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Teaching Canadian History After the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) I

Published on March 2, 2020

By Allyson Stevenson[1]


When I began this blog on January 29th, I had just returned to my office at the University of Regina after speaking about my research on an inspiring panel of powerful First Nations women leaders in Treaty 4 territory that included Chief Lynn Acoose, Chief Roberta Soo-Oye Waste, Dr. Priscilla Settee, and Dakota Elder Diane McKay. “The Indigenous Women’s Leadership Forum: Reclamation of Matriarch and Ogijidaakew Sovereignty,” was framed around reclaiming Indigenous women’s roles and responsibilities as matriarchs in their families and communities and nations through storytelling, visiting, and inspiring each other. This conference followed, but was not related to, another  compelling full-day event at First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), organized by FNUniv’s Students’ Association, in response to the appalling behaviour of George Elliot Clarke and the University of Regina.[2] Originally conceived by a group called “Matriarchs on Duty,” the event on Thursday January 26th, which would have been the day that George Elliot Clarke gave his ill-conceived talk “Truth and Reconciliation” versus “the Murdered and Missing”: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets”, began with a pipe ceremony, followed by a smudge walk around the U of R Campus, and then a series of dialogues about the relationship between the University of Regina and Indigenous peoples in the community.[3] The controversy made national headlines when Clarke initially refused to consider altering his topic, or responding to concerns raised by faculty, staff and Indigenous community members.  Several in the Regina university community who early on identified the problematic relationship between Clarke and Steven Kummerfield/Stephen Brown, and Clarke’s decision to speak on this issue in Regina.[4]

Perhaps it might seem odd to begin a blog about teaching Canadian history with this story. Perhaps it might also seem odd that I am writing a blog about Canadian history, considering I myself do not teach in a History department. In fact, I chose deliberately to locate my Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples and Global Social Justice in the Department of Politics and International Studies when I began at the University of Regina in January of 2018.

Please bear with me though. I think I might have something useful to offer.

I hope my post might allow readers to consider the intersection between lived experiences of Indigenous students, faculty, and staff and our work within the walls of institutions of higher learning. Through this blog post, I want to share with my friends and colleagues at the CHA—and readers of Active History—a bit of my perspective as a life-long resident of Saskatchewan, both rural and urban, and as a Métis adoptee reconnected to my community of origin. And of course, as a Canadian historian.

It builds on the three-part blog post written by Carmen Nielson, who walked readers through her efforts to decolonize her pre-Confederation Canadian history survey course.[5] Her initial realization that her teaching approach was problematic came to her attention when a Métis student approached her and said, “I feel like I’m being colonized in this course.”[6] Only after that brave student’s assertion, Dr. Nielson began to reflect on her place as a settler and, following that, shift how she taught and understood Canadian history.

Have we all been colonized by Canadian History?

This past summer in August 2019, the Canadian Historical Association’s Working Group on the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) released “A Syllabus for History After the TRC.”[7] Formed in 2017, the Working Group’s Syllabus stands as one of the organization’s efforts to assist its members with incorporating important works of Indigenous histories written over the past decades.[8]

Professional organizations like the CHA and the Canadian Political Science Association, as well as community groups such as Black Lives Matter and Standing with Standing Rock, assemble such syllabi to help folks navigate contentious conflicts, as well as make sense of the ongoing oppression of Indigenous and marginalized peoples in mainstream settler society. Important works of resistance literatures, critical theoretical frameworks, and historic works from marginalized voices are highlighted with the noble goal of educating readers. These very important documents help individuals incorporate Indigenous content in courses. They go beyond event-based inclusion of the familiar topics. However, I do want to point out that it was the voice of the Métis student that brought about Dr. Nielson’s shift in perspective and awareness. At the level of the heart, and not the head, the colonial nature of our discipline came into focus.

How do we know what we know?

I think it is important at this juncture to point out that, in the five years following the completion of the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action, there has been ongoing and relentless evidence laid plain that this was more than a “dark chapter.” The violence and genocidal drive of the residential school system lives on in Canada. Nowhere is this more evident than right here in my own backyard of Saskatchewan. I say this not to encourage a smug attitude of those outside of this province, but to illustrate that the project that began well before Confederation was conceived outside of our territories. It continues to haunt us in ways that we are not able to turn away from. How will Canadian historians account for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit, while also accounting for the wreckage of the Sixties Scoop?  There are class action lawsuits from First Nations peoples who have been harmed by the medical system, whether in Indian Hospitals or TB (tuberculosis) sanitariums. Indigenous children are overrepresented in child welfare systems across Canada. On-reserve family and child service agencies have been systemically underfunded, which has been deemed a violation of First Nations children’s human rights. Today, we also have a national crisis of over-incarceration of Indigenous inmates. Similar to the residential school class action which led to the Settlement Agreement, the litigations based on experiences of collective harms rely on framing historic government policies by contemporary Indigenous survivors as injuries to a class, but do not provide an analytical framework for understanding the historic linkages that thread these policies together, or the historically specific contexts out of which they have arisen.  Canadian history lacks an adequate analytic by which to account for the historic and present place of Indigenous peoples as distinct right-bearing peoples with guarantees in the Constitution Act, 1982. But beyond our rights, does it account for the lived experiences of  First Nations and Métis peoples, for whom these both are, and are not, academic issues?

[1] I would like to thank the CHA teaching committee Jo McCutcheon, Danielle Kinsey and Carly Ciufo for their encouragement and helpful feedback in preparing this piece.
[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/pamela-george-elliott-clarke-lecture-1.5411701
[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/matriatchs-on-duty-hosting-regina-event-1.5437425
[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-george-elliott-clarke-cancels-talk-at-university-of-regina-amid/
[5] https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/unsettling-settler-narratives-in-the-pre-confederation-canada-survey-what-ive-learned-part-i-2019-09-30.htm
[6] https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/unsettling-settler-narratives-in-the-pre-confederation-canada-survey-what-ive-learned-part-i-2019-09-30.htm
[7]The TRC Working Group, “A Syllabus for History After the TRC”, https://cha-shc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/5d5e99b2065d6.pdf
[8] Adele Perry, The Last Ten Years: Active History and the teaching of Canadian history since 2008. https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/the-last-ten-years-active-history-the-teaching-of-canadian-history-since-2008-2020-01-09.htm

In the second part of my blog, I will broach the nature of the structure of the relationship between Indigenous and settler society and how we can envision a different future.