Over the past two years the Province of British Columbia has started to implement a new curriculum for students in Kindergarten to Grade 9. Over the next two years the new curriculum will be implemented for students in high school. This overhaul represents changes in our perceptions of what students should know by the time they graduate. It includes greater emphasis on critical thinking and skills based learning, as well as more information and general knowledge about Canada’s Indigenous people, their perspectives, culture and history. Canada is currently in the process of Reconciliation in regards to its history with Indigenous people, and the curriculum is starting to acknowledge what this means.
This new emphasis on Indigenous society has spun many teachers. How can I teach topics I don’t think I know enough about? This questions led me to purchase Lee Maracles’ book, “Talking to Canadians”.
Maracle is a Coast Salish poet and author, and a critic of the treatment of Indigenous people living in Canada.
This book changed many of my preconceptions about Canadian society and history, as well as Canada’s relationships to its Indigenous and Aboriginal people. Below are some of my favorite selections from this book.
What Can We Do to Help?
When acknowledging the tragedies of Canadian history in relation to Canada’s Indigenous people, this questions has come up for me, as well as my students. Is there something non-indigenous people can do to help?
“After presenting on all of the injustices in Canada when it comes to Indigenous people, I almost want to laugh and ask just exactly what they would like to help with – Canada does quite well as a colonizer.” … “What can we do to help?” Implies that we are responsible for achieving some monumental task we are not up to and so the offer of help is generous. It infers that we had some hand in how things turned out for us. Racism and colonialism and patriarchy are Canadian social formations, not indigenous ones. We are not the only ones responsible for their undoing. If you participate in dismantling the master’s house and ending all forms of oppression, you are helping yourself. The sooner Canadians realize that, the better. (p.45)
Another aspect of the new curriculum is acknowledgement of “Indigenous ways of knowing”. Another term that I initially found difficult to understand, Lee provides an example of the knowledge of Indigenous people that is often overlooked by the scientific community:
“We have not looked at North America as a source of scientific knowledge and scientific study ever, but even the slightest examination of some beliefs and practices of Indigenous people indicate that we should… some whales were trapped in the ice of the northern Arctic. Scientists called for the U.S and Russia to send icebreakers… but the Inuit said that they could sing them out. The scientists scoffed at such a ludicrous concept… They would have to accept that the Inuit could sing whale. The scientists declined the help. Eventually one of the whales died. Undaunted the Inuit continued to go every day to tell the scientists that they could sing the whales out. After the first whale died and the icebreakers were nowhere near to arriving, one scientist convinced the others to let the Inuit try.
The Inuit busied themselves cutting holes in the ice at definite intervals. When they were at the edge of the the floes, they began to sing. The whales heard them and swam out to sea by following the voices. Neither the Inuit nor the scientists had a clue why this worked, but the Inuit were concerned only about getting the whales out, while the scientists wanted to study the situation.” (p.55-56)
What should we call you?
Often in class I am asked what we should call the Indigenous people of Canada. I usually would say, First Nations or Indigenous (there are three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis). Maracle reflects on being asked and answering this question herself, which opened my eyes to how and why we ask this question.
“What should I call you?” an elder gentleman invariably asks.
“I am Stó:lō, part of the Coast Salish Confederacy” was my answer.
“No, I mean what do I call all of you?”
“No, I mean all the Indians of this island.”
“Why do you want to know?” Well I think there is some colonial convenience in seeing us as a single entity – a mob really – and not as separate, individual nations… We are not crazy about dealing with you separately either. It is lazy and near to useless, however, to bag all Europeans together. Ireland has as much in common with Russia as the Crees do with the Stó:lō, but we continue to identify each other with these massive racial signifiers that make little sense if we stop to think about it. (p.69)
This has informed my teaching practice in a few ways. Firstly, when it comes to the territory, the City of Vancouver is considered the shared territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. It is also worth noting that several groups lived in the Lower Mainland at different times, trading and moving throughout the seasons. A great resource for teachers to find out this information is Native-Land.ca.
Secondly, I find it is worth noting the diversity of Indigenous populations throughout Canada, which culminated in a research project for a Social Studies 8 class on the different people and territories of Canada.
More to Learn:
This book was a great read for the start of 2018. It can be purchased online through Book Thug. I highly recommend it for teachers working with the new BC curriculum. While Lee identifies that she is not speaking for all Indigenous people, she presents a valuable perspective to reflect on when integrating First Nations content into the classroom.