A gap in education

Exploring the prevalence of content on indigenous cultures in classrooms

Photo by Will Huang
Photo by Will Huang

Members of the Wilfrid Laurier University community agree, the presence of indigenous history and issues in the education system in Ontario is improving, but still has a long way to go.

“There is education in your grade four social studies class and your basic intro to grade 10 history, there’s a little bit of education,” explained Liam Flagg, programming assistant at the Aboriginal Student Centre. “But unless you’re willing to go and find those indigenous based courses, there’s nothing for you to get that basic education.”

In order for this to improve, he said it needs to be integrated into every grade from kindergarten to grade 12. At the university level, indigenous content needs to be added into every department.

Jenny Kerber, an assistant professor in the English department, explained that she discusses indigenous culture in her courses because she believes it’s important for people living in Canada to know about.

“I also think it’s important because a lot of people think colonialism in Canada is something that happened in the past and that we’ve moved beyond that now,” she continued. “But that’s not true. I think Canada is a continuing colonial space that demands that we reckon with some of those histories and issues.”

She would also like to see indigenous content be integrated more broadly into curriculum.

Currently she teaches EN280, Indigenous Writers in English, but also integrates indigenous literature into her EN108 course, Literature and the Environment.

Kevin Spooner, associate professor of North American studies, teaches NO105, Billionaires, Beavers and Banditos, and NO211, Canadian Identities and Cultures which both include indigenous content.

Recently, North American Studies made the decision to rework the curriculum of the department and decided Indigenous peoples should be part of the core curriculum.

Spooner explained he went to Jean Becker, senior advisor of aboriginal initiatives, for advice about how to navigate this change.

“It’s hard because you want to be able to do it in a meaningful way and in a very respectful way,” said Spooner, in terms of incorporating Indigenous culture into coursework. “I’m always trying to be cognizant that this is a white guy teaching these issues.”

Flagg noted there are no aboriginal professors who teach at the Waterloo campus. While this is a shortcoming, Spooner said in the meantime it is important for students to gain an understanding of Aboriginal Peoples.

“Every Canadian student should have some really good appreciation of just exactly what’s owed to Aboriginal peoples who were fundamentally here first,” Spooner said.

“Who have been incredibly disadvantaged in so many ways post-colonization.”

Spooner and Kerber both noted that often non-indigenous students feel guilty when confronted with the legacy of colonization. Flagg explained that the Aboriginal Student Centre frequently have students coming in who want to know how to help.

The centre is currently putting the finishing touches on an allyship document that will help further educate non-indigenous students who want to take part in engaging with Indigenous issues.

There may however, be reluctance in some classes to include indigenous history and issues despite its natural fit in the content.

“I think on a large scale it’s easier to ignore what you don’t understand,” Flagg said.

When teaching about literature, for example, bringing indigenous perspectives can complicate teaching. He used his experience as a global studies student as an example.

“We talk about this idea of colonization but we never actually talk about the indigenous people of these areas because it’s easier to write the narratives without them,” he said.

Kerber believes this reluctance may be due to fear of offending.

“I think there’s a certain anxiety that comes with, for instance, coming out of settler culture and you don’t quite feel like the situation is just or right that we live in in society, and yet you don’t know how to change it and you don’t really want to feel responsible for changing it,” she said

Students also need to be aware that indigenous issues extend into contemporary society as well. In her courses, Kerber also touches on these contemporary issues, such as the lasting impacts of residential schools.

“The ripple effects from residential schools continue to echo I think through the generations,” she said. “Where you have young people whose parents or grandparents who were in residential schools and communities are still dealing with the effects of that and I think Canadian society as a whole is still dealing with the effects of that.”

Flagg highlighted the Idle No More movement, as well as the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

“Just recently we had a bill that was almost passed that would’ve been detrimental to First Nation education but it was taken out, for now.”

There also needs to be a change in education in reserves.

“What you need to do is allow more indigenous control over Indigenous education, but also a realization that the education system on reserves right now is very much broken and that affects the fact that a lot of indigenous people can’t come to university.”

Spooner believes the level of education on indigenous peoples is gradually improving.

“The trajectory seems to be going in a positive direction over time, but I don’t think it’s going fast enough.”

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