On a shelf in the reading room of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) there are two chunks of brick. Next to them is a sign that says: “Please touch.” Each only about the size of two small fists, they aren’t physically heavy. One has some etching on it, hinting that a significant amount of care was put into the design of the building it was once a part of. Other than that, they are rather indistinct.
But these are far from two ordinary pieces of stone. They are remnants of the Elkhorn Indian Residential School, which operated from 1889–1949––a tangible reminder of the shameful legacy of Canada’s Residential School system.
Sitting in the shadow of this shelf, Charlene Bearhead talks excitedly, if somewhat cautiously, about this moment in time as Canadians come to terms with their past, the power of truth and the hopes of reconciliation.
“People know they need to do something, but they think it’s got to be a big thing right now,” says Bearhead, who is the education lead for the NCTR. “And it does need to be. It needs to be a whole overhaul of the system in the long term. But that’s not going to happen in the very beginning. It’s a journey really.”
A NEW BLUEPRINT—DESIGNED AND SIGNED
On a snowy, cold morning in December 2015, hundreds of people are gathered in Migizii Agamik––Bald Eagle Lodge––at the U of M. They are there to witness the presidents of Manitoba’s three universities, six colleges and the Manitoba School Boards Association sign the Indigenous Education Blueprint, pledging to work together to make Manitoba a global centre of excellence for Indigenous education, research languages and cultures.
Ambitious goals, but how will it actually work?
“The beauty of the Blueprint is it sets out 10 broad commitments that provide a roadmap for organizations to start developing a plan to support Indigenous achievement. There is a lot of flexibility to adjust the Blueprint activities to fit the respective learning environment,” says Deborah Young [BSW/94, MSW/00], former executive lead of Indigenous Achievement at the U of M and now working in the education branch of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Young played a major role in the Blueprint’s development.
“When I was in school (K-12), there were no Indigenous teachers at all and minimal, if any, Indigenous content in the curriculum. I was also bullied and I experienced a tremendous amount of racism from my peers. It was not a positive experience,” says Young, who now has two children of her own in university.
“Education is the single most important tool we have to combat racism and discrimination and to advance reconciliation. Increasing understanding about the contributions of Indigenous peoples must start as early as kindergarten and continue throughout a student’s learning journey.
“I would like to see every student who walks onto our campus graduate with a basic understanding of Indigenous peoples. Both the Indigenous Education Blueprint and the commitments made in the U of M strategic plan lay the foundation to make this happen.”
THE DEBATE: MANDATORY VS INTEGRATED
So where do we go next? The Blueprint signatories are coming up with a five-year implementation plan that will put action to the commitments.
One of the critical questions moving forward is: Should the rest of Manitoba’s post-secondary institutions introduce an Indigenous Course or an Indigenous Credit Requirement (ICR), as the University of Winnipeg has done? That’s a move that makes Bearhead pause.
“I want to be very positive and not diminish the work people are doing. Every step forward is a good step, but I really am nervous about people thinking, ‘Now we’ve done it. We can check that off.’ I think that’s a placeholder until the work can be done in earnest. There is still so much to be reconnected with and rediscovered,” she says.
“Until it’s no longer its own subject or topic we’re not even close. How can it be isolated? How can the land and the people and the knowledge and the ways that are the context of everything—how can that be isolated?”
Bearhead says one of the most basic things educational institutions can do is to let people know the instant they walk through the door the historic significance of the space they inhabit––whether it’s with a sign or formal recognition made during school announcements: “That’s not a big thing in terms of what you have to do. But it’s a big thing in that it becomes part of your normal thinking about who you are as an individual no matter what your background is. You’re someone who lives in Treaty One territory. Or Abenaki territory. Or Tahltan territory. Or whatever that is.”
Bearhead’s hesitation to support a mandatory credit is shared by Manitoba’s former Treaty Commissioner James Wilson [MEd/09]. He participated in a panel discussion looking at the pros and cons of an ICR at this year’s Indigenous Awareness Week.
“All we are measuring is the delivery method, not the outcome,” says Wilson. Early in his role as Treaty Commissioner, Wilson approached the Manitoba Teachers’ Society with the pitch that Treaty education needed to be a mandatory course in all K-12 schools. He was met with resistance. He returned with the argument that Treaty education should be fully integrated throughout K-12 schools. Everyone wanted to get on board.
“If you’re not engaging the Indigenous community in Manitoba, you’re going to become irrelevant to the fastest growing population in the country.”
“It empowers teachers instead of empowering the delivery method,” he says. “Will an ICR create ghettoization of a topic so your average math professor can wash their hands of the topic?”
Wilson also has concerns that an ICR will reinforce “otherness” between groups, and that attention should be put on how to communicate across cultures. “If you’re not engaging the Indigenous community in Manitoba, you’re going to become irrelevant to the fastest growing population in the country. Whether you’re a business, an institution, a school system, a small convenience corner store––it’s imperative on us to engage the Indigenous community, build those partnerships and really strengthen that communication.”
On the other side of the debate, Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the department of Native Studies, is in favour of an ICR. “Almost every class, I have some student come up to me and it goes like this: “I never knew that about Residential Schools, or child and family services, or whatever the topic. An Indigenous Credit Requirement would begin to truly deal with the historical,” says Sinclair.
Change is no longer optional. As proof, Sinclair recalls the story told by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the release of the TRC report in December 2015: “It was a profound moment when the prime minister stood up in front of the country and said his school teacher literally skipped over the Indigenous chapter [in the textbook].”
That said, Sinclair points out the pressure his department is already feeling when it comes to teaching. “Native Studies can’t teach all U of M students.” In the meantime, conversations continue about how to best ensure that every U of M student graduates with a basic understanding of the importance and contributions of Indigenous people to Manitoba and Canada. “Can we do more? Absolutely, and we are,” says Young. “We are developing a strategy to ensure Indigenous content is included in all academic programs and to provide educational opportunities for academic members so they can incorporate Indigenous knowledge in their curricula.”
THE SHADOW OF RACISM
One of this year’s recipients of the U of M’s Distinguished Alumni Awards is Karen Beaudin [BA/92, BSW/11]. A Métis woman from St. Eustache, Beaudin has worked tirelessly as a community leader in her role as a resource coordinator for the City of Winnipeg, as an outreach worker in Indigenous communities and as a foster parent. “Eighteen years ago I went shopping with my kids at Safeway and a lady was following us. My kid brought it to my attention. I asked her why she was following us. She said she wasn’t, but it was clear that she was,” recalls Beaudin.
That was 18 years ago. This February, CBC’s Marketplace did an investigative piece called “Shopping While Brown.” In one example, an Indigenous man who was shopping was checked by employees of the store 15 times in 15 minutes.
“Is it getting better? I don’t think so,” says Beaudin. “There’s that subtle stereotyping that still goes on.
“People should know their history and go back to it. For example with Residential Schools—knowing helps people understand why we have the issues we have in our community: the gangs, the drugs, child welfare. I think it is important to share that history. I remember in one of my training sessions with the city, a woman was crying, she said she couldn’t bear the thought of someone taking her children. A lot of people don’t know that Residential Schools happened.”
Back at the NCTR, where the two bricks from Elkhorn Residential School sit on a shelf, 14 million other documents and records about Canada’s Residential Schools and Survivor testimonies are available to educators and students of all levels. Staff are there to help guide people through the resources to create materials that will be suited to their specific educational needs.
“The experience of Residential Schools has been so tragic and the intergenerational impacts and the impacts of what non-Aboriginal people were taught has been so destructive for so long,” says Bearhead.
“Obviously the way things have been done in the past is not working, or we wouldn’t be at this place. It’s not that the answers aren’t there. If people can find it within themselves to be humble, it will be amazing.”
A JOURNEY TOGETHER
Justina McKay came to the U of M as a mature student in 2011. A mother of five grown children and 13 grandchildren, McKay feels strongly that future generations of Indigenous youth must pursue a post-secondary education. She wants them to know that anything is possible. And at the Blueprint signing ceremony everyone rises to their feet as she introduces the honour song.
“We are all on a journey,” she says. “And this is a great journey.”