Teaching Aboriginal History: A Rant

Posted by Daniel on Jan 19, 2013

Catching up on my newspaper reading after a brief holiday, I came across an essay by the novelist Richard Wagamese in a week-old Globe and Mail. Mr. Wagamese, an Ojibway himself, addresses the question of what it means to be Indian in Canada today. He makes many valid points about the indignities and injustices inflicted on Native Canadians, but on one point he is just plain wrong.

"To be Indian in Canada today," he writes, "is to know that your people's part in the history of Canada isn't taught in schools." This argument is made so often that it has congealed into conventional wisdom. But it has no basis in fact and has not had for at least thirty years.

I wrote my first social studies/history textbook in the mid-1970s for use in Grades 7 and 8 in Ontario. Since that time I've written several more, for different grades in different provinces. Here in BC I am co-author of a text that is used for a Grade 11 history course and another that is the Grade 5 social studies text in both English and French Immersion. In every case Native history receives extensive attention. Aboriginal forms of government, treaties, the origin of reserves, residential schools, the whole special relationship Canada has with its Native population; these are just some of the topics that are discussed in all these books.

And the same is true for every other history textbook in use in schools for the past many years. It has to be. Texts are written to conform to the provincial history curricula and for decades now those curricula have included significant amounts of Native history.

I don't know where this idea came from that kids don't get any exposure to Aboriginal history and issues in Canadian schools. But it is not true. There are many reasons for the injustices that Mr. Wagamese catalogues, but I don't believe that the history education system is one them.

It is possible that there is widespread ignorance among Canadians about Aboriginal issues. It would not be surprising since there is widespread ignorance about Canadian history in general. But I think this is in spite of what happens in the schools, not because of it. And that's a subject for a different rant. For the moment could I just suggest that we all stop blaming the schools for something that is not their fault?