David Newhouse is director of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent University.
The new Ontario Minister of Education has cancelled sessions dedicated to the updating the Ontario public school curriculum on Indigenous peoples. While the ministry has said that it will continue the project in the most cost-efficient way, we don’t yet know what this means. The cancellation has raised considerable concern among Indigenous leaders and educators in the province. It signals a step in the wrong direction and makes Ontario out of step with other provinces in Canada.
For Indigenous people, the education system has to achieve two goals: support the development of positive Indigenous cultures and identities so that Indigenous peoples can live well as Indigenous peoples; and help develop the knowledge and skills necessary to participate effectively in the 21st century economy and labour force. The system should also ensure that non-Indigenous people acquire the knowledge and skills that enable them to live and work alongside Indigenous people. Achieving this requires the development of a revised curriculum.
The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada reiterated the important and urgent need for curriculum reform as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. In May, 2016, the Ontario government apologized to Indigenous peoples for their mistreatment over the last century. The former premier, Kathleen Wynne, in the government’s action plan, pledged Ontario would ensure the school system would teach a new generation of students the truth about our shared history as well as the cultures, histories and contributions of Indigenous people. The apology and plan were supported by the leaders of all Ontario parties. Overcoming a legacy of mistrust requires a willingness to work together on joint projects.
Across Canada, governments and Indigenous peoples are working together and making significant efforts to overcome the legacy of the past.
However, the Progressive Conservative election platform was silent on Indigenous issues. The new Premier has not uttered the word “Indigenous” since his election.
The Premier needs to be reminded of the last half century of advances in Indigenous rights, including the constitutional status accorded to Indigenous peoples. He also needs to be reminded of the Political Accord signed in 2015 between the government of Ontario and Indigenous leaders. This accord recognized First Nations as “self-governing Indigenous Nations and Peoples with their own governments, cultures, languages, traditions, customs and territories.” And it committed both sets of governments to work together to improve the quality of life for Indigenous youth and children.
The silence of the Premier on Indigenous issues is troubling. So is the silence of the government’s election platform which they are moving now to implement. One of their election planks is based on a premise that the education system has been captured by special interests and experts that has left Ontario students unprepared for the 21st century world of work. There is nary a word on improving the quality of education for Indigenous students or a recognition of the constitutional status of Indigenous peoples; nor is there a statement about the need for special efforts to overcome the effects of the last century of assimilation efforts.
The silence on reconciliation is also troubling. Indeed, reconciliation has been removed from the title of the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and the Minister of Indigenous Affairs has been merged with the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. It hearkens back to a view of Indigenous peoples as policy objects to be acted upon rather than as people deserving of respect and dignity.
In the 21st century, Canada is on a path to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. This means doing things differently. The Ontario education system in the past has not served Indigenous peoples well; nor has it helped non-Indigenous peoples to learn how to live and work with Indigenous peoples. Improving it requires the type of joint effort that the government has cancelled in the name of cost-effectiveness. What the new government fails to recognize is that a century-and-a-half of doing things for Indigenous peoples has always required that they be done twice: once by the government doing it by themselves and once by the government doing it with Indigenous peoples. That is not a cost-effective approach.