Unsettling Settler Narratives in the Pre-Confederation Canada Survey: What I’ve Learned, part I

Published on September 30, 2019

Part I

When a Métis student in my intro to pre-Confederation Canada class said “I feel like I’m being colonized in this course,” I was taken aback. I knew the course wasn’t perfect but I thought I was doing a pretty good job. My student’s comment, which was made in the context of one of our many really engaging and challenging conversations after class, pushed me to admit that the course still had too much of its colonial DNA intact.

I’ve taught this course nearly every year at least once since 2005. I’d tried every arrangement I could think of: textbooks, no textbooks; narrative, no narrative; lectures, no lectures; this assessment or that one. I thought, by now, I had hit on a good balance: I mostly lectured, largely cribbed from Margaret Conrad’s and Alvin Finkel’s History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to 1867, and added a few tutorials where students could engage more deeply with an event or theme by working with primary and secondary sources. The plot-line tracked the epidemiological and cultural toll that European explorers’ and missionaries’ arrogance and ignorance had on Indigenous populations, Europeans’ and Indigenous groups’ rational assessments of new trade relationships, their accommodations, collaborations, and middle grounds, the effects of rapacious colonists and political perfidies, and ultimately the entrenchment of racialized thinking that justified naked oppression and genocide. But, it was still a story principally about Europeans, who ultimately controlled the events to which Indigenous peoples responded. It was still told largely from a European perspective, albeit one in which Europeans’ failures, deceptions, and brutalities were exposed. It also regularly bracketed off ‘Indigenous issues’ and turned back to European and settler revolutions and rebellions, processes of colonial expansion, urbanization, industrialization, the coming of democracy, and nationhood, as if these had little or nothing to do with Indigenous people. It too often adopted uncritically European modes of way-finding through the past: not just its accounts, categories, and chronologies, but also its maps, drawings, names, and languages.

It had to change. I had to change.

I was in the unenviable position that I suspect many settler-scholars find themselves. I wasn’t trained in Indigenous histories, knowledge, or methodologies at any stage in my academic career. I grew up on a farm in Alberta in Treaty 6 territory and since neither I nor my family knew anything about the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional territories we resided or the process by which it had come into the hands of settlers, we acted accordingly: as if the land was rightfully ours and had nothing to do with what we thought we saw on the rare occasions that we drove through the Ermineskin and Samson Cree Nations reserves nearby. I have no authentic connections to Indigenous communities or meaningful relationships with Indigenous people, except for a few cherished colleagues. By all accounts, I am sorely ill-equipped to do anything like “de-colonizing,” much less “Indigenizing,” my course or my teaching practice.

I was, however, determined that I would do more to unsettle the settler narratives that remained embedded in my course.

I knew I needed help…a lot of help. Fortunately, I had my institution’s support. I applied for and received a course release from Mount Royal University’s Academic Development Centre, as well as an invaluable commitment to assist the process of redesigning the course from the Office of Academic Indigenization.

I had a few other things going for me. By reading lots of feminist and post-colonial theory from early on in my career, I had a pretty good understanding of the problematic dynamics of mainstream historical epistemologies. Like most academics, I also knew I could rely on my ability to teach myself the book-learnin’ stuff. It was relatively easy to compile a dauntingly extensive reading list of Indigenous theorists and historians. (Shekon Neechie and the Indigenous Studies portal at University of Saskatchewan are great starting places.) I had also been paying close attention to contemporary issues like the Idle No More movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], Trudeau’s broken (and recently resurrected) election promise to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. I was also in the habit of reading Indigenous-authored fiction, seeking out Indigenous artists’ exhibitions, and following as many Indigenous authors, artists, journalists, politicians, activists, and academics on social media as possible. All of this helped a lot. But it didn’t prepare me for what was next.

Please feel free to comment below or email me at cnielson@mtroyal.ca


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