Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 1

Today’s post is the first in a four part series that began as different conversations about teaching Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference, winner of The Indigenous History Book Prize, awarded by the Indigenous History Group of the Canadian Historical Association. Each week will will focus on one professor’s experiences teaching the book to undergraduate students and – in the final week – we conclude with a reflection on teaching the book to graduate nursing students. Because we were teaching students from different academic backgrounds and stages of career, we used different teaching strategies. But we shared the pedagogical goal of using an individual tragedy – Brian Sinclair’s death – to encourage students to grapple with the ongoing impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities and the structures that shape their lives.

By Karen Dubinsky

I assigned Structures of Indifference to 450 students in “Introduction to Canada and the ‘Third’ World,” which is taught in the Department of Global Development Studies. It introduces students to topics such as Canadian foreign policy, business activities, development aid, and migration policies in the Global South, and Indigenous communities here. We move constantly between past and present in this class, and I think that’s one reason the book was such a hit.

Structures of Indifference is a tough book. It tells a tough story, it is tough to read and I imagined it would be tough to teach.  As I was considering books to assign to a large intro class, I picked it up and, as the cliché goes, could not put it down. I hoped students might feel the same way.

The book is perfect for a first year class because it is short, smart and written by academic historians who can write for a varied audience. The story of the lonesome death of Brian Sinclair is at once miserably real and hugely metaphoric. It is centuries of racism, colonialism, and neglect telescoped into one 34-hour period. That’s what makes this tough story readable and teachable.

I was able to invite Mary Jane McCallum to speak at Queen’s this year, and that certainly added to the experience. I assigned the book as an essay.  “Who Killed Brian Sinclair” was the research question I asked them to consider. Professor McCallum spoke in my class and there I witnessed several firsts. She arrived from Winnipeg in the midst of a February snowstorm, miraculously always a couple hours ahead of transportation shutdown. I received anxious emails from students the night before class, confirming that she made it and that the next day’s lecture was on. There were few empty seats for her lecture, despite the continuing blizzard outside. A dozen students stayed 20 minutes after class, lining up to ask McCallum questions, seek her opinion on their interpretation, even shyly ask for an autograph. All of this, I no doubt do not need to add, is uncommon for first year students. But it doesn’t have to be.  Canadian history is full of powerful, terrible, inspiring stories. Historians owe ourselves to tell them with such finesse.

Karen Dubinsky is professor of Global Development Studies and History at Queen’s University, which is on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory. 

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