Educators urge the Tory government to resume work on Indigenous curriculum

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for Indigenous issues to be covered in Canadian classrooms. This summer, Ontario’s education ministry halted work on the province’s response to that recommendation
By Charnel Anderson - Published on September 5, 2018
The first phase of Ontario’s Indigenous-focused curriculum revisions had been completed before the Tory government put the process on hold. (iStock.com/DONGSEON_KIM)

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Years-long efforts to bring more Indigenous content into Ontario’s classrooms were put “on pause” by the Ministry of Education this summer, and there has been no word on when the work will resume.

While the provincial government’s decision to roll back the most recent version of the sexual-education curriculum has received widespread attention, educators are also frustrated that the Progressive Conservatives have halted progress on new classroom content focused on Indigenous languages, cultures, and history.

In July, the education ministry abruptly cancelled planned writing sessions at which new classroom material was to be created. The sessions were set to take place in Toronto between July 9 and 20, but on July 6, the ministry sent an email to teachers, residential-school survivors, and other participants notifying them of the cancellation.

Lisa Innes, the Indigenous system lead with District School Board Ontario North East, calls the cancellation “a slap in the face.” She says it sends the message that the government doesn’t think the curriculum revisions are a “priority.”

TVO.org requested an interview with Education Minister Lisa Thompson; her office declined to comment for this story. In an earlier media statement, a representative for Thompson said the ministry “will continue to move ahead” with the revisions — but there has been no word on when or how it plans to do so. (Ben Menka, a spokesman for Thompson, told the Toronto Star that the cancellations were not her directive, but rather the initiative of ministry bureaucrats; they were complying with an earlier memo from the incoming government that told civil servants to limit travel expenses.) Curriculum revisions for American Sign Language were cancelled at the same time.

The Indigenous curriculum updates were part of the previous Liberal government’s “Journey Together” reconciliation plan, which it created in response to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In its final report, released in 2015, the commission called for mandatory curriculum material covering Indigenous culture and history to be taught from kindergarten to high school in all Canadian schools. The commission said that the material should cover issues such as Indigenous treaty rights and residential schools.

The Liberal plan for Ontario schools included an Indigenous-language-immersion pilot project for kindergarteners. That has also been put on hold.

Sol Mamakwa, an NDP MPP who was sent to a residential school as a child, wrote a letter urging Thompson to “immediately resume” the curriculum revisions.

“Delaying or cancelling Indigenous curriculum development will set progress toward reconciliation back in this province,” wrote Mamakwa, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong. “As a person who went to residential school myself, it troubles me that Ontario may not learn about the traumatic experiences of many thousands of Indigenous children who suffered as a result of Canadian policy and law.”

Colinda Clyne, an Anishinaabe educator with the Upper Grand District School Board, had been working on the curriculum revisions since last year. Clyne, who is a classroom teacher as well as her board’s curriculum leader for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis education, had hoped for an improvement over her own school days, when Indigenous history was scarcely mentioned.

“We never talked about Indigenous peoples when I was in school,” recalls Clyne, 51. “Louis Riel — that was it.” At the Catholic school Clyne attended as a child, she says, “we were taught about how the ‘savages’ treated the Jesuits. So I went underground and didn’t tell anybody what my background was.”

Grace Fox, a residential-school survivor and a trustee for the Rainbow District School Board, in northeastern Ontario, is upset that First Nations will not have a say in the provincial curriculum for now. Fox was an adviser on the Indigenous-language-immersion pilot project. “We were just beginning to be recognized as being capable of providing input into the education system of Ontario,” says Fox.

Innes, who is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation and the daughter of a residential-school survivor, says curriculum revisions could help “turn the tide of thinking” about Indigenous people in the province. “All kids need to be taught those perspectives and those stories and that history as early as kindergarten or Grade 1,” she says, “so they can begin to look at each other with empathy and understanding and kindness.”

The first phase of the curriculum revisions had been completed before the Tory government put the process on hold. This year, students will learn a revised version of the social-studies curriculum in grades 4 through 6 and a revised version of the history curriculum in grades 7 through 10.

The second phase of revisions was supposed to focus on incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the learning plan for social studies in grades 1 through 3, as well as for Grade 9 geography, Grade 10 careers and civics, and other secondary-school courses.

Many teachers want to bring Indigenous history into the classroom, Clyne says, but they hesitate because they haven’t mastered the material. “Most teachers want to do the right thing, but they feel stuck.” In the absence of an official curriculum, she says, “they’re frozen, because they don’t want to get [the facts] wrong.”

Clyne hopes the government will confirm that it intends to resume work on the revisions. “I want to know that there’s a commitment to the action, to still be doing the work,” she says. “As Indigenous people, we don’t want to be just seen as part of history.”

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