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Education for Reconciliation in Canada: A History Lesson

By Sarah Kingstone


Education has historically been used in service of violent oppression and social, economic, and political marginalization; frequently cited examples include colonial Rwanda and Canada, the Apartheid system in South Africa, the United States during the Jim Crow era. Despite this, there is a considerable dearth of research about how education might best be used to heal the wounds of identity-based conflict and establish positive peace. Canada is currently tackling the complex and sensitive process of reconciliation, in which education curricula play a significant part.


In February 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government would develop a framework to recognize and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples in an attempt to undo “decades of mistrust, poverty, broken promises, and injustices”. Trudeau acknowledged that “reconciliation calls upon us all to confront our past and commit to charting a brighter, more inclusive future”.


Provincial inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives at all levels of newly developed curricula is seen as a necessary step as Canadians attempt to confront the past and build a more balanced, authentic understanding of the complex relationships—past and present—between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. My recent research explored the extent to which the British Columbia (BC) government and Ministry of Education are actively and effectively contributing to reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples and nations in the province through education reform.


My findings suggested that the federal government’s willingness to speak so boldly about the extent of injustice perpetrated against Aboriginal people offers a promising direction for a new and powerful chapter in healing this wounded relationship, not least through its commitment to developing post-conflict history education. Nonetheless, resources of contemporary education practice could be better harnessed in the implementation of BC’s current education for reconciliation reform in order to support the country’s emerging political mandate.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) defined reconciliation, in part, as “awareness of the past [and] acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted.” This responsibility for awareness and acknowledgement applies as much to us as educational professionals as it does to Canadian school students. I therefore wish to take this opportunity to promote a more accurate understanding of Canadian history.


A History Lesson


Between the early 1860s and the 1990s, the Canadian government legislated colonial policies intended to gain control of land and force Aboriginal people to “cease to exist as a distinct people with their own government, cultures, and identities”. Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their traditionally occupied lands and confined to reserves through a legislated ‘pass system.’ Their traditional governing structures, founded on kinship networks, were undermined when the Canadian government replaced leaders with powerless band councils who could be manipulated and overridden. Aboriginal women, who held significant cultural and political power in many First Nations, including the Tlingit, Dekelh, and Haudenosaunee, were legally and socially disempowered. The legislation of the Indian Act, which defined “Indian” status, systematically eroded socio-cultural and political structures and values of the matriarchal and matrilineal Nations in particular. Additionally, cultural, spiritual, and social practices, such as potlatches, ceremonial dances and regalia, were outlawed.


Source: Library and Archives Canada, 1897

Central to colonization was the Indian Residential School (IRS) system, considered, at best “institutionalized child neglect” or alternatively, “an inherent element of savagery”. Richard Wagamese described his family as having “suffered in an institution that tried to scrape the Indian out of their insides… they came back to the bush raw, sore, and aching”. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald imagined an education system where “Native child would be dissociated from the prejudicial influence by which he is surrounded on the reserve”. The first residential school was built in the Canadian prairies in 1883, marking the beginning of the eventual construction of 139 schools to ‘educate’ over 150,000 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit students. While the official mission of these schools was to civilize and convert Aboriginal children, their existence was based on a fear that if children were not ‘appropriately’ educated, Aboriginal peoples would disrupt the social order of the young, vulnerable nation of Canada.


Recently, it has been widely accepted that the IRS system was not simply a controversial education program, but “an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide” involving “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.” Residential schools played the most significant role in disrupting and preventing the transmission of Aboriginal identity from one generation to the next and embedding within Aboriginal people a feeling that they neither belonged in their own communities nor the developing Canadian nation. A secondary layer of this social-emotional marginalization and historical trauma was the justification of this system ingrained in non-Aboriginal Canadians, which resulted in a legacy of cultural division and mistrust between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.


Although these colonial policies were not successful in achieving their stated aims, they had and continue to have devastating impacts on Indigenous people across Canada. When residential schools began to close in the 1970s, provincial child-welfare systems stepped in to maintain colonial aims. Historical trauma explains the long-term impacts of colonization that have resulted in the persistent health and wellbeing inequalities experienced by Aboriginal peoples compared to the national standards of living.


Richard Wagamese, articulates the personal and communal experience of growing up Aboriginal in Canada in his novel, Indian Horse:


When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you come from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness.

Concluding Thoughts


Ultimately, to promote reconciliation and create a more positive experience for all students, Indigenous knowledge and perspectives must be explicitly and authentically integrated into existing curricula and pedagogies. An inclusive, balanced, and critical approach to the national historical narrative is a necessary step in promoting widespread knowledge and understanding of this cultural disparity. In line with the government’s recognition of the history of injustice, dispossession, and assimilation, integrating the voices of those that have been systematically excluded from discourse and society is crucial. Only by intentionally acknowledging the historical facts and raising the buried stories can Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people begin to see clearly that the justification for colonialism does not hold up against legal, moral, or logical scrutiny.


In recognition of a more global consideration of the Canadian example, reconciliation should be seen as a deeply subjective and emotional process. Positive peace demands the continuous commitment of all citizens to authentic knowledge and understanding of each other, without expecting a specific result. Once we accept the complex, human reality of this process, together we can engage in dialogic and dialectic investigation and achieve progress—in our classrooms, in our policy development, and in our own lives. Ultimately, “healing is a journey—there is no end” (Alexie, 2009: 201).


Useful sources for further reading:


Alexie, R.A. (2009) Porcupines and China Dolls. Penticton, BC: Theytus.


Trocmé, N., Knoke, D., & Blackstock, C. (2004) Pathways to the Overrepresentation of Aboriginal Children in Canada's Child Welfare System. Social Service Review, 78, 577-601.


Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: TRCC.


Any of Richard Wagamese’s work

Many thanks to this week's contributor, Sarah Kingstone. If you have further questions about the topic of education for reconciliation or Sarah's past research, you can in touch via her EPPE Network profile.

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