Education minister's ignorance 'Trump-esque,' says chief after treaty education comments

Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass is disappointed in Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre for her recent comments on treaty education.

Minister Bronwyn Eyre 'defaulted to misguided ideological tendencies': Chief Wapass

Minister of Education Bronwyn Eyre said she was not proposing that treaty teachings be removed from elementary schools when she brought it up in a legislature speech. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass is disappointed in Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre for her recent comments on treaty education.

While serving as Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations vice-chief, he negotiated the terms of a joint task force on First Nations and Metis education in Saskatchewan.

The following is a letter submitted by Chief Wapass. It has been edited.

I was disappointed, but certainly not surprised that Minister of Education Bronwyn Eyre would say what she did about education and the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The opportunity for a teaching moment escaped the Minister of Education when responding to her son's questions. Instead of explaining what really happened between Indigenous peoples and the settlers of early Canada, she defaulted to misguided ideological tendencies and an easy way out rather than telling the truth. 

The truth is that Indigenous Peoples were and are good people, and that early settlers were good people as well — but that the beliefs and actions by past governments hurt Indigenous children, families and communities intergenerationally.

The truth is that we are all working hard today — Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples together — to not repeat the horrible mistakes from our not-too-distant past.

I have no doubt her son's grandma and grandpa Eyre were indeed hard-working, loving and caring people, and that he should be very proud of them.

But the truth is also that we should be proud of the role of Indigenous people in sharing and building the most tolerant and greatest country in the world. It's a country that continues to welcome hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Remember, settlers were once immigrants.

This is about all a young child can absorb.

Thunderchild First Nation Chief Delbert Wapass is comparing Saskatchewan Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre's recent comments on treaty education to those of Donald Trump. (Jason Warick)

Missed teaching opportunity

It was Minister Eyre's chance to teach her son tolerance, love and hope for a better future. Unfortunately, the minister missed a teaching opportunity with her son — a lesson that is central to the treaty education of Saskatchewan. "We are all 'Treaty People'" and every single one of us has a history and a role to play in the continued success of Saskatchewan and the country we call Canada.

Rising in the legislature to make the disrespectful comments she did speaks to how inadequate our schools and curricula were in the past. It disrespects the work of the former Treaty Commissioner David Arnot, the work of numerous Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators who put years of work into the Treaty Education kit and to promote understanding and tolerance. As well as the time and energy our overburdened teachers dedicate to ensuring that an accurate understanding of the history of Saskatchewan and Canada is presented to the students. 

As the Minister of Education, she must uphold a higher standard of understanding our history, of modelling a future of tolerance and of righting the wrongs of the past. 

Instead, in full Trump-esque style, the minister is undoing something in which thousands of educators have put a tremendous amount of time towards.

Canada is a country built with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples together. But colonial policies were deployed with a ruthless vigor to displace Indigenous families, communities and nations. Starvation and displacement policies, violence against women, residential schools, experimentation on children, the Sixties Scoop, economic marginalization and the Indian Act were all tools to remove Indigenous peoples from their lands to allow hard working settlers to work the land and make a life for themselves.

Many of these new settlers did not know completely the policies their governments used to free up the land for them. And, no doubt they worked hard to develop the land, they went through untold hardships to survive and indeed their descendants should be proud of their perseverance.

However, ignorance is no reason to not appreciate what Indigenous peoples were put through to free up lands for newcomer settlers.

We must work together

Like the minister, I also have children. I remember feeling uncomfortable when they came home and the curricula stated we were savages who aimlessly wandered this land with no semblance of a governance structure, understanding of family and who simply were not using the land. But you know what I did? I told my children that we must all work together. I told them there are good people everywhere working to make our country better.

A friend of mine and former Member of Parliament for northern Saskatchewan, Gary Merasty, upon moving a motion for the residential school apology in the House of Commons, shared that:

"The process of reconciliation and justice is necessary to heal, but it can be difficult for a country to confront these painful episodes of the past. It is often easier to purposely forget unpleasant or distressing things, sweep them under the rug, so to speak, and move on.  Whether the sorrow involves a group or a nation, a national collective amnesia is often seen as the simplest solution; however, this does not work. Time and again, history has provided us with examples of nations trying to reinvent themselves after such dark and tragic periods in their history.  Injustices of the past do indeed cast long shadows and always have a way of humbling a nation."

When I was vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations, I lobbied the Provincial Government and then-Minister Don Morgan to establish the Task Force on First Nations and Métis Education. I appreciated his support and we successfully carried out the mandate that provided a plan to move forward for First Nations and Métis students.

Current Minister Eyre has instead taken an isolated, out-of-context teaching moment and turns it into white people bashing by Indigenous people. An all-too-familiar refrain from the Trump movement in the United States who prey on the ignorance of people to fuel anger and division.

This minister's track record on Indigenous issues speaks for itself — cutting NORTEP/NORPAS, cutting the Northern Indigenous Governance Centre, cutting school board positions which supported Indigenous students and now working to destroy a curriculum whose goal is to promote understanding and tolerance.

When someone this high up in government makes such a statement, school boards become nervous and become less committed to equity, transparency and honesty. Many citizens could feel emboldened to fight against equity, understanding and tolerance, but I certainly hope not.

I hope Saskatchewan citizens take the high road and stay on the path of reconciliation. I encourage all politicians — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to engage with the Treaty Commissioner's office and take one of their workshops, it would benefit every citizen of Saskatchewan if their leaders were educated and had a broader understanding.