Case Study: Transforming Curriculum, Transforming Consciousness? Initiatives Within the Formal Education System

A Case Study of Treaty Education in Saskatchewan and Manitoba

by Kristen Lloyd

The education system is an institution that has played a critical role in Canada’s colonial history, and one that continues to shape relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today. Throughout the late 1800s and 1900s, education of Indigenous children in Indian Residential Schools was used as a tool of forced assimilation; Indigenous children were removed from their homes and dispossessed of their traditional cultures and beliefs, and were instead taught alien religious and cultural ideals (Godlewska et al., 2010). Today, by virtue of the information that is taught, and through what is intentionally excluded from school curriculum across the country, education for all children continues to sustain the colonial attitudes and myths that lay at the foundation of settler consciousness.

 Canadian history, from the Euro-settler perspective, is told as an objective truth and leaves no space for stories that deviate from the dominant narrative (Regan, 2010c). This narrative perpetuates the national myths that Canadians are taught to take pride in, which paint the Canadian nation-state as a benevolent peacemaker with a history devoid of violence (Regan, 2010b). Within Canadian schools this means that a great deal of colonial history is left absent from curriculum. In their research on Ontario public school curriculum specifically, Godlewska et al. (2010) found that subjects such as treaties and residential schools were rarely covered, and if they were taught at all it was never in connection to broader issues of ongoing cultural assimilation and trauma. While the authors noted that the school curriculum they studied no longer contained explicit racism, they argue that the historical misrepresentations and omissions concerning Canada’s history and historical relations between Indigenous and settler Canadians perpetuate the colonial attitudes, ignorance, and injustices that continue to oppress Indigenous peoples and serve the interests of settlers.

In 2012 Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, discovered that Canada’s Residential School history was only an optional teaching within most provincial school curriculum, and that often times this history was not taught at all. As such he called upon every province and territory to amend their curriculum to include Indian Residential Schools, and to make this a mandatory part of every student’s education (Pauls et al., 2014). Many view the formal education system as a site with great potential for engaging settler consciousness in a transformative way. Others, such as Regan (2010a) recognize the inherent obstacles and challenges that exist in this. She questions whether the public education system can truly bring about radical social and political change, noting that this is not in the interest of the dominant societal group, and that public education is supposed to be neutral and objective, not a place of critical engagement and self-reflection. Regan argues that without linking knowledge to critical reflection, guilt and denial are the most likely outcomes. Furthermore, in Braiding Histories: learning from Aboriginal peoples’ experiences and perspectives, Dion (2009) illustrates the complexities of restorying history within Canadian classroom. New stories and perspectives can be introduced, but these lessons are still taught within colonial institutions, by teachers who themselves are often unsure of the history they are teaching and its broader implications. It is Regan’s (2010b) understanding that curriculum and pedagogy, both what and how students are taught in Canadian classrooms, must be transformed.    

Despite these challenges, and uncertainties about the transformative potential of public school classrooms, there is growing recognition across the country that curriculum must be rewritten, and that in order to have genuine reconciliation and  foundations to build just relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, it is time to engage with topics that have long been silenced. From coast to coast to coast, provincial governments, treaty commissioners, teachers’ associations, and Indigenous organizations are working to various extents to implement new curriculum, make space for counter-narratives and Indigenous pedagogies, and in some instances to engage students in critical self-reflection. Treaty Education in Saskatchewan and Manitoba represent just two initiatives born from an acknowledgement of the formal education system as an important site for transforming consciousness and relationship building. Because of the role education has played in Canada’s colonial history, it is perhaps the most important and necessary place for all Canadians to begin addressing historical wrongdoings and recognizing their present day manifestations, and to start to move forward together, for as Sharilyn Calliou writes, “it is our children who will inherit the future we teach” (Peacekeeping Actions at Home: A Medicine Wheel Model for a Peacekeeping Pedagogy, as cited in Regan, 2010b, p. 83).

Saskatchewan: Teaching Treaties in the Classroom

Treaty education is an important part of forging new ties. There must be an appreciation in the minds of the general public that Treaties are living, breathing documents that continue to bind us to promises made generations ago. This is why my government is committed to making mandatory instruction in history and content of the Treaties in the K-12 curriculum.

– Speech from the Throne, 2007

In 2007, Saskatchewan became the first Canadian province to introduce mandatory treaty education into the curriculum of both First Nations and public schools, from kindergarten through to grade 12. Saskatchewan’s treaty curriculum and resources, called Teaching Treaties in the Classroom, has been developed as the result of a partnership between Saskatchewan’s Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC), the Government of Saskatchewan, the Federal Government, and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Stemming from its public education mandate, the OTC first began to develop teaching resources in 2001, and by 2008 treaty kits and resource guides for all grade levels had been delivered to every school across the province. The OTC regards education to be of great importance in building a harmonious future between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan, and these curriculum resources are seen as a critical component of this education. The OTC was supported in this endeavor by the provincial government, who renewed its commitment to education for and about Saskatchewan’s First Nations and Metis peoples in 1995 (Government of Saskatchewan, 2012).

The main goal of Teaching Treaties in the Classroom is to teach students about the treaties and treaty relationships between First Nations and Canada, and how these affect all citizens of Canada. It aims to correct misconceptions that many Canadians have about the relationship between Canada and First Nations people, and to engender renewed respect for the living, breathing treaty relationships which all citizens of Saskatchewan are part of, and were meant to benefit from (Government of Saskatchewan, 2012). A 2010 survey of grade seven students carried out to assess the success of treaty education being implemented in Saskatchewan’s schools pointed to the fact that students are increasingly being given the opportunity to learn about treaties, and that the treaty curriculum is contributing to their knowledge and understanding of treaties and treaty relationships (Rohr, 2010).

The treaty kits and resource guides were developed in close consultation with Elders as well as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators in the province, and are designed to complement existing school curriculum. Teachers and administrators are not obligated to participate in any training prior to implementing the curriculum and resources in their classrooms and schools, but training is available on a voluntary basis, in the form of workshops facilitated by educators and Elders (Government of Saskatchewan, 2012). In the 2010 survey, only fifty-seven percent of administrators responded that mandatory treaty education was part of their school’s learning improvement plan, and that curriculum was being implemented, even though nearly every school responded that they had received the resources. The survey suggests that resource materials have been well received by teachers, and that they feel they are an asset to curriculum and useful for teaching treaties. That being said, the majority of teachers and administrators agreed that they need more resources and support to assist in teaching treaties in their schools and classrooms. There was also an overwhelming response that more training about teaching treaties is required in order for teachers to effectively implement the curriculum (Rohr, 2010).

Manitoba: Treaty Education Initiative

       Manitoba’s Treaty Education Initiative(TEI) involves the development, piloting, and implementation of treaty related curriculum, educational resources, and teacher training. It has been developed by the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba (TRCM) as part of their mandate to increase public understanding and awareness of historical and contemporary treaty relationships, and is a component of their broader “We are all Treaty People” initiative. The TEI has been made possible as a result of a partnership between the TRCM, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Manitoba Education, and the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre. Unlike in Saskatchewan, the province of Manitoba has not committed to making treaty education mandatory in their schools, and currently the TEI is only a supplement to existing curriculum, implemented on a voluntary basis; teachers have the opportunity to use TEI resources in their classrooms, but there is no obligation to do so. As such, the long-term goal of the initiative is to establish province wide support and eventually to have the TEI recognized as an integral and essential component of education, which is relevant to all areas of current provincial curriculum (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

The strategic plan for the project was developed between 2009 and 2010, and by the 2011/2012 school year, all grade 5 and 6 teachers in the province were given the opportunity to teach TEI curriculum in their classrooms. Currently, the curriculum for grades 7-12 is being piloted in Manitoba schools. Out of the thirty-nine school divisions in Manitoba, twenty-two have implemented Treaty Education in their schools, and thirty-nine of the forty-nine First Nations elementary schools in the province have received training and kits. As of March 2014, resources for kindergarten through grade 12 have been developed, and during the 2014/2015 TEI will officially be implemented at all grade levels (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

The TEI is marketed as an enhancement or supplement to the current Manitoba school curriculum, and as such is administered within the formal education system operating within the province. That being said, the TEI allows for a different part of history to be told, something that those behind the initiative see as essential to understanding where Manitoba is at today. The AMC Council of Elders is involved in all aspects of the process, from curriculum development to the teacher training workshops where they provide historical background on the treaties and their significance. Along with Elders, educators, academics, historians and government officials review the materials developed and used within the TEI (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

The TEI targets all students moving through the Manitoba school system. This includes both public and band-controlled schools, in both rural and urban areas. This initiative is directed at both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike. The overarching goal of the TEI is to increase the knowledge of treaties and treaty relationships among all students moving through Manitoba schools, and to support treaty education within K-12 classrooms across the province; upon completion of grade 12, it is hoped that all students will be able to demonstrate an understanding and knowledge of the numbered treaties in Manitoba, and the concepts and relationships relating to them, as well as understand the impact treaties have had on the creation of the province. The TEI wants both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to begin engaging in a dialogue which ultimately results in them valuing and respecting the living treaty relationships of which they are all a part. Through the addition of a critical piece of Manitoban and Canadian history to school curriculums, it is hoped that students will gain a critical awareness, and learn from new perspectives about how treaties and treaty relationships continue to affect the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in the province of Manitoba today (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

Depending on the grade level, teachers use different materials and activities to help put complex histories and unfamiliar concepts into an accessible format. The teacher guides correspond with what students are expected to learn in that particular grade, and are linked to the prescribed learning outcomes. Moving through the grade levels, the curriculum becomes increasingly more involved, reflective, and critical. In the upper years, the material is structured in such a way that facilitates students to see the topic through many different perspectives, and to then form their own critical opinions (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

Differing again from Saskatchewan’s treaty education, teachers and administrators are required to participate in a two-day training session before using the resources in their classrooms and schools. TEI provides these capacity building workshops to ensure teachers feel supported in their implementation of treaty curriculum. At these training sessions, educators are instructed on how to use the resources and how to integrate treaty education into current curriculum.  Taught by Elders and both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and experts, they are also given a historical context on treaties and treaty relationships from which they can move forward. Following training sessions, schools are given kits containing many materials and resources. By now, over 200 teachers and administrators have received treaty education training (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014).

An external advisor was hired to evaluate the TEI; he was a long-time educator from Saskatchewan who has worked on treaty education in that province. He gave an extremely positive review of both the material itself, as well as the manner in which educators are taught and trained to present the curriculum to their students. Two annual evaluation processes have also shown that students have a better understanding of treaties after having received TEI instruction (Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, 2014). In addition to this, in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, James Wilson, the Manitoba Treaty Commissioner, said that the reports he has heard from students and teachers alike shows how significant the TEI is, and that it has evolved into a successful exercise in relationship-building, which has connected students from different walks of life, and helped to “build bridges and begin to reshape attitudes among students” (Martin, 2012).

Conclusion

Treaty education in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are just two examples of the many ways that curriculum is being rewritten and teachers are being retrained, in order to change how and what Canadian students are being taught. The province of Ontario has also implemented an Aboriginal Education Strategy, which includes curriculum development and revision, and aims to infuse Aboriginal perspectives into teaching practices. In British Columbia, the Learning First Peoples Initiative has been developed by the First Nations Education Steering Committee and the First Nations Schools Association, with the support of the Ministry of Education. It involves the development of new curriculum for a number of different subjects, which follow the “First Peoples Principles of Learning”, a set of beliefs and values surrounding education that have been drafted and affirmed by First Nations within the province. In the Yukon, Nova Scotia and elsewhere, provincial First Nations organizations are becoming involved in curriculum development and revision to ensure that the history and culture of Indigenous peoples being taught to non-Indigenous students are accurately represented and given due space within Canadian classrooms.

Across the country, recognition of the need to make changes within the formal education system is growing. Efforts are being made to improve the way that Canada’s colonial history is being taught and how Indigenous peoples are being represented in schools. Space is also beginning to open up for Indigenous perspectives and knowledges to be used and taken seriously within educational institutions. Education on topics such as treaties, residential schools, and the ongoing impacts of colonialism still is not happening in many parts of the country, and almost nowhere is it mandatory. This type of education, however, is starting to take root, and we can already see evidence that the understanding of Canada’s many histories is growing as a result of initiatives like the ones examined in this case study. As initiatives within the formal education system continue to unfold, their effect on settler consciousness and relations between Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians may become more clear. For now, the effects of these initiatives on Canadian society are yet to be known, but a great deal of work is being done, inspired and driven by hope and the desire to create a better future for all of the children who will inherit this land and its many histories.

References

Dion, S. (2009). Braiding Histories: learning from Aboriginal peoples’ experiences and perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Godlewska, A., Moore, J. & Bednasek, C. D. (2010). Cultivating ignorance of Aboriginal realities. Canadian Geographer, 54(4), p. 417-440.

Government of Saskatchewan (2012). Treaty Education. Government of Saskatchewan Education. Retrieved from http://www.education.gov.sk.ca/treaty-education/

Martin, N. (2012, December 1). Treaties serious to these pupils. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/treaties-serious-to-these-pupils-181651361.html

Pauls, K., Hampshire, G., & Allen, B. (2014, March 26). Residential schools history not always mandatory in class. CBC. Retrieved from                                                           http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/residential-schools-history-not-always-mandatory-in-class-1.2587870

Regan, P. (2010a). An Unsettling Pedagogy of History and Hope. Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada (pp. 19-53). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Regan, P. (2010b). Deconstructing Canada’s Peacemaker Myth. Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada (pp. 83-110). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Regan, P. (2010c). Rethinking Reconciliation: Truth Telling, Restorying History,  Commemoration. Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truthtelling, and reconciliation in Canada (pp. 54-82). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Rohr, B. A. (2010). Treaty essential learnings survey 2010: analysis. Retrieved from      http://www.education.gov.sk.ca/treaty-education/survey2010

Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba (2014). Treaty Education Initiative. Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. Retrieved from http://www.trcm.ca/treaty-education-initiative/

 

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