Opinion

Are B.C.'s public schools racist today?

St. Michael
St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay B.C. was opened by the Anglican Church in 1929, and transferred to Indian Affairs as a hostel in 1968. The 'Namgis First Nation acquired the building in 1975.
— image credit: Anglican Church of Canada

VICTORIA – Last week’s column on the proposal to add a mandatory high school course on the effects of Canada’s aboriginal residential school policy attracted a range of responses – some of which are printable.

I referred to comments made by B.C. Teachers’ Federation vice-president Glen Hansman at a 2012 aboriginal education conference, where he insisted that “racism is the norm in public schools – still today” because of a colonial perspective that remains ingrained in our culture.

Aboriginal education has been built into social studies curriculum for years. It’s come a long way from my high school days, where Mr. Spillers, my Grade 8 English teacher, assigned us an essay proposing solutions to Canada’s “Indian problem.”

That was 1972, and it was the only time the subject came up. My lone aboriginal classmate wasn’t around by then. I never saw him again after we graduated from our rural elementary school.

How are things now? I received a thoughtful letter from a young woman who graduated from high school in the Okanagan last year. She writes:

“The idea that information about residential schools is not presented to students is entirely incorrect. The social studies curriculum that I went through included a large emphasis on First Nations culture and post-European colonization history.

“First Nations studies began in elementary school and continued to the last mandatory social studies course in Grade 11. I can say with no hesitation that if anything, I have been informed too often about the residential schools, and the horrendous things that occurred there.

“If aboriginal culture courses are poorly attended, I would be inclined to suggest that it is because students are tired of being taught the same limited perspective over and over, and, if of European descent, being made to feel somehow responsible for all possible troubles plaguing First Nations today.”

Another reply I’d like to share is from Keith Thor Carlson, editor of the Stó:lo Nation historical atlas I referred to last week. Carlson is now a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan, specializing in the Salish people of B.C. and the Métis of Northern Saskatchewan. He writes:

“We do need to teach the history of the First Peoples of this country in our schools, and we do need to keep vigilant about the racism that continues to haunt the hallways and classrooms where our children learn.

“Of course aboriginal history should never be reduced to victim history, and with the Stó:lo atlas we sought to show the complexity of aboriginal history, and we sought to show that not only are there aboriginal people in Canada’s history, but that Canada is in aboriginal peoples’ histories.

“There were times in the past when aboriginal people were victimized (residential schools being a tragic example), and there were times when aboriginal people showed great agency (retaining the masked dance, and continuing to fish salmon, for example).

“Knowing that native society was not a Utopia when Europeans arrived does not take away from the importance of learning about the full history of aboriginal people and their relationship with Canadian society.

“And of course, as Ernie Crey has reminded me many times, let’s never forget that native rights are not based on race. Rather, they are rights based on prior occupation. And let’s also not forget that it is British and Canadian law that recognizes aboriginal peoples’ inherent rights.

“Let’s teach good history to our youth so they can understand the complex relationship between settler society and aboriginal society. Through knowledge comes understanding and through understanding can come reconciliation.”

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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