Home Education Why there needs to be mandatory university classes on Indigenous history

Why there needs to be mandatory university classes on Indigenous history

by Kayla Empey

The education we receive in elementary and secondary schools is not enough

(Andrew Neel / Unsplash)

This story is part of Monumental Challenges, a series looking at Ryerson, reconciliation, and the issues surrounding replacing names and monuments.

I am from a small town, located right outside a Mohawk First Nations reserve. Growing up, we had a local Mohawk group come to our classrooms to immerse us in their culture. They would teach us dances, tell us stories of how they believe the earth came to be, teach us their spiritual traditions (even despite the fact that I attended a Catholic school), teach us about their art and how to create it, and even helped us build a teepee that was placed in the front yard of my school. 

Most importantly, I learned the cruel history of colonialism and residential schools. I could no longer tell you how to find the circumference of a circle, but I will never forget these crucial lessons I learned from my teachers and Indigenous people themselves.

When I came to university, I quickly learned that many of those around me did not have the same knowledge as I did. While I was taking classes with educated individuals, they didn’t seem to be educated in some of the most important history of Canada. During my first year at Ryerson, I had a conversation with a classmate who told me she had just learned what residential schools were and still did not grasp the entire concept. While she seemed willing to learn more, I was struck by how little she had been taught. 

This experience made me consider schools’ relationships with Indigenous content. Why are there no mandatory courses on Indigenous culture and history? The truth is, there’s no excuse not to.

Canada’s National Observer conducted a poll in 2017 in the effort to uncover how much Canadians know about residential schools. Almost half of the respondents say they learned nothing about residential schools in any classroom of their education. It is important to note that since the last residential school did not close until 1996, it makes sense that older generations would not have learned about them as they were happening. But that also makes it all the more important for the younger generations to learn so they can go out into the world and educate others as well. 

Of those who did learn about residential schools in secondary or elementary school, only 37 per cent of respondents say they were taught that the schools were negative. This is in contrast to 35 per cent who say they were taught residential schools were a positive thing. What is positive about children being removed from their families, physically and sexually abused, stripped of their culture and killed?

It is estimated that 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools from the 1800s until 1996 when the last one closed. The children were removed from their families, forced to adapt to European culture and lifestyles and were completely stripped of their identity. This cultural genocide made it difficult for victims to pass their traditions and culture to the following generations. The institutions were also rife with physical and sexual abuse: some figures indicate one in five children were sexually abused and that up to 6,000 died. The intergenerational effects of these traumas are still felt today.

The University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University are two post-secondary schools in Canada that have implemented mandatory Indigenous courses for all students. They offer several different ones to choose from that study the cultures, languages and histories of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. At Lakehead, some programs already include Indigenous course content in their curriculum, which then counts towards the mandatory credit.

More universities, including Ryerson, need to adopt this way of learning. Other schools have shown us that it is possible, and acknowledging Indigenous histories within the context of Canadian history is a step towards reconciliation. 

The Indian Act of 1876 allowed the government to be coercive and controlling of Indigenous people’s lives. It removed them from their land, which is the land we now all live on. The Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. explains that, “Their relationship with their traditional lands was the foundation of who they were as a People; the land held their history. In addition to removing them from their lands, everything that made them who they were — their distinct cultural practices, languages, spirituality — was outlawed, prohibited or erased.” Putting in an effort to understand this history is to show respect for them and their land that has been colonized.

Although the hope is that people will develop an understanding of these histories by the time they reach post-secondary, it does not seem to always be the case. Some may argue that it is just repetitive to teach the same things again in university to those who already have learned it previously. But isn’t it worth it to educate those who might not have been taught as much? My days of learning about Mohawk people are some of my finest memories of school, and I wish everyone at Ryerson could have that experience. And yet I know there is still more for me to learn.

This is more important now than ever as conversations develop around how institutions can work towards healing their often-fraught relationships with Indigenous people. Recently, there have been petitions and strikes to remove the Egerton Ryerson statue on Ryerson University’s campus due to his role in creating the residential school system. It is clear that many students who are fighting for change understand these issues, but I believe it is imperative for every student who attends Ryerson to have a thorough understanding of why these conversations are happening.
Not wanting to learn about the injustices that others have faced comes from a point of privilege. As of 2016, there are over one and a half million Indigenous people in Canada who have to deal with the pain and realities of our history every single day. What we need to do is educate our students who are the future of our society to ensure we are doing all we can to learn from our mistakes and move forward in unity and understanding.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

You may also like