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Mandatory Indigenous Courses: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

“Right now, all you’ll hear is that we killed the nice Pilgrims,” - Lakehead vice-provost, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux.

Two years ago at the University of Winnipeg, the Students’ Association (UWSA) and the Aboriginal Students’ Council jointly submitted a motion to the University’s Senate requesting that students be required to take an Indigenous Studies (IS) course in order to graduate. The extensive list of IS classes (over one hundred options) includes Inuit art, race and justice, inner city planning, etc.

The same plan was put forth by Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The School will require every student to take a three credit course in Indigenous culture or history to graduate.

The logic behind these educational initiatives is to educate our next generation of leaders on the complex and troublesome social, economic and political consequences of Canada’s colonialism. Kevin Settee, VP of the USWA, noted that in Canada our schools tend to “teach history from one perspective” and it is this singular viewpoint that has resulted in grave consequences for our First Nations communities. 

As a child growing up in Winnipeg, studying colonization could not be more relevant, yet the history lessons I received in grade six social sciences wholly failed to capture the severe impact of the settler Canadians’ actions. I was not taught about the banning of the potlatch or made aware that more people died in residential schools than World War II. I did not learn about the thousands of Indigenous children who were taken from their homes in the ‘60’s Scoop’ or about the withholding of food as a means to force people to submit to treaties in the 1870s. No one told me about the virtual imprisonment of Indigenous people who were required to secure a pass to travel off of the reserves.

Why Indigenous Studies Shouldn’t Be Mandatory

When the plans for these mandatory IS courses was introduced in 2012, many people spoke out against the idea.

Josh Dehaas, in his article “Why Indigenous Studies shouldn’t be mandatory”, made his case for why a class of IS should not be required for all students to graduate.

He noted that only a few engineering students at the University of Regina “dared to publicly question” the proposal, fearing the loss of their single humanities course allowed in their degree. Kyle Smyth, a member of the Regina Engineering Students’ Society, objected to being forced to spend $650 and countless hours on a subject in which he has no interest.

(I hope the irony is not lost on him that it will be the doors of the Indigenous communities he will be knocking on when he is looking to build oil and mining infrastructures.)

Dehaas declared that a IS course should not be mandatory because “Indigenous history is already a priority in Canadian elementary and secondary schools and already permeates humanities and social sciences classes in universities.” He went on to say that he could have studied IS as an elective, but he studied different cultural histories because he had “learned enough already.”

A Cautionary Consent

But beyond university students who are upset about losing some autonomy in their course selection, are mandatory IS courses a good idea?

Most recently, Mandee McDonald, a maskîkow-iskwiw resident of Somba K’e (Yukon), cautioned Canadian universities about implementing mandatory IS courses.

 At first, Ms. McDonald thought such an initiative was a great idea, but upon further reflection she realized the policy to create mandatory IS courses raises a number of concerns that need to be addressed by the hosting institutions.

  1. We must have well qualified and experienced instructors. Most importantly, these instructors should be Indigenous. We need Indigenous professors and elders teaching our university students about the histories, realities and futures of the Indigenous population in Canada.
  1. We need to be wary of trigger content. Courses on IS will include the study of violent, harmful and upsetting materials which may cause individuals to become very emotional. This raises is a concern for the safety of teachers and students who are required to engage in this process in a potentially antagonistic space. Teaching sensitive materials to individuals who do not want to learn or are not prepared to acknowledge their own privileges is problematic. McDonald posits that forcing Indigenous professors and university students into these courses “doesn’t seem entirely ethical.”
  1. Racism in the classroom is a reality we will have to face. Racism against Indigenous people is widespread and embedded in Canada. By mandating professors and students from all walks of life to engage in discussions on highly contentious issues of race, privilege and colonization, we can expect emotions to run high. Given this likely occurrence, we need to provide support systems for both the instructors and students who are involved. Furthermore, we will need to ensure that the instructors of these IS courses are equipped to appropriately and effectively address racism in the classroom.

Our Reality; A Steep Climb.

By teaching our children history from a single, Eurocentric perspective, we fail to present a holistic view of our nation’s reality. This failure to know and understand indigenous

culture and the historical indignities forced upon these people only exacerbates the suffering our indigenous people have already endured.

Yes, like every social justice initiative, we must tread carefully. By introducing an IS course to an entire student body, rather than just individuals who choose to take an active interest in the subject matter, we open ourselves up to disinterest, dissent, and perhaps attack. This is especially true for such the sensitive and controversial subject matter that IS courses will inevitably cover.

While teaching the material may be a delicate matter, that doesn’t make it any less imperative. Canadians across the country need to learn about the history of colonization. We need to understand how colonial Canadian policies like the Indian Act, residential schools, the ‘60s Scoop’, and the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands. These discussions will help us understand the impact this has had on the Indigenous population, and the lasting legacy of colonization from which settler Canadians benefit.

As Mandee McDonald said, “In order to become less racist, people need to actively unlearn racism, which is a process that takes time, education, open-mindedness, and self-reflection.” While I agree that mandating every university student to take a course they may not care to learn about is not ideal, the content still remains highly relevant to all Canadians.

When CBC has to ban public comments on articles pertaining to Indigenous people or content to prevent constant hostility and racism, one cannot deny a pervasive and systemic problem exists. Mandating students to take one three credit course to promote education hardly seems like an undue hardship in comparison to the racism our Indigenous peoples must endure.

Indigenous issues are Canadian issues. This is something we need to accept. Just as sexism will not be defeated without the participation of men, racism in Canada towards First Nations people will not end without the participation of non-indigenous Canadians.

But just because it is difficult and met with dissent, does not mean the initiative is invalid or misguided.

The dominant view in Canada with respect to Indigenous peoples, one built on a Eurocentric and paternalistic narrative, has remained virtually the same for the last century. Our understanding on Canadian history, our perspective on the First Nations population, and our future relationship with Indigenous people hinges on education.

The first step to reconciliation is education and empathy.

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