Among the 20 recommendations released last week by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating the residential schools scandal, those directed to teaching the history of the period garnered the most attention.
Implicit in the TRC’s interim report is that the history of residential schools is not being taught. As such, the recommendations join a long list of occasions during which Canadians have been reminded of how their educational system is letting them down when it comes to teaching them about their country’s past.
But this reminder has another, constructive dimension: It highlights the practical and vital value of a history education as well as the instrumental role it can play in closing a rift between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.
While it’s true that history can be abused and be divisive, the study of the past can also have a positive impact. It can be used to heal and to develop understanding and empathy, and it can encourage critical discourse among people. More obviously, studying history is one of the most important components of active citizenship. Learning about your country is essential.
As Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan wrote in her book The Uses and Abuses of History, “history responds to a variety of needs, from greater understanding of ourselves and our world to answers about what to do.”
All of this is of great relevance to the residential schools question. As a country, we have a golden opportunity to be a part of a solution to a historical wrong, but it will take dedication from government leaders and, perhaps more important, the country’s history teachers.
And the pressure is clearly on Canada’s schools to deliver.
“They want the full history of residential schools and aboriginal peoples taught to all students in Canada at all levels of study and to all teachers, and given prominence in Canadian history texts,” the TRC report noted.
Calling the issue “clear, urgent, important and persistent,” the TRC recommendations have put the teaching of history and its value at the forefront. Are the stakeholders involved up to the task?
While all provinces require students to learn about some aboriginal history at some point, just how much this happens is an open question, particularly at the high-school level.
In education, curriculum is partly aspirational – and what actually gets taught often comes down to choices made by teachers, and this is especially so in history where there are so many topics to cover. Inevitably, some things get left behind.
The challenge is to ensure that the history of residential schools is being taught in meaningful ways that engage students and educate them about the past. The TRC report calls on provinces to investigate how much this is happening, but this will have to go beyond simply looking at curriculum.
Beyond education, there are NGOs trying to help. For two weeks in February, former prime minister Paul Martin’s Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative teamed up with the Free the Children to promote awareness and teaching of aboriginal history. This is great support.
Now is the time for educators to step up and see what they can do to be a part of a historic healing process, using the graces of history to do it. I urge all teachers and those who care about Canada and its past to read the TRC’s moving interim report, and then to make needed changes. In fact, high-school students should be reading excerpts from it, too.
As Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair, the TRC’s chair, wrote: “There is an opportunity now for Canadians to engage in this work, to make their own contributions to reconciliation, and to create new truths about our country.”
J.D.M. Stewart teaches history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.