Residential Schools and Present Day White Privilege

Chairs in a Classroom

Image used under CC0 Public Domain License.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to residential school survivor Mike Cachagee speak to a group of 90 grade eight students.  Over the past couple of years I’ve worked with Mike on a regular basis through the educational programming undertaken at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  Mike often comes in to speak to students about residential schools, his experience as a survivor, reconciliation and colonialism. His talks are always a little different and each time I leave feeling grateful for his wiliness to share his experience and perspective in the classroom setting.

During Mike’s most recent talk when discussing colonialism and the corrosion of Indigenous communities through residential schools he made a direct connection between white privilege and the colonial system.  I was struck by how this is the conversation we need to be having in the classroom.  The Indian Act, the reserve system, residential schools, the 60s scoop and so many other instances of historical colonial policy have had a direct impact that is still being felt by Indigenous communities.  We know this.  But there is still a huge tendency to treaty these historical policies as things of the past despite the fact that they still have very real implications for Indigenous communities and Canadians at large. Colonial policies are closely related to so much of the white privilege that exists today – the land we live on, the current funding structure of education, the health care we receive and so much more is connected to historical policies.

During his discussion with the grade eight students Mike also highlighted the fact that he wasn’t trying to blame current white settlers for things that their ancestors did.  However, he was clear that the burden of building new relationships, changing policies going forward, and learning about the basics of colonialism and privilege lies firmly on the shoulders of white-settlers not marginalized communities.  The discussion of reconciliation is one that requires all sides to participate and settlers need to be doing the background work themselves.

I spoke with a handful of the teachers present during Mike’s talk and many indicated that the talk inspired them to take a look at how they are approaching residential schools in the classroom space.  One teacher indicated that they would be having a class discussion about how residential schools impact society today when they returned to the classroom. Personally, I know one way that we have often encouraged teachers to teach residential schools is to follow up with a conversation about present day impacts of residential school, a discussion of ongoing educational inequalities, and connect to social justice issues (such as Idle No More, MMIWG2S, or Shannon’s Dream).

How do you connect residential school history to present day realities in classroom?

Interactive Canadian History: Sewing Responses to the Past

This week the archive I work at hosted a sewing action as part of the (official denial) trade value in progress project.   This project engages people in discussion and reflection relating to reconciliation, truth telling, and Canada’s history of colonialism and Residential Schools.  This interactive art project stimulates discussion about Canada’s history while allowing participants to engage in a tactile activity.

The work initiated by Leah Dector and curated by Jamie Isaac, features a 12×14 feet composite of Hudson Bay blankets sewn together, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2009 statement that “we also have no history of Colonialism” sewn at the center of the blankets.

At exhibitions and public showings of the work, the general public is invited to write down their responses to the piece in an accompanying book.  These responses are then taken to sewing actions, where participants can choose any response and hand-sew it onto the blanket.

The interactive component of this project means that the visual appearance of the Hudson Bay blankets are constantly evolving based on what participants decide to sew into the blanket. The project reflects the thoughts and decisions of the sewing participants and the visitors who wrote down their responses to the work.  The interactive component of this project resonated with me in  terms of educational programming and public history. 

The individuals who participated in the sewing action this week talked a lot about history based topics while sewing their chosen words into the blanket.  Much of the discussion revolved around Residential Schools, land rights, the history of the Hudson Bay Company, the continued marginalization of Indigenous people, and a variety of other historically informed topics.

The sewing action actively engaged participants in an interactive art project, Canadian history and engaging discussions about Indigenous rights in Canada.  Learning in a less structured environment combined with a tactile activity has the potential to be much more memorable than a traditional lecture about Canadian history or presentation about the Hudson Bay Company.  It’s great to see creative projects engaging people with the past.

Listen Up: Public History the Audio Way

On weekly basis I spend an excessive amount of time in a car (over 10 hours a week).  One of the few upsides of this car time is my listening to talk radio, podcasts, and audio books. Some of the great public history oriented listening material I’ve taken in lately includes:

  • In Their Shoes on CBC’s Ideas program.  This particular Ideas episode focuses on Katherine Govier’s ESL work with immigrant women, and her work on the Shoe Project.   The Shoe Project is a  Bata Shoe Museum exhibit focuses on the shoes that brought immigrants to Canada.
  • NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Craig Timberg.  Timberg is the co-author of the book Tinderbox: How The West Fueled The AIDS Epidemic”  The interview examines the history of AIDS, the impact of colonialism and AIDS in Africa,and recent trends in preventative programs.
  • A recent interview on CBC’s Spark with David McCandless, which focuses on information design.  The interview provides an interesting look at big data and data visualization.
  • Library and Archives Canada recently announced a new podcast series, “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” The first podcast in the series focuses on Project Naming, an initiative to identify persons in photographs of Canada’s North.

When Forever is Only Temporary: The Maple Leaf For Ever

The original The Maple Leaf For Ever song was composed by Alexander Muir in October 1867.  The song became somewhat of an unofficial anthem of English Canadians until the mid 20th Century, children were taught the song in schools and it was almost as popular as O’Canada.  The original lyrics to the song included many references to Canada’s origins and its ties to Britain, but included little reference to France or Canada’s francophone population.

In 1997, the CBC radio show Metro Morning ran a contest to find more commentary/politically correct lyrics to the song.  The contest was won Vladimir Radian, his version of the song removes the majority of the references to colonialism and acknowledges the existence of French Canadians. Since Radian’s version of the song debuted other Canadian singers such as Anne Murray and Michael Bublé have sang the revised lyrics at public events (eg. the Olympics).

It’s interesting to see how the original lyrics have changed so drastically in the revised version of the song. I’m undecided if the new lyrics remove the original context of the song or merely revise it for a new generation.  I would be interested to hear other opinions on the matter.