Teaching truth and reconciliation in Canada: The perfect place to begin is right where a teacher stands
Where do we start?
Our question echoes our larger work supporting and educating teacher candidates, and our personal commitments seeking to act as witnesses to the need for reconciliation in Canada.
As researchers, teachers and administrators — one of whom is of Anishinaabe, German, and French heritage and one of whom is a longstanding non-Indigenous ally of Irish, Scottish and English ancestry — we have dedicated our careers to education for and about Indigenous people, and to Indigenous-led ally-building in education.
So, we start by acknowledging the situation. We are acutely aware of the historic and ongoing legacy of colonialism and racism that pervades Canadian society, and the specific role that education had in creating and perpetuating this legacy. Indeed, in Canada the education system has been a tool for genocide through the residential school system.
At the same time, we acknowledge that we have tremendous hope. We see self-determination and resilience in Indigenous communities, and increasing willingness, unimaginable a generation ago, in the general Canadian population to acknowledge history and move forward in a better way. And we acknowledge that we are teaching and learning in an era where, after the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, we know more about colonial legacies. We have more guidance on what to do moving forward than ever before.
Teacher education offers a path forward
In our personal actions, we start where we are. For us, this means working together and with the teachers and teachers-to-be whom we encounter in our work at our Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. The Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) at Queen’s University that we both work with qualifies graduates for Ontario College of Teachers certification and provides a focus on Indigenous education in their teacher preparation. This program has over 400 primarily Indigenous graduates. We stand in awe of the change they have made at all levels of education; we are excited to follow where this change leads next. We deeply believe in decolonized, self-determined, authentically Indigenized education.
At the same time, it is unfair to expect already marginalized people to shoulder the full burden of educating the mainstream population and creating social change, as is often the case. We believe it is a vital part of our jobs to facilitate the learning of settler teachers so they can see their roles and responsibilities in the reconciliatory process. As Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, told the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples:
“I’ll tell you what gets me through it now and got me through it then, and that is the belief that you don’t have to believe that reconciliation will happen; you have to believe that reconciliation must happen … and you have to do what you can to make it happen.”
Our teacher candidates come from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to the teacher candidates who come from diverse Indigenous nations and heritages, we work with teacher candidates who are racialized, some of whom also carry post-colonial histories both internal to and external to North America. However, the majority of teacher candidates in our faculty are settler people of diverse European heritages. Given their diverse backgrounds, our teacher candidates engage with Canada’s legacy of colonization in different ways. We also spend time working with qualified teachers to respond to inquiries about how to address truth and reconciliation in their teaching practice.
Overcome guilt, find courage
For many teachers and teacher candidates, especially those who are non-Indigenous, the biggest obstacle we now see is fear — these educators want to do the right thing but they are afraid of making the problem worse, of being guilty of cultural appropriation, of offending or misinforming.
Many teachers have come from educational backgrounds that offered little in the way of Indigenous education content, and have not been challenged to think about power and privilege, or how various kinds of privilege intersect. They are now called to include Indigenous perspectives that they didn’t have the opportunity learn themselves, which presents an obvious challenge. As educators still learning (as we all are), we empathize with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy.
In addition to a lack of education, we are aware that another barrier can be caused by what University of Washington whiteness studies scholar Robin DiAngelo describes as “white fragility,” which includes “anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation and cognitive dissonance, (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism).”
These emotions can be paralyzing. We tell our settler students: You can cry. You can feel angry. You have a huge burden to carry. But do not stop at guilt. Guilt is unproductive. Even if the ongoing legacy of colonization is not your fault, it is your responsibility, and you do benefit from it. So to move forward in a spirit of right relations, it’s important to recognize what is going on and what you can do about it. That doesn’t mean taking over, or taking charge of the reconciliatory process, since meaningful reconciliation needs to be led by Indigenous people. It does mean listening, really listening, in the effort to find fitting paths forward. We know that inaction in itself is a choice and an action.
No reconciliation without truth
So, the first step in becoming an ally is witnessing. Being a good witness involves deep listening — full attention, openness, the ability to be present without judging and accurate recall. Sharing what is witnessed is about enacting the responsibility to promote right relations by widening the circle of learning and understanding.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) gifted us with 94 Calls to Action that have provided valuable guidance on how to proceed in supporting and furthering truth and reconciliation. The Calls to Action are practical, easy to understand and apply to all Canadians.
Inspired by the Calls to Action, an abundance of resources exist to help guide action. For example, The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation produces invaluable resources to help people grow as allies. The Assembly of First Nations and the Montreal Indigenous Community Network have also both created outstanding resources for aspiring allies.
We understand that for many Indigenous people, reconciliation is a meaningless term in a time when social inequity is still rampant and the legacy of residential schools and Indian day schools is still so visible. There cannot be reconciliation without truth. There can also be no reconciliation without Indigenous leadership, language and culture perpetuation, equal sharing of resources and meaningful consultation on issues such as resource extraction and relationships to land, air and water.