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Education as reconciliation: U of A Indigenous history course sees spike in enrolment

A free online University of Alberta course that teaches Canadians about the history of Indigenous peoples is seeing a spike in enrolment as the country grapples with the legacy of residential schools.

75,000 new students have signed up for Indigenous Canada since Kamloops discovery

A teepee outside Pembina Hall on the University of Alberta campus. The U of A is seeing a surge in enrolment for its free online course in Indigenous history. (University of Alberta)

A free online University of Alberta course that teaches Canadians about the history of Indigenous peoples is seeing a spike in enrolment as the country grapples with the legacy of residential schools.

Since the discovery of a burial site adjacent to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School five weeks ago, nearly 75,000 people have enrolled for Indigenous Canada, an open online course that explores Indigenous histories and contemporary issues in Canada.

Chris Andersen, dean of the U of A's faculty of Native studies, said the continued discovery of unmarked graves and a growing reckoning over the country's colonial history — has Canadians keen for an education from an Indigenous perspective.

'Cold water to the face'

"I think for a lot of Canadians who had a particular idea about what Canada was and what Canada is, this is probably cold water to the face for many of them," Andersen said in an interview Tuesday.

On July 1 — amid calls that Canada Day celebrations be cancelled — many Indigenous leaders and their allies took to social media to encourage Canadians to enrol in the course.

In 2017, the year it was launched, the 12-module free course became the most popular online course in Canada.

As of May 31 of this year, 239,250 people had signed up. As of this week, that number stands at more than 314,000.

The course usually sees 1,000 to 2,000 new students enrol each week. The week after the Kamloops discovery was revealed there were 40,000 new enrolments.

Many students are taking the class as an act of reconciliation, Andersen said.

"The tragedy of what is being exposed now is certainly leading a certain number of Canadians to kind of plug in and learn more about our history."

The course was developed by faculty in the Native studies program.

In lessons delivered from an Indigenous perspective, students gain insight on everything from traditional storytelling and art to land claims and Indigenous activism.

Lectures address pre-contact as well as contact with settlers. The course also includes modern teachings about present-day Indigenous movements such as Idle No More.

Andersen said the course was created "in the shadow" of Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations that highlighted the importance of education.

He said the course has been modified since it was introduced to reflect contemporary Canada.  

"It's definitely been both an expansion and a roller-coaster ride," he said.

The course gained widespread attention in 2020 when Toronto-born actor Dan Levy began promoting it online.

Enrolment spiked last summer after Levy announced he would take the course and participate in weekly online discussions with instructors Tracy Bear and Paul Gareau.

The week Levy announced his plans, more than 50,000 new students signed up.

On Canada Day, Levy again urged Canadians to enrol.

"I was re-educated on the history of Canada," the Schitt's Creek star said in a video posted to his official Twitter account.

"I was educated on my place as a Canadian settler, my context, my privilege. 

"Re-educate yourselves on the real history of Canada." 

 

Indigenous Canada is available for free through Coursera here. The course can be taken individually or as a group. Learners who audit the course can complete assignments at their own pace.

Andersen urged Canadians to take part and to listen. 

"In some ways, this course is literally the smallest step that somebody can take that wants to move in the direction of reconciliation."

With files from Emily Fitzpatrick

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