'A punch in the gut': Mother slams B.C. high school exercise connecting Indigenous women to 'squaw'

The workbook stated "students should be made aware that the original text … reflected the racial, ethnic, and social prejudices" of the 1800s.

School board investigating, BCTF says no 'mechanism' for approving curriculum

The cover from the graphic novel, Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush, published in 2016 and written by Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe and illustrated by Selena Goulding. The original book was published in 1852. (Second Story Press)

UPDATE: Since the CBC ran this story, the publisher, Second Story Press, says the teachers' guide has been removed for review and has apologized for any pain it may have caused.

The Vancouver School Board says it's looking into the circumstances in which educational materials were used in a secondary school classroom after an Indigenous mother tweeted about the exercise, describing it as "heart wrenching."

"When I saw it, my jaw dropped," Shawna Davis said after seeing her 14-year-old daughter's Grade 9 Humanities exercise.

The activity is inside a workbook for a graphic novel called Susanna Moodie: Roughing It in the Bush, written by the late author Carol Shields and Patrick Crowe. It is also used as an ESL resource.

Moodie's original book, published in 1852, details the experiences of a British settler living in what is called the "the wilderness" near Peterborough, Ont. In the book, the word "squaw" is used 39 times.

The workbook states "students should be made aware that the original text … reflected the racial, ethnic, and social prejudices of that time."

A section labelled "Susanna Moodie's 'Politically Incorrect' Language," lists true or false questions, such as, "She wrote using disrespectful language not because she was mean, but because these were the words that everyone used at that time."

Beneath that section, students are asked to match the prejudicial word Moodie used in her writing to their appropriate definitions.

For example, the word "squaw" is connected to "Aboriginal woman," while "darkie" is connected to "African American."

Shawna Davis said she's concerned about what her daughter is being taught about Indigenous history in Canada at her Vancouver secondary school. (Shawna Davis)

"It was a punch in the gut that my daughter had to go through this," says Davis.

Davis says the workbook leaves out important context needed to understand racism in Canada, such as the function of the Indian Act and the reserve system.

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) confirmed it is looking into the worksheet and Davis's concerns.

"The investigation into the concerns expressed is at a very early stage and VSB cannot speak to the teaching methods, context and resources used in this instance," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Since the CBC ran the story on Sunday, the publisher has said on Twitter that the teachers' guide has been removed for review and has apologized for any pain it may have caused.

No vetting process for B.C. curriculum

Glen Hansman of the B.C. Teachers' Federation says there is no review process to make sure a teacher's content is appropriate for the classroom.

"There isn't a mechanism for that," Hansman said.

B.C. teachers are now guided by a new K-9 curriculum with a social studies course incorporating Aboriginal history components including the role of colonization, and the impact of the Indian Act.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, it defines what must be taught, but teachers decide how they organize learning and teach in the classroom.

"Students must be able, for example, to read a passage and analyze a character but [the curriculum] does not specify a book," says Katharine Shipley, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers' Association.

"You don't even have to teach Shakespeare at high school," Shipley said.

However, some teachers feel constrained by the resources available and even their own abilities to teach Indigenous history, as one study out of Edmonton found.

Defending the teacher

Those defending the Grade 9 instructor say many teachers use books that may capture historical racism to teach how discrimination is wrong.

"Social studies is challenging because we are asked to teach about controversial topics, and there can be triggers for people, but we don't want to pretend that certain words or attitudes don't exist in the world," Shipley said.

Hansman said while he finds the workbook concerning in terms of how the information would be framed in the class, he also can't say for sure where the teacher was going with the lesson.

It was a punch in the gut that my daughter had to go through this.- Shawna Davis, mother of student

"It could be that later on in the year [the teacher] will situate Susanna Moodie's text in the context of the racist colonial narrative of Canada and the erasure of Indigenous people," Hansman said.

He says the BCTF has been pushing the province to beef up school references on the history of residential schools and infuse more Indigenous content in all subject areas from kindergarten to Grade 12.

"We have to support teachers to unlearn, so they can come at the issues from a new perspective and unsettle the settler within," he said.

Davis's daughter, Mayah Wolff, says she thinks teachers should be properly educated.

"I think that teachers that are not Aboriginal should be taught about what Native people went through instead of just brushing up on it lightly because some teachers might give a hand-out and some of their students might be disgusted by it," Mayah said.

with files fromChad Pawson.