Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 3

Today’s post is the third 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 Nancy Janovicek

I taught this text to a first-year ‘post-confederation’ Canadian history class. The last time I taught this course, I asked students to write a response paper to Elder in the Making, a documentary that is part of the Making Treaty 7 project, an initiative that brings together Elders and Indigenous and settler actors. The documentary, directed and narrated by Chris Chung, a Chinese Canadian raised in Calgary, features Cowboy Smithx, a filmmaker and multimedia artist of Piikani and Kainai ancestry who speaks to Niitsitapi elders about the resilience of their cultures in the face of the history of dispossession of their lands. I asked students to think about how Indigenous understandings of the past were different from what they had been taught in high school. They recognized the connections between past and present and the treaties as living documents. When Smithx and Chung came to class, a student expressed her anger at the high school curriculum that had not taught her any Blackfoot history. She was embarrassed that she did not know that the Tsutina’a Nation was at the Calgary city limits until she was in university.

I wanted to find a different book or documentary that would have a similar impact on students. I could have found another text about Treaty 7 Indigenous histories to address students’ demand to know more about whose territories they live on. I chose this book in part because of the collaboration between an Indigenous and settler scholar, which echoed the project by Smithx and Chung. The Tina Fontaine and Coulten Boushie verdicts also made coming to terms with violent death in Indigenous communities seem even more urgent this past year. The assignment asked students to reflect on McCallum and Perry’s argument that, “settler colonialism must be understood as a structure, not an event, as ongoing and diffuse rather than historical and contained” (12) and from this premise to explain how Brian Sinclair’s tragic death influenced their thinking about history and settler colonialism.

This was a large lecture class, so I was not able to engage with every student during group discussions. When I brought the class together and asked for reflections, many students described the book as an eye-opener and expressed frustration with the high school curriculum that depicted Canada a happy multicultural nation. Students came away from the book with a deeper understanding of how settler colonialism and the ongoing marginalization if Indigenous peoples is rooted in the terms laid out in the BNA Act and the Indian Act, which I had discussed in earlier lectures. Yet at the same time, for some students, the argument that hospital emergency rooms are busy places persisted.

Nancy Janovicek is the associate professor of history at the University of Calgary. She lives and works on the traditional territories of the people of Treaty 7 in Southern Alberta. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.

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