A Queen's University professor is studying how much students know about indigenous issues, and why they might not know them. Anne Godlewska has a hunch that it goes beyond a lack of information.

The voluntary survey, created in consultation with local indigenous peoples, was distributed among first-year students at 10 Ontario universities this fall. The same cohort will be surveyed in their fourth year.

Anne Godlewska

Queen's University professor Anne Godlewska says her research goes beyond surveying what students do or don't know about First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada. (Queen's University)

Godlewska was inspired to develop the survey after teaching a recent class on indigenous geography where she found it "extraordinary" that students knew little more than she was taught in the 1960s.

"A very great deal has happened in the legal system and social system in Canada. There's been huge activism on the part of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and they just knew nothing about it," she said.

Lakehead University student Kali Anevich said she was taught little more than a fairy tale about First Nations people in public school.

"Europeans came over and they traded with the First Nations people and then they all just kind of  lived in different areas, and lived happily ever after," Anevich said. "It's really a sad distortion of the truth."

Anevich may be part of changing that. She's thinking about becoming a teacher and is currently enrolled in a class called "Indigenizing Perspectives and Practices in Education."

"There are tons of First Nations people in Thunder Bay and I see a ton of racism," Anevich said. "There are a lot of negative stereotypes, unfortunately, and if you're not informed about what happened, it's hard to break those stereotypes.

"So I think if we knew the real history it would be a lot easier to interact and live together," she said.

'Why do I not know?'

But Godlewska isn't so sure a lack of information is the problem. That's why she wants to go beyond measuring the students' level of knowledge in hopes of discovering why they don't know more about indigenous peoples.

residential school text books

A collection of suggested classroom materials for future teachers in the Indigenizing Perspectives and Practices in Education class at Lakehead University. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"When you have a lack of knowledge and it's not just you, it's a whole lot of people have a lack of knowledge that systematically disadvantages other people, then you have to stop and look at it and say 'why do I not know what is evident around me?'" she said.

To that end, the survey also asks a series of attitudinal questions. Godlewska said early results show "a lot of very well educated people know very little at all about First Nations, Inuit and Métis people in Canada and that suggests a social structure that supports, and promotes, really, a lack of knowledge.

"For what purpose? Perhaps to maintain the status quo, perhaps to protect self-interest, perhaps," she added. "Those are things we have to explore, but I think being critical about that is very important."

How does not knowing make you feel?

One of the questions the survey asks is: "When First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have fewer opportunities than you, how do you feel?"

Potential answers are:

  •  It does not concern me.
  •  Nothing much, it is inevitable in any society.
  •  As inequity was created by past injustices I feel it is important to move on.
  •  It makes me want to address inequity.
  •  I feel the Canadian government should address inequity.
  •  I feel there are many inequities and wonder whether these are worse than the ones I face.
  •  I feel that my family has worked hard for what we have.
  •  I fear losing what my family had gained.
  •  First Nations, Inuit and Métis people do not have fewer opportunities.

"A lot of people think that simply being more informed will, for many people, reduce racism, but that's not necessarily the case where there's really significant social antagonism or significant social division," Godlewska said.

"In other words, I can know a lot of facts and have no empathy, no fundamental interest," she said. "And that's also a problem."