National Column: Schools need to teach history with honesty

by Shree Paradkar

There’s sweetness to packing the children back to school for a fresh academic year. If your Facebook feeds are like mine, they popped up with photos of kids walking on sidewalks shouldering their backpacks, or standing on the front porch holding blackboards declaring their new grades.

Much like time that continually draws curtains on a past less chronicled, social media feeds curated for cuteness obscure the yelling, the tears, the hustle-bustle of getting ready on school mornings.

When our children go to school, we expect inventions and new discoveries in science and math to have changed the curriculum from the years we learned those subjects. But we view history as static, assuming our scholarship of it was reasoned, factual and complete.

It’s no surprise then that the school system produces grown-ups intellectually incapable of reconciling the image of Canada’s first prime minister as astute statesman with that of a criminally flawed man.

Instead, we end up with adults who feel personally affronted by any slight on John A. Macdonald – except if you call him a drunk. Then it’s a laughing nudge, nudge, wink, wink. (Alcoholism is only derided as a cultural failing when applied to Indigenous people, but that’s another story.)

Why do we deify historical heroes and airbrush their complexities?

I see historical stories as mythmaking vehicles created to foster a unified sense of national identity and pride in the past. In doing so, though, they sacrifice truth telling and integrity.

This is true the world over, but also in Canada, which prides itself on its exceptionally inclusive ways.

Macdonald was by all accounts a visionary and a deft negotiator, but he was also an enforcer of Aryan supremacy, an implementer of genocide of the Indigenous peoples.

If he is credited with building the railway, he should also be held accountable for starving Indigenous people and marching them off to “reserves” to clear land for those railways.

Under his authority, abusive residential schools were created, and the practice of segregation ensured Black children received substandard or no education.

For those who believe he should not be judged by today’s standards, historian Sean Carleton posted online newspaper cartoons from Macdonald’s era that showed he was considered racist even in his time.

It’s because the past cannot be discussed with honesty that reassurances about the present and future such as “things are getting better,” or that the next generation won’t have the same prejudices, ring hollow.

Why would today’s students be any different if they are learning the same things?

The Ontario Curriculum instructs teachers to include age-appropriate Indigenous references and diverse perspectives in all subjects. A Scope and Sequence of Expectations released in 2016 says the aim is to foster “greater awareness of the distinct place and role of Indigenous peoples in our shared heritage and in the future of Ontario.”

In Grade 3, for instance, it says, “Students will learn about the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples, including encroachment and racism during the late 1700s and early 1800s.”

So far so good. How does this translate in reality?

Not effectively.

Teachers I spoke to from the TDSB were not even aware this document existed.

Two recent studies, one published this summer, the other last year found teachers did not have the confidence to discuss Indigenous cultures at school.

Why would they?

Their assumptions, too, are shaped by colonial narratives. Only 45 per cent of those surveyed for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation last year felt “somewhat confident” about their knowledge of Indigenous culture, while 35 per cent felt “not confident at all.”

That a majority of teachers are weaving in a small amount of Indigenous content in their teachings, suggests willingness. That they are doing so only occasionally indicates inadequacy of knowledge.

Teachers say they are already overburdened by expectations piled on them – teach the three Rs, develop character, build relations with parents, deal with special needs students without more assistance, deal with staff cutbacks, now prioritize math and science, now include “diverse” perspectives.

And oh, it’s not compulsory to do so.

The social studies curriculum for Grade 3, for instance, states students will: “describe some of the similarities and differences in various aspects of everyday life … of selected groups living in Canada between 1780 and 1850 (e.g., First Nations, MÈtis, French, British, Black people; men and women; slaves, indentured servants, habitants, seigneurs, farmers; people from different classes).”

Given a choice like that, you get no points for guessing which group teachers zero in on.

Apart from knowledge, incorporating different perspectives would require that teachers introspect on their own assumptions, drop their biases, not be fragile about past misdeeds of white settlers, and not be intimidated by new knowledge.

Teachers obviously care; it was their union that brought the John A. issue to the forefront.

Progress championed by educators makes me optimistic.

However, intention alone does not bring change.

School boards will need to diversify teaching staff. They should provide teachers with a list of books for reference. Schools should have access to Indigenous elders and consultants as well as Black educators.
Teacher training on Indigenous knowledge should be made mandatory.

Otherwise, the goal of an inclusive curriculum risks being relegated to a mere feel-good rhetorical attempt at reconciliation.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity. You can follow her @shreeparadka
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services