Teaching Canadian History After the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

By Allyson Stevenson[1]

When I began this blog on January 29th, I had just returned to my office at the University of Regina after speaking about my research on an inspiring panel of powerful First Nations women leaders in Treaty 4 territory that included Chief Lynn Acoose, Chief Roberta Soo-Oye Waste, Dr. Priscilla Settee, and Dakota Elder Diane McKay. “The Indigenous Women’s Leadership Forum: Reclamation of Matriarch and Ogijidaakew Sovereignty” was framed around reclaiming Indigenous women’s roles and responsibilities as matriarchs in their families and communities and nations through storytelling, visiting, and inspiring each other. This conference followed, but was not related to, another compelling full-day event at First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), organized by FNUniv’s Students’ Association, in response to the appalling behavior of George Elliot Clarke and the University of Regina. Originally conceived by a group called “Matriarchs on Duty,” the event on Thursday January 26th, which would have been the day that George Elliot Clarke gave his ill-conceived talk “‘Truth and Reconciliation’ versus ‘the Murdered and Missing’: Examining Indigenous Experiences of (In)Justice in Four Saskatchewan Poets”, began with a pipe ceremony, followed by a smudge walk around the U of R Campus, and then a series of dialogues about the relationship between the University of Regina and Indigenous peoples in the community. The controversy made national headlines when Clarke initially refused to consider altering his topic, or responding to concerns raised by faculty, staff and Indigenous community members. Several in the Regina university community early on identified the problematic relationship between Clarke and Steven Kummerfield/Stephen Brown, and Clarke’s decision to speak on this issue in Regina.

Perhaps it might seem odd to begin a blog about teaching Canadian history with this story. Perhaps it might also seem odd that I am writing a blog about Canadian history, considering I myself do not teach in a History department. In fact, I chose deliberately to locate my Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples and Global Social Justice in the Department of Politics and International Studies when I began at the University of Regina in January of 2018.

Please bear with me though. I think I might have something useful to offer.

I hope my post might allow readers to consider the intersection between lived experiences of Indigenous students, faculty, and staff and our work within the walls of institutions of higher learning. Through this blog post, I want to share with my friends and colleagues at the Canadian Historical Association (CHA)—and readers of Active History and Histoire Engagée—a bit of my perspective as a life-long resident of Saskatchewan, both rural and urban, and as a Métis adoptee reconnected to my community of origin. And of course, as a Canadian historian.

It builds on the three-part blog post written by Carmen Nielson, who walked readers through her efforts to decolonize her pre-Confederation Canadian history survey course. Her initial realization that her teaching approach was problematic came to her attention when a Métis student approached her and said, “I feel like I’m being colonized in this course.” Only after that brave student’s assertion, Dr. Nielson began to reflect on her place as a settler and, following that, shift how she taught and understood Canadian history.

Have we all been colonized by Canadian History?

This past summer in August 2019, the CHA’s Working Group on the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) released “A Syllabus for History After the TRC.” Formed in 2017, the Working Group’s Syllabus stands as one of the organization’s efforts to assist its members with incorporating important works of Indigenous histories written over the past decades.

Professional organizations like the CHA and the Canadian Political Science Association, as well as community groups such as Black Lives Matter and Standing with Standing Rock, assemble such syllabi to help folks navigate contentious conflicts, as well as make sense of the ongoing oppression of Indigenous and marginalized peoples in mainstream settler society. Important works of resistance literatures, critical theoretical frameworks, and historic works from marginalized voices are highlighted with the noble goal of educating readers. These very important documents help individuals incorporate Indigenous content in courses. They go beyond event-based inclusion of the familiar topics.

However, I do want to point out that it was the voice of the Métis student that brought about Dr. Nielson’s shift in perspective and awareness. At the level of the heart, and not the head, the colonial nature of our discipline came into focus.

How do we know what we know?

I think it is important at this juncture to point out that, in the five years following the completion of the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action, there has been ongoing and relentless evidence laid plain that this was more than a “dark chapter.” The violence and genocidal drive of the residential school system lives on in Canada. Nowhere is this more evident than right here in my own backyard of Saskatchewan. I say this not to encourage a smug attitude of those outside of this province, but to illustrate that the project that began well before Confederation was conceived outside of our territories. It continues to haunt us in ways that we are not able to turn away from. How will Canadian historians account for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit while also accounting for the wreckage of the Sixties Scoop? There are class action lawsuits from First Nations peoples who have been harmed by the medical system, whether in Indian Hospitals or TB (tuberculosis) sanitariums. Indigenous children are overrepresented in child welfare systems across Canada. On-reserve family and child service agencies have been systemically underfunded, which has been deemed a violation of First Nations children’s human rights. Today, we also have a national crisis of over-incarceration of Indigenous inmates. Similar to the residential school class action which led to the Settlement Agreement, the litigations based on experiences of collective harms rely on framing historic government policies by contemporary Indigenous survivors as injuries to a class, but do not provide an analytical framework for understanding the historic linkages that thread these policies together, or the historically specific contexts out of which they have arisen. Canadian history lacks an adequate analytic by which to account for the historic and present place of Indigenous peoples as distinct right-bearing peoples with guarantees in the Constitution Act, 1982. But beyond our rights, does it account for the lived experiences of First Nations and Métis peoples, for whom these both are, and are not, academic issues?

A Structure, not an Event.

Settler colonialism in Canada, like elsewhere, is a structure; it is not an event.[2] It lives on today in manifestations of overt violence against Indigenous peoples, lifeways and lands, in the neglectful treatment of Indigenous rights, and the withholding of necessities of life. As we continue to reclaim our own stories, ways of governing, and expressing Indigenous sovereignty we will need new stories to understand our shared past that accounts in a meaningful way for Canada as it is—not as some might wish it to be.

In fact, this rethinking is imperative and forms the basis for reconciliation moving forward. As a profession, historians must reflect on the historically-specific meaning and significance of TRC Call to Action 43 under Reconciliation that states: “We call on federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.” Understanding the international forces that drove mercantilism, colonization, and Confederation and diverse Indigenous resistances, responses and accommodations provide an important context for moving forward by situating UNDRIP and the struggle for Indigenous rights in both a global, and Canada-specific, context.

Understanding UNDRIP and what it means for the restructuring of the relationship between Indigenous and settler society is why I chose my current department. UNDRIP rejects the premise of colonialism and settler colonialism. The preamble lays out the underlying historic challenges faced by Indigenous peoples since initial contact while identifying, and then overturning, ideologies of conquest:

Affirming further all doctrines, policies and practices based on advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust,

Reaffirming that indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind,

Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests,

Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic, and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to lands territories and resources,

Recognizing also the urgent need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in treaties, agreements, and other constructive arrangements with States …

UNDRIP, adopted by the United Nations on September 13, 2007 “constitutes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of indigenous peoples of the world.”[3] It places the responsibility on states and their citizens to respect, affirm, acknowledge and adhere to the principles of laid out in UNDRIP that enables Indigenous peoples as non-state peoples the right to exist as Indigenous. This is so not only when it is expedient or comfortable. Political scientists, legal scholars and others are grappling with the substantive questions that have arisen in the age of reconciliation and the adoption of UNDRIP.[4] It is incumbent upon historians to find teaching approaches that situate Indigenous peoples, rights and presence in these territories as fundamental to all topics and areas of Canadian history. Most importantly, historians need to understand that Indigenous peoples are here whether or not they understand that history and will continue to resist dehumanization in the struggle for justice.

So to return to the story at the beginning.

One can only understand the resistance to George Elliot Clarke if one understands the Justice for Stolen Children Camp. If one understands the Colton Boushie murder. If one understands the Tina Fontaine travesty. If one understands the Pamela George murder. If one understands the murder of Leo LaChance (to highlight only some of the most high-profile examples of injustice on the Prairies).  What each one of these cases speaks to more broadly is the persistent dehumanization of Indigenous peoples, and the dehumanizing conditions many Indigenous peoples navigate on the Prairies specifically. Tasha Hubbard’s award-winning documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will stand up (2019) connects the history of racism and the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples on the Prairies that fuels the injustices we see today.

Plains Cree/Metis scholar Cree-Métis scholar Emma LaRocque argues that, “The dehumanization has been effectively advanced through what I have come to call the civ/sav dichotomy which provides the framework for ‘interpreting’ White and Native encounters.” [5] The vestige of this ideological (de)formation continues to permeate Indigenous-settler relations in 2020. We don’t have to look too deep into our historiographical past to identify its origins and proponents. UNDRIP acknowledges the ideological, material, and spiritual legacies of the colonial past, but through the collective efforts of the world’s indigenous peoples captures the necessary conditions for envisioning a different future.

[1] I would like to thank the CHA teaching committee Jo McCutcheon, Danielle Kinsey and Carly Ciufo for their encouragement and helpful feedback in preparing this piece. This piece is posted in two parts on the CHA’s “Teaching and Learning Blog” here and here, as well as on our sister site, Histoire Engagée.

[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native: Journal of Genocide Research (2006), 8(4), 390.

[3]Sheryl Lightfoot, Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution. Routledge, 2018.

[4] Eds Michael Asch, John Borrows, and James Tully, Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018; Ed., Joyce Green, Indivisible: Indigenous Human Rights. Fernwood, 2014; and John Borrows, Larry N Chartrand, Oonagh E Fitzgerald and Risa Schwartz, Braiding Legal Orders: Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Waterloo, ON, Canada: Centre for International Governance Innovation 2019.

[5] Emma LaRocque, “Native Writers Resisting Colonizing Practices in Canadian Historiography and Literature.” (PhD Diss., University of Manitoba, 1999) 80.

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