How not to teach Canadian history

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported, it is time to tell the real story of Canada's native people, and the others too that have been left out of the narrative to date.

Putting Canada's real aboriginal story, and others too, in school curriculums

Uncivilized. Primitive. Inferior. Apparently, that is what the rest of us Canadians think of First Nations' people.

I am not sure that is entirely the case but that at least is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported last month after hearing the testimonies of many of those native people who went through the now discredited residential school system.

One thing for sure, most of us newer Canadians had probably never heard of the controversial residential school system until that boil was lanced a few years ago, and the federal government offered a formal apology and established the reconciliation commission to help chart a new future.

Most Canadians, I'd hazard a guess, had never realized that between the 1840s and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, aboriginal and Metis children were taken from their families by law and shipped to the residential schools, the majority of them against their will.

We were never really aware of the long history of emotional, physical and, sometimes, sexual abuse that confronted so many of these children, causing a long ripple of destructive behaviour within the aboriginal community, which they, and the rest of us, don't know how to fix.

But, how would we know how to fix a problem that we didn't really know existed, at least to the extent that we do now?

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair holds a copy of the commission's interim report during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday February 24, 2012. (Canadian Press)

It is not like we were taught about it in school — which is something the reconciliation commission now wants to change.

Its first interim report last month asked provincial governments to examine their school curricula to make sure this sad chapter of Canadian history is well documented.

But is that enough? If we are going to retell our history from the human perspective, maybe we shouldn't just stop there, or with what we learn in school.

Frozen in time

When I came to Canada as a girl in 1987, I remember feeling as if we were moving to a modern Europe, where everyone was white, spoke European languages — English and French — and the biggest concern in my family was to become Canadian, in the white, Protestant work ethic sense.

As best as I can remember, no one suggested during the immigration process that we might want to learn Ojibwe, or where the Cree lived. We had only a romanticized sense of North American Indians in those days anyway, probably from TV.

We weren't expected to know anything about the ongoing struggle for aboriginal rights and land treaties, or about residential schools. The daily lives of aboriginal Canadians were pretty much a non-issue in our introduction to this country.

What's more, it's not like many of us gained a better understanding of these things once we entered the school system.

Reflecting back on it, Canadian history, as it was taught to those of my generation anyway, only began once the Europeans arrived and was seen through that prism.

Aboriginal Canadians, in particular, seemed to be frozen in time. We never learned much about the pre-contact period, nor about their modern-day tribulations, or contributions such as building big-city skyscrapers in the 1960s and '70s, or fighting in the World Wars.

But as I think about it, that was also the pattern with other groups, particularly those of colour, that contributed to the history of our country.

I don't recall much discussion about the first wave of South Asian migrants who came on the Komagata Maru in 1914, almost all British citizens who were forced to leave because of Canada's Exclusion Laws. Nor about the history of the Chinese or Japanese migrants (save for the Second World War internment) and their everyday contribution to building the Canadian West.

There was more on black history, but in my days it largely centred on the underground railway that helped bring former slaves to Canada. It was as if their journeys and struggles ended once they came here, which most of us now know wasn't the case.

And what is the worst part of our limited education about Canada's aboriginal communities is that we came to see them largely as victims. Nothing more.

Shared history

The reconciliation commission has now come up with a list of recommendations so that non-aboriginal Canadians can learn more about the mistreatment of First Nations in the residential school system, and what impact that had on their communities and cultures.

This is clearly a long-overdue first step in helping all of us determine what is real about Canada's history. But is it something we really want (our schools) to dwell on without a larger context.

As the CBC's three-part documentary 8th Fire recently showed, aboriginal culture in this country can be vibrant and entrepreneurial, as it has probably always been. 

Yes, there have been deep-rooted inequities and racism directed at First Nations people. But probably no more than exist for those of us of colour who have come here from different parts of the world.

Those of us from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean have had many of the same difficulties.

Many of us don't speak the language fluently, don't know how the system works, haven't gone to school here, don't have a social or professional network that we grew up with.

We are also, mostly, the children of colonialism. Our families came to Canada, sacrificed and worked hard, dealt with our fair share of racism, and tried to make a better life for ourselves.

I don't want to make light of the situation of many of Canada's native peoples. Theirs is a special case; reserve life looks unconscionably hard and their schools are clearly in need of help.

But if we all knew our shared history and hardships better maybe there are lessons we can take from each other.

As a new (and proud) Canadian, someone from an entirely different culture, I understand how important it is to know your past, but not to let it, or how you are perceived, govern you.