When History Needs an Intervention

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By Mary Jane McCallum

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Cover page of “Education — A Vehicle for Change”, essay written by the author’s mother in the late 1970s. Photo by author.

Thank you to Crystal Fraser for guest-editing #AHindigenous at ActiveHistory this week. Her initiative exponentially increased Active History’s content by Indigenous people and likely its Indigenous readership. To Leanne Simpson, Zoe Todd, Claire Thomson, Daniel Sims, Adam Gaudry, Anna Huard, Lianne Charlie, Norma Dunning and Billy-Ray Belcourt, thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring posts. Each piece makes vital contributions, and together they highlight some of the key themes in contemporary Indigenous scholarship: rootedness in place and land; family and kinship as inspiration and methodology in Indigenous history; critical analyses of the politics of recognition and reconciliation in a context of entrenched historic and ongoing colonialism; and identifying solid concepts and practices of decolonization. Their work is creative, critical, and attentive to change and continuity over time; it gives special insight to our own complex and often contradictory moment in Indigenous history. In this piece, I bring these valuable contributions into conversation with my thoughts on the new Indigenous Course Requirement at the University of Winnipeg.

Inspired by Zoe Todd, I begin at home. In the late 1970s, my mom wrote an essay entitled “Education – A Vehicle for Change” for an anthropology course. On the back, she transcribed the lyrics of a song entitled “An Eskimo and I” that was taught in my brother, Ian’s, class at our school. The main “thesis” of the song was something along the lines of: I’m so glad I’m a clean, warm (white), settled, normal, southern Canadian child instead. Even after my Mom explained how the song was offensive, the teacher refused to stop using it in her class. Sadly, activities based on “playing Indian” constituted a significant measure of what little we learned about Indigenous people in southern Ontario schools, and while university courses on Canadian history provided a little more substance, Indigenous people often faded from the course content after the arrival of Europeans, and certainly before the twentieth century. This absence sends a clear message to us about the perceived unimportance of Indigenous people, land, and thought throughout Canadian history and Canada more generally. Moreover, it obscures the multiple ways Canada continues to thrive directly from colonial violence – a point so clearly illustrated in Huard’s discussion of Shoal Lake #40 Reserve, and the means by which Winnipeg still gets its drinking water.

In my honours year at McMaster in 1996, I took an Indigenous Studies Program course that was an important exception to this trend. The course covered the meaning and history of North American genocide; discussed Canadian Indian policy; explored patterns of Indigenous resistance; and described aspects of Indigenous (Haudenosaunee) epistemologies, including concepts of gender, family, and nationhood. I took the course shortly after the Royal Commission on Indigenous People (RCAP) concluded, and for me these two events will always be linked. The course was long, difficult, and vitally important to me: at the front of the class were Indigenous professors (Drs. Dawn Martin-Hill and Rick Monture), a rare privilege I would not again have at any other point in my undergraduate or graduate education.

Twenty years later, in the fall of 2016, the university where I now teach will require all undergraduate students to choose one 3-credit hour (half) course called an Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) from a list of approved existing and new courses with substantial content in Indigenous history, culture, ways of knowing, contemporary issues, and/or languages. To say that this is a monumental shift would be an understatement. But the insights of this week’s contributions encourage much deeper thinking about the ICR.

Claire Thomson and Zoe Todd’s writing and images situate land, kin, stories, local history, and place as both “interlocutors” and foundations in their work. Likewise, there is a need to ground the ICR in a sense of place and history. When I came to the UW in 2008, students had already raised the idea, and indeed it was again students who led the most recent and successful initiative. Over the past year, discussions were given some shape and weight by Maclean’s January 2015 article calling Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city, which focused on the murder of 15-year old Tina Fontaine, but made a wide accounting of recent stories of race and racism dividing, marginalizing, and threatening the lives and well-being of people in Winnipeg.[i] Finally, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission substantiated the proposal, in particular its recommendation that everyone in Canada, especially lawyers, public servants, health professionals, teachers, social workers, and those in the corporate sector, be educated about the history of Indigenous peoples, including “the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.” It also recommends “skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”[ii]

Considerable heft has been unfairly put on the tiny shoulders of the ICR. The ICR will not “destroy” undergraduate independent academic learning, constrain academic freedom, or “brainwash” students.[iii] A single course requirement will also not fix Canadian white supremacy, “indigenize” otherwise settler-colonial institutions, or “reconcile” a long, violent, and continuing history of dispossession in Canada. It will, however, carry on a tradition of Indigenous engagement in and critique of education.

Lianne Charlie casts us as beneficiaries of those who came before us, and in her text collage based on the 1973 Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow Settlement, she shows how this past work takes on new meaning today. The RCAP for example, gathered 22 reports on Indigenous education produced between 1966 and 1992; each one recommends school courses in Indigenous history, language, and culture. The RCAP itself recommended that post-secondary institutions introduce and substantially support Indigenous content and perspectives in course offerings across disciplines.[iv] Indigenous educators have also made substantial critical interventions into the content and nature of education, as Norma Dunning shows, work that includes identifying attrition rates, analyzing inequities in funding, and creating culturally relevant programming. This work joins efforts to make Indigenous space on campus, organize Indigenous students associations, develop critical Native and Indigenous Studies programs and departments, and revise curricula in all departments, including professional schools.

Adam Gaudry’s essay articulates current and common concerns among Indigenous faculty, students and others that the ICR (and other similar efforts to improve Indigenous education) could become simply another box to tick and form to sign. Vitally, he asks: Does your mandatory course content “break down the rationalization of a colonial relationship?” Do you have a clear, well-communicated rationale for mandatory Indigenous content courses? Do you have a critical mass of well-supported Indigenous expertise to teach and if not, what is your plan to create and sustain one? Do you provide serious support for existing Indigenous faculty and programming? Is your course content relevant to Indigenous students too? As we move into a phase of curriculum development, these are good questions to keep in mind.

Sims’ work further informs this process, especially as it identifies when and how distinct and diverse Indigenous people and histories are commonly and unhelpfully over-generalized. To describe all Indigenous people as having a uniform and one-dimensional experience of treaties, reserves, and voting, for example, fails to engage critically with the varied, multi-faceted, intersecting, and highly contextual lived realities of Indigenous people.

Finally, the work this week inspires the question: is the ICR an indication that substantive change is happening more broadly? Leanne Simpson’s and Billy-Ray Belcourt’s critiques of current politics (including those that “don’t actually exist”) identify a range of imaginative work that has yet to be done to protect Indigenous lands, resources, inherent and treaty rights, and to substantially intervene in cycles of violence, racism, sexism, poverty, and disenfranchisement. This work neither starts nor ends with the ICR, rather, it is just one of the ways we continue our long histories of observation, correction, measurement, and action.


Mary Jane Logan McCallum is an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Winnipeg. She writes on Indigenous modern histories especially in the areas of health, education and labour. Her book is Indigenous Women, Work and History, 1940-1980 (University of Manitoba Press, 2014), and information on her Indigenous Histories of Tuberculosis, 1930-1970 project can be found here: https://indigenoustbhistories.wordpress.com/ She’s a member of the Munsee-Delaware Nation.


[i] Nancy MacDonald, “Welcome to Winnipeg, Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at its Worst,” MacLeans Website: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/welcome-to-winnipeg-where-canadas-racism-problem-is-at-its-worst/ See also: Bartley Kives, “’The Great Indigenous Divide’: Winnipeg Stares into an Ethnic Chasm,” The Guardian Website: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/oct/21/winnipeg-election-indigenous-divide-aboriginal

[ii] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, See: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

[iii] Brayden Whitlock’s “Indigenous education by force,” in the “Analysis” Section of the Winnipeg Free Press January 7, 2016 is the latest to make these claims: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/indigenous-education-by-force-364479941.html See also Chelsea Vowell, “Debunking the myth that Canadian schools teach enough about Indigenous People,” Opinion, CBC,: December 23, 2015: http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/debunking-myth-canadian-schools-teach-indigenous-peoples-1.3376800?__vfz=tc%3D2pUQBP2FMj7

[iv] See: Canada, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Vol 3 Gathering Strength, 1996. Available at Queen’s University Research and Learning Repository: https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/jspui/bitstream/1974/6874/3/RRCAP3_combined.pdf See also: Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, The Shocking Truth About Indians in Textbooks! (Winnipeg: Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, 1974) and Wahbung: Our Tomorrows (available at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs website http://www.mfnerc.org/images/stories/pdf/wahbung.pdf.

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