for gold, and so forth.
Looking at the curriculum, it becomes clear quite quickly that we need to talk about the Social Justice in Social Studies.
In 6 weeks we’ve touched on mixed – race marriage and relationships (the Metis), slavery (the American civil war), conservation (the Fur Trade) and racism (through the relationships between French and English speakers, and the First Nations and Europeans).
My students have done really well.
My students have a hard road with Social Studies. All of the students at my school are not originally from Canada, most arrived from somewhere in Asia within the last 4 years. Social Studies is a very language and vocabulary heavy course, on top of a history that not many are familiar with, and very different from what they studied in school elsewhere.
That being said, my students have never used a term for Aboriginal or First Nations people other than Aboriginal or First Nations. Students have asked me what the correct language is to talk about African-Americans. They are able to make connections between themselves, their language and culture, and the struggle by French Canadians to hold on to their language and culture in the face of assimilation – the Metis too.
These students have never been taught otherwise, have never been exposed to a different world view on Canadian history, other than the one we have in the classroom.
And sometimes that feels like a big responsibility.
Choices as a teacher
I have a lot of choices to make in presenting Canadian history. I won’t skip over the sad, or unfair, or angering parts. It’s been as much a good exercise for me, going over these events again, as it is for the students learning them.
It’s been a bit of a depressing slog through course planning. Once we finish with the Northwest Rebellion and the execution of Louis Riel, the Metis and the First Nations have a difficult time. The reserve system takes hold, the Metis are driven North and West until they eventually comply with unfair government initiatives and end up on reserves.
Our next unit talks more about the railway and the Gold Rush- and we move into the thousands of people from China that came to work in British Columbia and the West Coast. We are using an excellent graphic novel called “Escape to Gold Mountain” which you can find here. We will spend a bit more time on this unit because of the obvious ties between China and BC (in our classroom, and historically).
But there is a lot of very nasty racism. Racism from people that looked like me towards people that looked like them.
So, how do you pull something positive from hundreds of years of racism and intolerance? How do you inspire hope? This is something I’m thinking about constantly. We talk about it in class. The way that people treat women, minorities, animals, children is getting better. If my students want to become Canadian citizens, they can. This was something denied to many people from China until this past century. If I want to own property and vote, I can, and I wasn’t allowed to vote in a Provincial election until 1917. We aren’t slaughtering bison, or forbidding cultural ceremonies for First Nations communities.
But, yes, there is still work to be done. We are still struggling with fairness, justice and tolerance. And I think they only way to make it better is to keep the conversation going.
Thanksgiving and Columbus Day
You may have read that Minneapolis and Seattle have changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. I know that there has been some controversy over changing an iconic American holiday. But – if you read up on Christopher Columbus (please do if you have time) – I personally think we need to distance ourselves from celebrating this version of history. There is a fantastic essay from one of my favourite cartoonists at The Oatmeal, which brought me to tears. I recommend a read through – you can find the link here.
Thinking about it today – on Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday no students from my school will be celebrating with a turkey, a holiday that many of them don’t really understand, I have no doubt in my mind that my students would support an Indigenous People’s day. Yes, this would be to get a day off of school, but I know that they would agree – the Indigenous people, through their efforts to help early Europeans, because of the desecration of their culture, in debt to First Nations leaders making a difference now – deserve a holiday more than Christopher Columbus.
And that gives me some hope.