Treaty Education and Settler Relearning in Post Secondary Canadian History Classrooms

By Wren Shaman

Canadian history courses have the potential to create spaces to engage with processes of decolonization, but to date they still seem to reinforce the status quo.

The self-image of Canadians is closely tied to a brand of nationalism that reflects white prejudice, and the Eurocentric knowledge and traditions through its conception of Canada’s past. Too often this vision is ingrained in Canadian history classrooms and reinforced in many university-level Canadian history courses.[1] Ignorance and willful denial of Indigenous peoples’ lived realities and Settler relations to Indigenous peoples past and present, persists within Settler-Canadian society. How Canadian history is taught in post-secondary institutions needs to change if Settlers are to be active participants in the process of decolonization.[2] Without addressing this, decolonization remains impossible.

Watching Settlers’ responses to events on Wet’suwet’en lands, and their responses to solidarity actions across Canada, has brought the Canadian history I have been taught into question.[3] It also caused me to question my beliefs surrounding the decolonial possibility of Canadian history.

Over the past year, I have begun to address these concerns through my senior honours research at the University of Victoria. I conceived of this project because of my anxieties surrounding what it means to be a Settler working in the field of Indigenous-Settler relations and because of the unevenness with which Indigenous-Settler relations were addressed during my secondary and post-secondary studies. To gauge how Canadian history is taught in British Columbian universities I conducted interviews with professors and examined their syllabi.[4] Eleven non-Indigenous scholars and three Indigenous scholars were interviewed. Initially I was worried about the disparity between the numbers of non-Indigenous and Indigenous respondents, but I addressed this inequality by relying more heavily on text-based research and Indigenous-authored secondary sources to allow for a greater breadth of Indigenous perspectives.

Interviewees were asked a series of questions about how they engage with, and teach, Canadian history. From the interviews I learned that while Canadian historians most frequently view the area of Canadian history as having been significantly changed by the increased inclusion of Indigenous histories and perspectives on narratives in Canadian history, a minority group was not convinced substantive change had occurred. To this group, the supposed change, as evidenced by the increased presence of these histories in faculty members’ consciousnesses and courses, remains superficial. Reportedly, the “add and mix” approach with which Indigenous histories have been incorporated into Canadian history is an inadequate method to facilitate transformative change. According to two respondents, the add and mix approach fails to encourage historians and students to push beyond merely acknowledging settler colonialism, to move to what it means to be engaging with Indigenous histories and teachings.[5]

My experience in studying Canadian history at the undergraduate level also left me with the impression that the changes are superficial, as many courses and narratives fail to consider and locate themselves within the ongoing process of settler colonialism. Scholars’ desire for a new framework from which to teach Canadian history was evident through the interviews as respondents reflected on the challenges they face, the frustrations they confronted, and how they feel about the way their courses are currently presented.

Reflecting upon the interviews and my research, it became clear that treaty education might serve as a pathway through which transformative changes might occur.[6]

Treaty education provides a space where Cree Elder Willie Ermine’s “ethical space of engagement” can be created. For Ermine, this “ethical space” emerges by recognizing that Indigenous and Settler thought-worlds are entirely separate, but the space between them remains available for interaction.[7] The possibility of entering the ethical space of engagement is opened when non-Indigenous peoples treat the gap like a mirror, investigating their own nature in relationship to the chasm between themselves and the thought-worlds they seek to control.[8]

Settler students need opportunities to access this mirror. By reconstructing how the Numbered Treaties are taught in post-secondary courses, the changes to Canadian history could be more than superficial, exposing how they are located within the structure of settler colonialism, and encourage more meaningful interrogation of Canadian history than merely including more diverse histories.

Treaty education demonstrates the differences between colonial and Indigenous thought worlds. The perceived importance and understandings of treaties, for example, varies immensely between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Non-Indigenous peoples frequently see treaties as of little or no importance to their daily lives, frequently understanding treaties solely as land cession agreements. Contrastingly, many Indigenous nations understand treaties as legally-binding agreements established to enable co-existence between Indigenous and Settler peoples. The intent of the treaties, in the eyes of Indigenous signatories, was “to establish a nation-to-nation relationship,” not to grant Settlers indisputable sovereignty in perpetuity.[10] Canadian history courses must endeavour to include and meaningfully incorporate more Indigenous content and alternative histories that contrast the popularized Settler-defined narrative.

People’s understandings of the treaties are rooted in their worldviews, conceptions of property, and understandings of relationship. Teaching about these unique understandings, particularly those that do not conform with dominant narratives, is important and provides students with insight into worldviews other than their own.[12] From a colonial perspective, through a series of choices and prioritizations, treaties have been used to justify the settler colonial project; understanding the decisions that have been made surrounding the validity of knowledge provides a space where Canadian history courses could be less domineering.[13] Disrupting dominant understandings and interpretations of treaties provides opportunities for students to hear Indigenous perspectives which might cause them to critically reflect on the intentions of their Settler forebearers and their current position in the Canadian public consciousness.

There are four changes that need to take place to shift how treaties are taught in many Canadian history classrooms:

First, coverage of treaties as content knowledge and as an alternative history needs to be increased.

Second, how treaties are taught must include the diverse range of their understandings and interpretations.

Third, treaty education must highlight the relationships that were established through negotiation and diplomacy and how they have continued into the present. This could be done by taking a relational approach to teaching these histories.

Lastly, teaching treaties needs to demonstrate how they continue to shape Settler life today.

Ideally, making these changes would encourage Settler students to take an active role in decolonization and the fight against ongoing colonialism. The necessity of these changes became clear to me through my research as I engaged with scholarship surrounding how the Numbered Treaties are addressed in the grade school system and teacher education programs, the ethical space of engagement, and the role of academia in shaping the public consciousness.

Restorying Canadian history is a task that must be undertaken if Canada is going to outgrow its colonial legacies. Using treaties to bring students into Ermine’s ethical space of engagement requires students to think critically about their relationships with Indigenous peoples and the ongoing influence of treaties on daily life. Such an approach promises to deepen their understanding of the historical relationship between Canada, the Crown, Indigenous nations, and Settlers. Changing how treaties are taught, so their importance is no longer minimized, could do this. The treaties were, and are, the conditions upon which Settlers were authorized to settle in what has become Canada, and the obligations that we made in return.[16] Treaties underpin every aspect of settlement in Canada, and the relationships they established are foundational to the existence of Canada.

Canadian history is expansive and exciting, but it is a story founded on stolen lands and stolen lives. Post-secondary Canadian history courses need to provide students with that knowledge. Living in an era where discourses of reconciliation, decolonization, and indigenization are so prevalent, we need to better equip students to understand these words and what they mean. Canadian history needs to provide students with the understanding and knowledge necessary to use their voice to fight for a future that we all deserve.

Wren Shaman is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Victoria. She is a History Honours and Indigenous Studies student, focusing on Canadian history and how it is taught. This piece was derived from her Honours thesis, “‘An (Un)Usual Narrative’: Treaty Education and Relearning in Post-Secondary Canadian History Classrooms,” which was completed in the Spring of 2020.

Primary Sources

I conducted eleven interviews with non-Indigenous scholars and three Indigenous scholars who teach in Canadian history or related fields.  Each interview lasted thirty to seventy minutes and involved a standard set of questions (appended). Interviews were conducted in Victoria B.C., Castlegar B.C., and electronically (phone and Skype). Interviews were conducted between November 2019 and January 2020. Interviews were conducted with scholars from: Vancouver Island University, University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and Selkirk College.

Secondary Sources

Alfred, Taiaiake. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Asch, Michael. “Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation: Stepping Back into the Future.” In Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teaching,. edited by Michael Asch, John Borrows, and James Tully, 29-48. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2018.

Battell Lowman, Emma and Adam J. Barker. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century  Canada. Blackpoint, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2015.

Claxton, Nicholas XEM?OLTW? and John Price. “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in  British Columbia.” BC Studies 204, no. 1 (2020): 115-138.

Ermine, Willie. “The Ethical Space of Engagement.” Indigenous Law Journal 6, no. 1 (2007): 193-202.

Hiller, Chris. “Tracing the Spirals of Unsettlement: Euro-Canadian Narratives of Coming to Grips with Indigenous Sovereignty, Title, and Rights.” Settler Colonial Studies 7, no. 4 (2017): 415-440.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. Regina SK: University of Regina Press, 2019.

Macklem, Peter. Indigenous Difference and the Constitution of Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2001.

McNeil, Kent. “Indigenous and Crown Sovereignty in Canada.” In Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings, edited by Michael Asch, John Borrows, and James Tully, 293 – 314. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2018.

Tupper, Jennifer and Michael Cappello. “Teaching Treaties as (Un)Usual Narratives: Disrupting the Curricular Commonsense.” Curriculum Inquiry 38, no. 5 (2008): 559-578.

Interview Questions

  • What is your name and university affiliation?
  • What is your field of study?
  • How long have you been in the field?
  • How long have you been teaching, in your current field or others?
  • How would you describe your teaching philosophy/pedagogy?
  • What changes have you noticed in the teaching of Canadian history in the last decade or so?
  • Have you noticed any changes in the teaching of Indigenous-settler relations?
  • What challenges do you feel you face as a non-Indigenous scholar who is responsible for teaching sensitive histories of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous-settler relations?
  • How do you feel about teaching some of these more sensitive histories, some of which have intense living legacies?
  • Do you have any observations surrounding how non-Indigenous professors are teaching Indigenous histories and Indigenous-settler relations, in the context of Canadian history courses?
  • Are there any aspects that stand out to you as being done really well, or specific that areas that you think could use the most improvement?
  • What steps, if any, have you taken to become more comfortable teaching these histories? Or to deepen your knowledge in relation to the field?
  • Do you notice any changes in your teaching philosophy/pedagogy when interacting with Indigenous histories, or histories of Indigenous-settler relations? Do you feel like your approach to history and teaching history changes when teaching Indigenous histories or Indigenous settler-relations?
  • Do you think you, and other professors in similar positions receive enough support from the department and academy?
  • Where do you think there is room for improvement?
  • Do you have any advice for non-Indigenous historians who want to keep doing this work and further engage in these conversations?
  • How receptive do you think students are to the changes you’ve noticed, and changes in course content? How receptive do you feel they are to your delivery?

[1] Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Black Point NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2015),16.

[2] Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 121; Arthur Manuel and Ronald M. Derrickson, Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call (Toronto, ON: Between the Lines, 2015), 226.

[3] Recent events on Wet’suwet’en lands refers to the RCMP invasion of Unist’ot’en territory in February 2020. In response to the Unist’ot’en call to action an occupation of the steps of the British Columbian legislature began. Led by Youth for Yintah, a collective of Indigenous youth leaders organizing in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the two occupations collectively lasted twenty-one days. As a white, cisgender, Settler ally my involvement was primarily reflected in me acting as a witness to the colonial violence the youth were faced with and holding colonial powers accountable by using my connections to mobilize other Settlers, sharing my knowledge, and standing against colonial interference.

[4] I consulted scholars who both had and had not received formal training in the field of Indigenous-Settler relations. This difference was primarily reflected in scholars’ comfort levels surrounding engagement with Indigenous topics. Additionally, I consulted with professors who teach lower and upper level courses in hopes of gaining insight into potential disparities between survey and specific topic based courses.

[5] Interviewee C (professor), interview by author, research, Fall 2019; Interviewee K (professor), interview by author, research, Fall 2019; Interviewee L (professor), interview by author, research, Fall 2019.

[6] Particularly, I was influenced by Jennifer A. Tupper and Michael Cappello’s “Teaching Treaties as (Un)Usual Narratives: Disrupting the Curricular Commonsense.”

[7] Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement,” Indigenous Law Journal 6, no. 1 (2007): 194.

[8] Chris Hiller, “Tracing the Spirals of Unsettlement: Euro-Canadian Narratives of Coming to Grips with Indigenous Sovereignty, Title, and Rights,” Settler Colonial Studies 7, no. 4 (2017): 421.

[9] Michael Asch, “Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation: Stepping Back into the Future” n Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings, edited by Michael Asch, John Borrows, and James Tully (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 31

[10] Asch, “Confederation Treaties,” 35-37.

[12] Complicating students’ understandings also needs to be done by exposing them to alternative systems of land stewardship/ownership and discourses surrounding sovereignty. The validity of current settler understandings of treaties needs to be questioned, which can be done by exposing students to diverse understandings of property that are contrary to their own. For example, views that negate the understanding of land cession treaties because the land was never Indigenous peoples’ to give away, or is an invaluable gift or ancestor, which could never have been sold. These explorations need to be highly location-specific to avoid over-generalizations. Questioning the validity of colonial assertions of sovereignty is another important aspect of treaty education. Currently, treaty education operates under the assumption of Canadian and Crown sovereignty, but that assumption is not definite. For further reading consider Krasowski, “Treaty Seven: The Blackfoot Crossing Treaty: ‘The Great Spirit and Not the Great Mother Gave Us This Land,” in No Surrender, Claxton and Price’s “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia,” Kent McNeil’s “Indigenous and Crown Sovereignty in Canada” in Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relations and Earth Teachings, and “Territory” and “Sovereignty” by Patrick Macklem in Indigenous and the Constitution of Canada.

[13] Asch, “Confederation Treaties,” 35-37.

[16] Ibid, 34.

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One thought on “Treaty Education and Settler Relearning in Post Secondary Canadian History Classrooms

  1. Georgina Underwood

    Hello…love this article..I trained as a facilitator with the Canadian Red Cross and the program they offer is excellent, I thought that it’s relevancy is very pertinent to today’s reconciliation processes…I also think it has great relevancy for settlers seeking to be allies or who are interested in working in indigenous communities, I would love to facilitate groups to initiate processes of reconciliation and truth -making in re-righting and re-writing Canadian history at colleges, universities and in communities especially for non-indigenous workers, like r.c.m.p and social workers etc.

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