‘When we think of Indigenous peoples, we think of the past’: Students and educators confront the lack of Indigenous education in school systems

Many students come to Queen’s with little knowledge of Indigenous history or communities, fail to explore Indigenous education during degree

Image by: Ashley Chen
“Scholarship needs to be situated in its time and place. And in this time and place

“When we think of Indigenous peoples, we think of the past,” said Anne Godlewska, professor in Geography and Planning. “But there’s been a sustained process of assimilation which has not stopped.”

In 2018, Godlewska spearheaded a research project studying how much Queen’s students know about Indigenous realities in Canada. 

She said her interest in Indigenous studies was heightened in 2007, when she realized her current undergraduate students had no more Indigenous education than what she was taught in high school more than 25 years ago. 

Despite efforts to integrate Indigenous education into the Canadian school system, leaked Alberta proposals from this October recommended eliminating all references to residential schools and “equity” for elementary aged students.

The United Conservative Party  of Alberta has been criticized for these regressive suggestions, but the proposal highlights where Indigenous education stands on the government’s list of priorities—proving Canada has a long way to go in teaching children about Indigenous history.

“The fundamental reason Canadians haven’t learned very much is because it’s a very, very uncomfortable present and past […] Canada exists as a result of the dispossession of Indigenous people. Canada develops resources through the further dispossession of Indigenous people,” Godlewska said. 

Key findings from Godlewska’s study proved that many Queen’s graduates are deeply uninformed about Indigenous presence; a desire to recognize Canada as a positive and multicultural society makes it difficult for some to understand colonialism as a continuity, and there is a clear trend of situating Indigenous peoples and cultures in the distant past. 

Colonialism in the grade school system

Louise Nandoh, ArtSci ’23, and Emily Lind, MSc ’22, both reflected on the lack of Indigenous education during their upbringings.

Nandoh said the only exposure she had to Indigenous education was in a Grade 12 elective from a passionate teacher who was interested in the subject.

“I don’t understand how we can go to school and learn about Canadian history without talking about Indigenous history,” Nandoh said. “Many of us are appropriating their culture without even realizing it.”

Lind echoed this statement, recalling that while she attended a liberal private school in Ontario, her exposure to Indigenous culture was practically non-existent. 

There are parallels between the American and Canadian school systems, challenging the Canadian myth of diversity and multiculturalism—which often hides our similarly racist and colonial history. 

Taylor Day, JD ’22, was immersed in her Mohawk language and culture until she started attending an American public school in Grade 6. 

“Going to school on reserve all those years is what taught me about my culture,” Day said. “I was in the Mohawk singing group and our Christmas shows were cultural stories instead of Santa Claus. But when I went off reserve for middle and high school, there was absolutely nothing.”

Day, Nandoh, and Lind all described a willingness from their educators to delve into other genocides, acts of terror, and racism, but a refusal to acknowledge the continued ways their own nation benefits from the further colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples. 

“We would learn about 9/11 every year and not an ongoing tragedy that continues to happen,” Day said. 

A similar experience happened at Lind’s private school in Ontario. 

“We did an entire Black History Month and my school literally tried to collect six million pebbles to commemorate the Holocaust, but we had virtually nothing on Indigenous studies.”

“To make things worse, I lived 45 minutes away from a Mohawk territory and I didn’t know anything about it.” 

History is consistently retold from the point of settler contact, and the idea of Indigenous communities as a present, vital part of our current Canadian society is completely foreign. 

This idea of Indigenous peoples being a distant part of history reinforces white-settler narratives that continue to sideline Indigenous voices. 

“Canadian students have the most difficulty with the whole concept of Indigenous sovereignty,” Godlewska said. “If you don’t understand that, if you’re not willing to consider that the Government of Canada is not the final arbitrator of Indigenous rights, you cannot understand the complex issues.” 

Godlewska also noted one of the major issues in the current education system is the lack of knowledge about the Indian Act, which is part of a long system of assimilation policies in Canadian history. 

Mi’kmaw scholar and professor Bonita Lawrence described the Indian Act as systems of control that “enable settler governments to define who is ‘Indian,’ and control access to Native land […] functioning discursively to naturalize the colonial world.”

In addition to this, Godlewska said that even when colonial “historical” narratives are taught in classrooms, there is no education of current Indigenous activism. 

“There’s little awareness of the legal and political actions that Indigenous peoples have been taking for hundreds of years,” Godlewska said. “The emphasis is never on Indigenous communities.” 

“My class gave me the bare minimum on Haudenosaunee people, and then described what happened when the Europeans arrived,” Day said. “It was all based on post-contact.” 

Day also described the experience of being asked to sing an upbeat song called ‘Elbow Room,’ which explained, from a Eurocentric perspective, why Americans continued to take over more land. 

Doing so, the nuanced, diverse cultures whose ancestral territories and governance predate colonial nations were sidelined, along with intergenerational trauma, current Indigenous activism, and any history prior to colonial contact. 

“I remember putting up a fight and thinking, ‘these kids do not get it,’” she said. “It’s a genocide.” 

“It wasn’t until my undergrad that I learned about the Sixties Scoop and missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Day said. 

Indigenous education at Queen’s

In terms of Indigenous education at Queen’s, Godlweska said there are “major problems,” but the University is doing “better and better.”

She described the need for Indigenous content to be woven throughout general courses, while also having specific courses taught by Indigenous professors. For example, she recommended having an Indigenous professor teaching Indigenous literature in the English department.  

She also said limited information in general classes is not enough to equip students with knowledge on complex issues like reconciliation, pipeline blockades, and ongoing colonialism. 

“When students go into classes, if that’s the only contact student have with the topic, it’s simply not enough,” said Godlewska. “In many ways, I feel uncomfortable teaching and speaking about this. We need more Indigenous faculty.” 

Karen Humphreys-Blake, a professor in the Smith School of Business, echoed Godlewska’s concerns about the lack of Indigenous content in courses at Queen’s. 

“Unfortunately, many students come to university without much education regarding Indigenous history,” Humphreys-Blake wrote in a statement to The Journal. 

“My colleagues and I conducted a survey of students in our Business Ethics and CSR course last year and many commented that they felt their education had been lacking. We provided about 480 business students with an opportunity to participate in the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, an experiential approach to learning about Indigenous and settler history.” 

Humphreys-Blake noted that the response from students was overwhelmingly positive—many said it was “the most comprehensive and impactful education they had received in their schooling to date.”

Motivated by a passion for social justice and a desire to learn about Indigenous histories in Canada,  Lind said she experienced an enriching education in Indigenous topics because of her drive to take courses and certificates outside of her field of study. 

Nandoh said the emphasis is on the student to seek out courses directly related to Indigenous content. 

“I don’t think it’s accessible enough,” Nandoh said.  

There are currently certificates at Queen’s tailored toward fostering an understanding of Indigenous history and activism, however, the impetus is on students to research, seek out, and commit to these opportunities outside of their course requirements. 

“It’s entirely possible to do an entire degree and come out with very little breadth in education,” Godlewska said. “In Canada, there isn’t a commitment to liberal arts.” 

Godlewska’s 2018 report described the vast majority of courses with Indigenous content at Queen’s being concentrated in social science and humanities programs, with far fewer being available to students in the sciences. 

“The vast majority of students consider that the principal barrier to their knowledge is inadequate coverage in school, college, and university, reinforcing the need for better education,” reads the report. “Troublingly, a fifth of students consider that the topics are not relevant to them.” 

With one fifth of graduating Queen’s students disregarding “the topics” altogether, there is a discrepancy between the reality of dynamic Indigenous communities and students’ willingness to even acknowledge their existence. 

However, Godlewska said criticism cannot fall on individual students who are the product of education systems that teach through a white lens. 

These are learned behaviours taught from elementary school to university. Colonial education systems are creating another generation who have rarely been exposed to Indigenous voices or content, perpetuating a cycle of blindness, incomprehension, and ignorance. 

Shifting the needle on education

Evidently, students have been receiving a limited education that disregards and sidelines Indigenous content. 

Learning an introduction of Indigenous culture in elementary schools and incorporating realities of colonialism as students grow up may be the only way to raise an informed generation, thus catalyzing true inclusivity, Nandoh said.

“The Minister of Education should incorporate Indigenous culture and history in almost every history class,” Nandoh said. “It should start in middle school and build as we grow older.” 

When considering Indigenous students, the need for accurate, decolonialized education is even more compelling.  

“When I got to middle school, I wanted to continue to take Mohawk—but I could only take Spanish or French,” Day said. “Because I took another language, I lost a lot of my Mohawk.” 

For Indigenous education to be engrained in school curriculums, Godlewska said there needs to be Indigenous involvement in decision-making processes. 

“Education is a very conservative institution,” Godlewska said. “If you want to change a curriculum, the administrators and committee members are not Indigenous—and any Indigenous input comes from invited guests with limited influence. This needs to shift.” 

As suggested by Godlewska, curriculums need to situate Indigenous voices at the forefront of their content and balance historical trauma with Indigenous agency, brilliance, and activism. 

Day, Nandoh, and Lind all advocated for more exposure to Indigenous content in education in grade school curriculums and introductory university courses. Additionally, as described by Godlewska, institutions should be offering courses taught by Indigenous professors who have not only academic credentials, but meaningful lived experiences. 

In a final note, Godlewska spoke to a larger truth about scholarship, education, and the narratives we teach. “Scholarship needs to be situated in its time and place. And in this time and place, Indigenous topics are vitally important.” 

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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