First university level Indigenous studies course draws mixed reactions

By Jan Murphy

 Local Journalism Initiative

University of Prince Edward Island’s announcement that it will require incoming graduating students to complete a course on Indigenous studies was met locally with mixed reactions.

Last week, U of P.E.I. announced the mandatory course will launch this fall and will cover Indigenous history, cultures and practices and is among the first of its kind following the 2015 national Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action, which included a number of recommendations around enhanced education on Indigenous history and residential schools.

Local politicians and educators agree that the course is a positive step, but that educating Canadians on Indigenous history must start much earlier.

“I think to make sure that citizens of Canada know about Canada’s history from an Indigenous point of view and Indigenous history, that should really be done in elementary and secondary levels,” Ted Hsu, member of provincial parliament for Kingston and the Islands, said in an interview.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in their calls to action, called for education in the primary and secondary levels. At the post-secondary levels, they called for training teachers to be able to teach Indigenous history and culture curriculum. From the civic point of view, it really should be done in elementary and secondary levels,” Hsu, also the for member of Parliament for the riding, said.

Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief R. Donald Maracle said that while much work remains, he is seeing changes.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report did encourage First Nations and non-natives to learn more about their history and relationship with the Indigenous People. I think most Canadians have awakened to the fact that they know very little about it,” Chief Maracle said.

Chief Maracle’s biggest concern, however, is that any curriculum, not just that at the U of P.E.I., needs to be accurate and to represent all Indigenous languages, cultures and customs.

“Every Indigenous nation has its own language and its own culture and its own customs,” he said. “They’re not all the same.

When you pan-Indigenize things, you’re actually misrepresenting the culture. For example, our governance would be matrilineal and others, it could be patrilineal. Some of the dances, customs (and) languages are totally different. We wouldn’t understand any West Coast language, nor would they understand us,” Chief Maracle said, adding that in Ontario alone there are many different Indigenous languages.

However, Chief Maracle said he is encouraged that progress is being made, no matter how small.

“At least the effort is being made to teach people something about Indigenous people, which I think is a step in the right direction.”

Regionally, post-secondary institutions are implementing Indigenous studies curriculum and support programming.

Loyalist College in Belleville this month announced the appointment of Jennifer Maracle as director of Indigenous services.

Maracle, a member of the Bear Clan from Ken:teke, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, and a longtime educator and special education coordinator at Quinte Mohawk School, is charged with building programming within the college’s Indigenous Resource Centre and throughout the school.

Maracle recalled her own experiences in the public school system.

“I went to school in Belleville and what I learned about my own people was to be ashamed of them,” she said in an interview at the college. “The idea of the drunken Indian was taught to me. The stereotypes were there. That’s how I learned about my culture at first. There was a huge sense of shame that was involved with me learning to identify as an Indigenous person,” said added, admitting that she struggled with the internal battle of knowing that Indigenous people were nothing like what was being taught.

“I (knew) that we were good,” she said. “(But) I (was) being told that we’re not, sitting beside someone who doesn’t know about the good, who doesn’t know that we’re still alive, and that we still have ceremony and we’re still prosperous, we still speak our language?” Maracle recalled.

“(Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner) Murray Sinclair said that education got us into this mess and it’s going to get us out,”

Maracle said.” The only way for us to get out of this mess and really start the tough work of reconciliation is to change the public school system with regards to Indigenous education. Both parties need to be at the table making the curriculum and I don’t think that’s happening yet.”

Queen’s University acknowledged the responsibility that post-secondary institutions have with regard to Indigenous studies.

“Universities have an important role to play in validating and promoting knowledge systems,” Queen’s said in a statement.

“Reflecting on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Queen’s has integrated discipline specific Indigenous knowledge, traditions, cultures, histories, and experiences into many of our academic programs and curricula. The University recognizes that all students stand to benefit from exposure to Indigenous knowledge and experiences, and every Queen’s graduate should have an understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems relevant to their field of study,” the release said.

The university said it will continue to take steps to improve and increase Indigenous studies.

“To ensure that Indigenous histories and knowledge are well represented, academic programs consult with Indigenous knowledge-keepers, Elders and community partners to develop Indigenous-specific content and learning outcomes,” the statement read. “Queen’s also has a robust Indigenous Studies program, and those courses can be accessed by students from various programs. By taking steps to ensure Indigenous histories are shared, recognizing that all students can benefit from Indigenous knowledge, and by creating culturally validating learning environments, we can continue to reduce barriers to education and create a more welcoming, inclusive, and diverse university.”

Sean Monteith, senior vice-president, academic, at Loyalist College, said that while elementary and post-secondary school curriculums are mandated at the government level, post-secondary institutions have more autonomy when it comes to courses.

“I would say that if you’re a college, university or any post-secondary institution in Canada, there probably needs to be some level of awareness and incorporation of Indigenous values and perspectives,” Monteith said.

The college next year will add a mandatory course that includes Indigenous perspectives.

“All students across all faculties and schools will be required to take and to complete successfully if they’re going to graduate from Loyalist College, regardless of the program,” Monteith said, adding the school feels it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s an imperative thing to do. “We’re doing it because we have a growing and burgeoning and strengthening relationship with Tyendinaga Mohawk First Nation Territory,” he added.

Kingston and the Islands member of Parliament Mark Gerretsen recalled a curriculum devoid of Indigenous education when he was a child.

“In the ’80s, there was nothing in regard to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous culture,” Gerretsen said. “I can even tell by some of the conversations that I’m having with my six-year-old, whose going into Grade 1, that there have at least been some conversations that are happening in the classroom, which I think is very important.”

Gerretsen also remembered during his childhood, his mother, Assunta, being a proponent of reconciliation.

“My mother was very passionate about Indigenous issues,” Gerretsen said. “I can remember (she) was doing a Master’s degree in geography, which touched a lot on Indigenous issues. Before people really had these conversations, I remember my mother talking about the need to reconcile and the fact we, as in the collective we, had basically stolen land and that we needed to rectify it. I think that as time has gone on and we’ve been having more discussions, more people have been coming to terms with it.”

Gerretsen, too, said he believes education should start at the elementary level.

“I think it’s critically important that at a very young age, we start this,” he said. “I think that by the time students get to post-secondary, that’s the point where they start making decisions about what direction they want to take their life in and I think that that proper education needs to happen at an earlier time in one’s life.”

He also applauded any educational institution that puts the focus on Indigenous studies.

“I think it’s great that universities are taking the initiative to properly tell the story of Canada and what the lands were before the last 300 years,” Gerretsen said. “I think that that’s very important. I applaud (the University of P.E.I.) for its desire to try to find a way to ensure that this education is still taking place. I’m by no means knocking the university for their initiative becasuse I think it’s a good one, I just think generally speaking, it has to be built into the everyday curriculum that we have in Ontario for elementary and high school.”

(Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. )

 

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