Transformations in the Canadian History Classroom

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This is part of an ongoing series of reflections from the Manitoulin Island Summer Historical Institute (MISHI)

By Catherine Carstairs

I am a Canadian historian, and I teach the Canadian survey course.

Lately, this seems a lot more complicated than it did when I trained as a historian. Much of what we call Canada today rests on the unceded territories of Indigenous peoples.  What does that mean for how we teach Canadian history?

No one would think of me as a historian of Indigenous peoples.  I think of myself as a historian of health and medicine and a gender historian.  While Ian Mosby and I have been collaborating recently on two articles on Indigenous people and oral health , I am not an expert in Indigenous history, or even of settler colonialism.  But fortunately, I am being drawn into what feels like a significant change in how we do Canadian history.

Like most Canadian historians, I’ve long been aware of the many injustices that Indigenous people have faced in this country.  I have been conscious of the ways that my family and I benefited from the dispossession of Indigenous people from the land.  As the child of two working parents, I had a full-time caregiver, who I knew as Cree.  (Brittany Luby, who kindly read this piece for me, asked if she identified as Cree or Nehiyaw.  Sadly, I don’t know.) She and her family lived in a granny suite in our house.  While this relationship is itself a telling example of settler power and colonial dispossession, I also loved her deeply, and I became aware at an early age of the racism Indigenous peoples experienced in the cities in which I lived as a child: Calgary and Winnipeg.

As a graduate student, one of the most inspiring courses I took was Sylvia Van Kirk’s class on what was then called Native-White Relations.  I had taken a course in Aboriginal education at McGill when I did my teacher’s certificate, so I already knew about the history of residential schools, but Van Kirk made me aware of the many injustices perpetrated against Indigenous peoples including the banning of their religious ceremonies, the pass system, and the constant violation of the treaties.  My strong friendship with Carolyn Podruchny ensured that I kept reading in the field long after this course was finished.

Recently, my journey to understand the histories of Indigenous people in Canada has intensified.  Partly, this has been inspired by my students and post-docs.  Ian Mosby was doing a post-doc with me when he wrote his article on nutritional experiments at residential schools. Later, Allyson Stevenson came to do Guelph’s first postdoctoral fellowship in Aboriginal History.

Her crucial work on the sixties scoop underlined for me how important it was for Indigenous people to be writing this history. This was further confirmed by my discussions with my new colleague, Brittany Luby, whose brilliant work on the history of the Dalles 38C community, will soon be published in Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival on Anishinabe Territory.

I was vaguely aware of MISHI before 2019, but when Carolyn Podruchny and I were having lunch in early 2019. She told me more about it, and about this year’s theme of female leadership.  I immediately knew that I wanted to go.  I also asked to bring my two graduate students who are working on the history of Indigenous peoples. She kindly agreed.

One of the joys of MISHI was being in an Indigenous-run institution, the Ojibway Cultural Foundation and being taught by Indigenous scholars. I learned a great deal from Alan Corbiere’s explanation of his exhibit on clans in the museum; from Deborah MacGregor’s talk on the ethics of University research; Josh Manitowabi’s talk on clans during the free trade era; and Bimadoshka Pucan’s work on was cylinder recordings that were made by Anishiaa Robert Thompson.  I loved the fact that the week started with us learning how to introduce ourselves in Anishinaabemowin. It was an audible affirmation that we can do, and speak, history differently.

Indigenous historians are changing the conversation about what it means to be a “Canadian” historian. We desperately need Mi’kmaw histories, Anishinaabe histories, Haida histories and many others to make sense of the land mass that is now known as Canada.  MISHI further underlined for me the importance of the local context and the value of teaching on the land.

This brings me back to the Canadian survey, a course that most of us who define ourselves as Canadian historians teach regularly.  I believe in the Canadian survey – I wish it was compulsory for all students at university.  I think it is vital that we understand the roots of the country in which we live, that we know how its institutions operate, and that we have a good sense of the successes and failures of the Canadian project.

This involves going further than including the history of the treaties, residential schools and debates over the Indian Act.  We need to find a way of exposing our students to Indigenous perspectives.  For me, this means first and foremost, hiring more Indigenous faculty.  While this is beginning to happen, we also need to find ways of addressing the disproportionate burdens these faculty are facing in terms of service.   This may mean changing teaching loads and doing more team-teaching.  All of us need to make a concerted effort to ensure that Indigenous students are thriving in our classrooms, so that some of them become historians themselves.

Those of us of settler backgrounds need to bring more Indigenous content into the survey by employing Elders (making sure that we pay them appropriately for their expertise), using films created by Indigenous filmmakers and assigning works by Indigenous scholars, and educating ourselves in Indigenous histories.  Recently, the Canadianists in my department decided to change the descriptions of our Canadian survey courses (pre-1867 and post-1867) to say that they will cover “political, economic, social, and cultural developments…..including the intertwined Indigenous histories.”  It was our new Indigenous faculty member, Brittany Luby who wisely suggested the wording.

There is much to be done to correct the injustices of the past, in the academy as well as outside of the academy.  But MISHI is part of the solution and I am very grateful that this historian of gender and health was allowed to attend.

Catherine Carstairs is a professor of history at the University of Guelph. My thanks to Brittany Luby and Carolyn Podruchny who gave me excellent editorial advice!

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