“We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” — John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008), American theoretical physicist.
Should every university program require mandatory indigenous-content courses? That’s a question I pondered in 2016 after reading Tamra Ross’s article, “Truth and Reconciliation—Will Your Next University Program Have a First Nations’ Content Requirement?” (The Voice Magazine, February 19, 2016). In that article, Tamra discussed a motion put forward by the student union at the University of Saskatchewan (USSU), calling on that university to incorporate indigenous content into every program.
The USSU request was inspired by the 2015 “Call to Action” report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC’s purpose is to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” In the section on “Education for Reconciliation” the report calls upon educators to “integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms” as well as build “student capacity for intercultural understand, empathy, and mutual respect.”
By the end of 2016, two Canadian post-secondary institutions, Lakehead University in Ontario and the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, had taken the initiative and implemented a requirement for new students to include indigenous course content in their programs. In 2017, a third institution, Trent University in Ontario, also instituted mandatory indigenous content.
Other universities are contemplating similar changes. University of Saskatchewan, for example, announced in 2016 it was planning to institute mandatory indigenous content in its programs but has not moved to implementation yet. Other institutions are likewise in the planning stages or have partially implemented mandatory indigenous content for some programs only.
AU has not yet announced a plan for mandatory indigenous content. However, one doesn’t have to wait for something to be mandatory to recognize the value of it. Truth and Reconciliation is something we can all participate in. Every step we take toward understanding gets us closer to overcoming the challenges of a complex issue. The more we know, the more we grow.
In 2017, I decided to make my first individual step toward Truth and Reconciliation by enrolling in an Indigenous Studies (INST) course at AU. Up until that time, I had not even considered any of the INST course offerings.
AU offers twenty-three INST courses at the undergrad level. Indigenous Studies I (INST 203) seemed like the obvious place to start, but I had fulfilled all my junior-level course requirements. There were many senior-level courses to chose from and, after narrowing it down to three, I decided on History of Canada’s First Nations to 1830 (INST 368).
I have an avid interest in Canadian History. I consider myself reasonably well-read on the subject and fairly knowledgeable, but I recognized that there were gaps in my knowledge and would have described my awareness of First Nations’ history as only “fair”.
That turns out to be an overstatement.
Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” That sums up my feelings as I worked through the course. I’d had no idea how much I didn’t know. Now I know that what I do know is still only a small fraction of what I ought to know.
History of Canada’s First Nations to 1830 covers a lot of ground. The first third of the course focuses on First Nations before European contact. There were no borders then and the course acknowledges that by covering First Nations in all of what we now call North and South America. The second third of the course covers the initial period of contact and how various First Nations dealt with Europeans arriving on their doorsteps. The final third of the course covers the increasing pressure European settlers and policies put on First Nations.
Does my taking this one course change anything? Does this represent even a fraction of a step in the Truth and Reconciliation journey? What I can say for certain is that it is not a step backward.
Taking this course increased my knowledge of First Nations’ history exponentially (although nowhere near exhaustively.) More importantly, it increased my awareness of how we got to where we are today, with a complex mess that was centuries in the making. That doesn’t solve anything by itself. But you have to start with the truth to get to the reconciliation. All journeys begin with one step forward.
I’m not indigenous, and I don’t claim to speak for anyone indigenous or otherwise. I speak with my own voice.
I believe we’re all part of the bigger picture. And every action (or non-action) contributes to the result.
I believe charting a course for our future is predicated on knowing our past.
I believe if enough people care enough to seek truth, we’ll eventually accomplish reconciliation.
Residential schools were not just an isolated incident. It’s not just a matter of saying, “Oops, sorry!” without a fundamental change in thinking. The legacy of the residential school program may have been the catalyst for the TRC but residential schools were just one example of disastrous policies in a long line of such tragedies.
The TRC’s Call to Action is also a call for a change in attitude. And that’s not up to the government or a committee or God Almighty. It’s up to every one of us. If everyone is taking small steps on the path to reconciliation then society as a whole will be propelled forward toward the country we claim we want to have.
So to the question about mandatory indigenous content in university programs. There are proponents and opponents in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities for such a plan. But it’s so easy to get bogged down in the debate instead of taking action.
My answer is that I don’t think we need a university or a prime minister to tell us that “We have to do better.” The truth is, we can all choose to do better without being told.