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

Published on: 7 Oct 2019

Part I

The adage “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” seemed distressingly apt. I had a one course equivalent release – perhaps 60 hours over one term – to fulfill my promise to better align the content of my pre-Confederation Canada survey course with Mount Royal University’s Indigenous Strategic Plan and the TRC’s Calls to Action.

I learned a lot stumbling through this project. I’ve written these blogs for those settler-historians who either fear to tread or have rushed in and find themselves in the weeds. I’ve tried to be vulnerable and honest because I think there’s a lot of reticence about embarking on projects like this. We don’t want to make mistakes and so we stick with what we know. I’ve made more mistakes than I want to admit. There is lots to criticize about what I’ve done or not done. None of this is ideal and the stakes are really high but I think it’s still better than not trying at all.

So, with that said, here’s what I’ve learned:

1.     Exercise humility at all stages. The single most important thing I needed to do was to dis-identify with my status as “knower” and become a “learner.” This is really tough for academics. Whether we like to admit it or not, a lot of our self-concept is bound up in knowing. I had to learn to say to my students, my colleagues, and to myself: “I don’t know.” “I’ve been mistaken.” “I don’t understand.” “I need help.”

2.     Spend some me-time. You will need to figure out why you are doing this work. Your answer has a lot to do with your teaching philosophy but it also has a lot to do with your life philosophy. What is your ideal outcome? Why? Where do you fit into this as a person? And here’s the big one: How are you implicated personally in past and present colonial projects?

3.     Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” Our discipline disciplines us. To really change the course, I had to question all of the historical discipline’s implicit assumptions, common knowledge, received wisdom, and those insidious have-to’s that foreclose possibility. You will need to make a series of decisions about what is actually essential to our discipline and what can be dispensed with.

4.     Dream big but start small. Decolonization, Indigenization, and reconciliation are complex and difficult issues. In our current political and academic context, colonialism is inescapable. I recommend reading Gaudry and Lorenz (2018) and Tuck and Wang (2012). These helped me to begin to think through what I can and cannot achieve.

5.     Listen. Settlers need to listen very carefully to Indigenous knowledge-keepers when they are willing to share. We also have to remember that they don’t owe us their knowledge and it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re proceeding appropriately and respectfully. When we receive criticism, it’s our time to take a breath, think it through, and commit to do better next time.

6.     Be prepared to fail. Transformative change is really difficult. If it’s easy, I’m sorry to say, you’re probably doing it wrong. You ought to be prepared to have your course unravel around you. Anticipate that you’ll likely have a complete crisis of confidence and authority. It sucks but it’s actually a good thing.

7.     Be prepared to fail again. Just when you think you are making progress, you’ll see something, or read something, or hear something that will seem to throw you back to square one. I had to stop thinking that at some point in the future I could get it “right.” There is no end point; it’s a perennial process of reassessment and revision.

8.     Some things will go right. By and large, my experience was really positive. I got to read a ton of great scholarship and made good progress on altering the narrative script and its dominant voices. The course is not only better because it foregrounds more Indigenous perspectives and questions European ones, I also spent a lot more time talking about methodology: how history has been constructed out of particular kinds of sources, how different perspectives influence what’s valued and not valued about the past, and how our historical narratives are really good at obscuring their specific kind of truth-making.

9.     Some things will go wrong. I wasn’t well enough prepared for coping with the effects of trauma in the classroom. I have since read Sheila Cote-Meek’s Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education and I have some strategies in place for next time. I was extremely lucky and didn’t have to deal with racialized violence in the classroom and I didn’t get push-back from students, parents, colleagues, or administrators. These are, however, issues we all have to be prepared for.

10.  Ask for what you need. We can’t do this work alone. Our institutions need to offer meaningful supports for students and faculty, to provide funding for course releases, teaching and learning research projects, research assistantships for Indigenous students, and so much more. As a community of scholars, we need to create opportunities to share our knowledge, experiences, challenges, and questions (like the CHA Teaching Blog!) and to expand on our collective efforts through collaboration and reciprocation.

In the next blog, I’ll share an assignment I designed as part of this project.

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


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