Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 2

Today’s post is the second 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 Rhonda Hinther

I taught Structures of Indifference in Western Canada Since 1885. It is a second-year course, with fourteen students. I used the book for several reasons – first, I was looking forward to reading it myself, and this gave me a teaching motivation to do so. I also thought the book, for the way it weaves the past throughout its analysis, demonstrating how it shapes our current present in Winnipeg and elsewhere through the lens of racialized health care, helped to coalesce the various histories we had been studying throughout the term. Finally, since I had opened the course with a book review assignment on Adele Perry’s Aqueduct, which we read together over several weeks in class, Structures of Indifference seemed like an ideal bookend. On the final exam, students were required to review the book.

This is not an easy book to read or teach. I have lived in Winnipeg for much of my adult life, I am 100% settler, and, like many Winnipeggers, I’ve had my own mixed experiences with the Health Sciences Centre (HSC). My whiteness and class privilege informed those experiences. My father died of cancer in that hospital in 1997, shortly after we brought him there (via the same ER where Brian Sinclair would later die) when his condition deteriorated following unsuccessful radiation treatments performed at HSC. I gave birth to my son in that hospital in 2011; as we were taking our son home, we witnessed Child and Family Services attempting to apprehend an Indigenous newborn.

One of the challenges of reading this book on Treaty One and Treaty Two Territory is that so many of us in Manitoba have had negative ER waiting room experiences at HSC and other hospitals. It’s all too easy for white folks to chalk up our anecdotal experiences to a poor, disorganized, but ultimately ‘colour-blind,’ system. This book is important for helping (especially non-Indigenous) students to see this otherwise, to see how settler colonialism is inextricable from every aspect of our lives, and to see Brian Sinclair’s experience – of being ‘ignored to death’ – as explicitly racialized and gendered. There are things I would do differently next time I teach the book. I would definitely spend more time setting up the challenging nature of the book’s contents (I am grateful to the authors for including counselling resource numbers early in the book for those who are struggling with and affected by what they read), and especially being even more attuned to how this might impact Indigenous students in the class.

Rhonda Hinther is associate professor of history at Brandon University, which is in Treaty 2 territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree Assiniboine, Dakota, and Dene Peoples and the homeland of the Métis Nation. She lives in Treaty 1 territory.

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