The Last Ten Years: Active History & the teaching of Canadian History since 2008

Published on January 9, 2020

By Adele Perry
With thanks to Sarah Nickel and Laura Madokoro for their help.

How we teach Canada’s histories has changed in the decade that Active History and its counterpart HistoireEngagée have been online.  Active History went live the same year that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.  Active History found its feet as Idle No More changed conversations in the winter of 2012-2013, as the TRC issued its final report in 2015, and as decades of activism around murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people resulted in the federal government calling the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, which began in 2016 and released its final report in 2019. 

That Canada’s past looks radically different from an Indigenous perspective is hardly a new observation.  In her contribution to an Active History series featuring the work of Indigenous scholars, Mary Jane Logan McCallum reminds us of the venerable “tradition of Indigenous engagement in and critique of education,” one that has observed, corrected, measured, and taken action, and will continue to do so.[1] 

Significant changes to provincial elementary and secondary school curriculum speak to this advocacy, especially in the years following the TRC.[2]  That these can be rolled back in the name of austerity is made clear by the sudden cancellation of Ontario’s planned curriculum revision in 2018.[3]  This decade of change and advocacy has also shaped the teaching of Canadian history at a post-secondary level.  Some departments – and the University of Winnipeg is exemplary here -- have developed a concerted and thoughtful process of decolonization, one that has gone beyond the particularities of Canadian scholarship.[4]  Individual instructors like Carmen Nielson of Mount Royal University have rethought and revised their classroom practices .[5]  The recent appearance of tenure-track positions designated for Indigenous historians in Canadian departments suggests that the long-standing gap between the presence of Indigenous history as a subject and the presence of Indigenous people as practitioners is beginning to be acknowledged.  Much more needs to be done to meaningfully address the underrepresentation of Indigenous, Black and racialized scholars, and the heightened expectations and demands those scholars face in the academy. 

The Canadian Historical Association/Société historique du Canada represents a little under a thousand history professionals.  It established a TRC working group in 2017.  Made up of Jo-Anne McCutcheon, Sarah Nickel, Alison Norman and myself, our mandate was to provide a response to the TRC, and discuss its implications for historians.  One of the working-group’s major projects was a “Syllabus for Teaching History after the TRC” that was released in the summer of 2019.   This project is inspired by syllabi developed to scaffold social movements, and by the particular example of the Canadian Political Science Association’s “Indigenous Content Syllabus Materials: A Resource for Political Science Instructors in Canada.”[6]

“Syllabus for History after the TRC” compiles resources that historians might turn to.  We began with keywords, but found them less than useful, and ultimately decided on broad thematic sections: Long Histories, Research Methods, Politics, Resistance, Sovereignty and the State, Work and Labour, Colonial Schooling, Gender, Family, and Sexuality, Health, Medicine and Food, and Treaties.  The materials included prioritize Indigenous scholars, peer-reviewed material, and work published in the last decade or so.  Housed at the CHA’s website (https://cha-shc.ca/trc/a-syllabus-for-history-after-the-trc) the syllabus is purposefully open-ended, and can be augmented as time and resources allow.

As a document, the “Syllabus for History After the TRC” speaks to some enduring patterns, including how these conversations have unfolded differently among those writing in French and English.  It also speaks to the wealth of materials available for teachers who are looking to think seriously about their own classroom practice.  What does it mean to reject approaches that implicitly or explicitly silo or minimize Indigenous experiences by relegating them to sweeping chapters about land, explaining them as “dark chapters,” or forget about them for the years between the Northwest Rebellion and the Red Paper?  How can we teach history, not only of Canada, but of the spaces before and beyond its borders in ways that recognize the centrality of colonialism to producing all of our histories?  These are some of the questions that lay behind the “Syllabus for History after the TRC,” have informed discussion in Active History over the last ten years, and that will no doubt concern us beyond this decade.

[1] Mary Jane Logan McCallum, “When History Needs an Intervention,” 15 January 2016, accessed at http://activehistory.ca/2016/01/when-history-needs-an-intervention/. 
[2] See Kairos, Education for Reconciliation Report Card: A Report Card on Provincial & Territorial School Curriculum Concerning Indigenous Peoples in Canada, 2018, available at https://www.kairoscanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/E4R-Full-Report-2018-Final.pdf
[3] See Anna Desmarais, “Anger Grows over Ontario decision to end update of curriculum with Indigenous Content,” 9 July 2018, accessed at  https://ipolitics.ca/2018/07/09/doug-ford-scraps-reconciliation-curriculum-writing-sessions/.
[4] See Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Julie Nagam, James Hanley, Anne-Laurence Caudano and Delia Garvus, “Decolonization, Indigenization and the History Department in Canada,” Active History, 15 September 2017, accessed at http://activehistory.ca/2017/09/decolonization-indigenization-and-the-history-department-in-canada/#comments
[5] See Nielson’s three-part blog on “Unsettling Setter Narratives in the Pre-Confederation Canada Survey,” published 30 September, 7 October and 14 October 2019, all at https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog
[6] See, for instance,  “Black Lives Matter Syllabus,” at  http://www.blacklivesmattersyllabus.com/ and ”Standing Rock Syllabus,” at  https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/.  The CPSA’s blog can be found at https://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/documents/committees/Indigenous%20Content%20Syllabus%20Materials%20Sept%202018.pdf


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