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Across Canada, educators are changing the way they teach history to better include Indigenous perspectives

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Changing history

Educators and experts say efforts to revamp provincial history lessons are going beyond just updating content and mark a deeper, more significant shift – one that involves taking a hard look at the stories Canadians tell themselves about their country and those who were on the land before them, Wendy Stueck and Caroline Alphonso report

Naim Cardinal, recently a history and social studies teacher in Edmonton, still remembers the stigma he felt as an Indigenous student. Now, how history is being taught in classrooms across the country is changing.

Naim Cardinal was in Grade 5 when his teacher referred to Louis Riel as a "madman" – a term that stuck in the young boy's head as one of the times he heard Indigenous people described in a negative light.

Mr. Cardinal, recently a history and social studies teacher in Edmonton, still remembers the stigma he felt as an Indigenous student. "Comments and experiences like that had a very strong impact on my identity as a First Nations person," Mr. Cardinal, a member of the Tallcree First Nation in northern Alberta, said.

Now, the narrative is changing as part of a shift in how history is being taught in classrooms across the country.

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Education is under provincial jurisdiction, with curricula overhauled every decade or so in line with the latest educational research and evolving attitudes. But educators and experts say efforts to revamp provincial history lessons go beyond just updating content and mark a deeper, more significant shift – one that involves taking a hard look at the stories Canadians tell themselves about their country and those who were on the land before them.

In Mr. Cardinal's home province of Alberta, the government is making significant changes to a number of subjects, including social studies. It plans to spend $4-million to consult with Indigenous groups to ensure the curriculum accurately reflects their history and teachings.

Mr. Cardinal said there was little to no curriculum about First Nations, Metis and Inuit when he was growing up. The changes, he said, are welcome.

"I only knew about residential schools from my parents. But they talked very little about it. … I just knew growing up that it was a bad place for kids. No one really talked about any of that stuff," he said. "My daughter is not going to have to rely only on her parents to learn about history of Indigenous people. Now, it is going to be in schools."

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Similar to other subjects, how much Indigenous history is taught varies from one province to the next. In Quebec, revisions to the subject have been controversial. Some teachers and parents said recent changes fell short of covering the struggles of Indigenous people and cultural minorities, including anglophones. A spokesman for Quebec's Minister of Education said the content has since been adjusted, but critics have charged that it's not enough and launched a petition for a more inclusive curriculum. Ontario, meanwhile, is more thorough in its curriculum in teaching its students about Indigenous history and Canada's former residential school system.

But how that translates in the classroom varies. A study published in July in the International Indigenous Policy Journal found that teachers feel less confident about teaching the material. Emily Milne, an assistant professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, interviewed 100 educators and parents in Southern Ontario who said that embedding Indigenous cultural content in public schooling is needed. Her study also stated that there was "intimidation among non-Indigenous educators regarding how to teach material."

Still, Charlene Bearhead, the former education lead with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, said she has seen a shift taking place as classroom teachers focus their resources and time on Indigenous history. Ms. Bearhead has worked with every province and territory over the last six years, and is involved with the Alberta Joint Commitment to Action, a 2016 agreement between government, teachers, school boards and other groups to ensure students in that province learn about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

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Ms. Bearhead said she is hopeful that Indigenous knowledge and perspectives will not be limited to just the history classroom and can be woven into other subjects, including science or health studies. And while different jurisdictions are taking different approaches – and have different timelines – to overhauling their curricula, Ms. Bearhead sees common threads in efforts to reassess and retell stories of how Canada came to be.

"We are actually the closest we have ever seen – and maybe the closest we will ever see – to a consistency of something being taught across the country," she said.

In Ontario, students in Grade 10 are required to take a Canadian history course. But even in their final years of elementary school and in other civic courses in high school, students learn various aspects of Canadian history. Other provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, include Canadian history in social studies courses.

Quiz: How well do you know Canada's history?

Historica Canada, a non-profit foundation, has been pushing provinces and territories to move toward a dedicated history course. The organization has released two report cards on the state of history teaching in all provinces and territories, the first in 2009 and the second last year. Bronwyn Graves, education manager at Historica and a former history teacher, said she understands the challenges ministries of education face in balancing a variety of subjects in the school day and giving students enough knowledge to be successful.

"I'm sympathetic. I'm a parent as well. I know I want my kids to have a good grounding in history but [also] in all of their other subjects," Ms. Graves said.

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"It's difficult to fit everything in four years of high school. But I don't think history should be sacrificed or rolled into social studies in order to try and check all of those boxes."

Even with a dedicated history course in Ontario, educators wrestle with how much time to devote to various parts of the curriculum, said James Stewart, a history teacher in Toronto. Often, focus goes to special anniversaries, like the recent 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, or to a topic that is garnering media coverage and can be used in the classroom to better understand historical context.

Although Canada's former residential school system and the role of Indigenous people is throughout the Ontario curriculum, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 2015 report heightened awareness. Teachers have put increased emphasis on teaching Indigenous history in their classrooms, Mr. Stewart said.

This spring, in his own Grade 10 room at Bishop Strachan School, an all-girls private school, Mr. Stewart went beyond curriculum documents. He had his students read The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, as well as watch the National Film Board of Canada movie, We Were Children, a docu-drama about residential schools. Students discussed the issues raised by these works in class, and Mr. Stewart said they came away with powerful learning experiences.

Augie Merasty holds a picture of himself as a young man and new father. Merasty wrote a book about abuses he experienced in a residential school as a boy from 1935-1944.

"When you teach history, you're always trying to make it relevant," said Mr. Stewart, who has taught the subject for more than two decades. "In my historical circles and the newsletters I get, this [Indigenous history] is definitely a topic of conversation in classrooms for sure."

Mr. Cardinal, in Edmonton, said he has taken his students to visit elders, as well as to pow wows and other traditional ceremonies. Teaching colleagues have sought his advice on how to approach subject material.

"For me, being a First Nations person, we've always been on the outside looking in," he said. "To come into the classroom and share my lived experience with students, in giving my voice on things, I feel it enhances their knowledge. And what they're learning in the classroom is enhanced because of that."


Practicing history

As a high school history teacher in Kelowna, B.C., Lindsay Gibson once had students in a Grade 11 Social Studies class analyze a field manual from the First World War.

The students then found a disused corner of the school grounds and built a trench according to the manual's specifications, working in groups of three or four in three-hour shifts throughout the night.

More than a decade later, Dr. Gibson – now an assistant professor in the University of Alberta's department of elementary education – wishes he had saved students' reflections on the experience. (He says they enjoyed it.)

But the exercise reflects at least one of the concepts – the use of primary source evidence – that together comprise 'historical thinking'.

"We want to get students doing history," Dr. Gibson says.

"The discipline of history is exciting, there is controversy and debates about what really happened and what it means today…and to learn history, you need to do history. Same as science. Same as math."

In general, historical thinking refers to an approach that emphasizes evidence, critical thinking and analysis over facts and memorization.

In Canada, the flag-bearer for that approach was the Historical Thinking Project, which ran from 2006 until 2014, when its federal government funding ran out.

The project revolves around six concepts: historical significance, cause and consequence, historical perspectives, ethical dimensions and primary source evidence.

In practice, teaching grounded in those concepts can result in ambitious projects such as the one Dr. Gibson was involved in between 2007 and 2009. In that project, partly funded by Veterans Affairs Canada, Kelowna Grade 11 and 12 students used archives and other sources to write biographies of area soldiers who had died in the First and Second World Wars.

The students then went to France and Belgium to retrace the soldiers' journeys and to visit their graves.

"I wasn't prepared for how emotional it was going to be," Dr. Gibson says. "These students knew all about these soldiers, down to where their birthmarks were – it was unbelievably powerful."

While that project was prohibitively expensive, Dr. Gibson says similar projects could be undertaken closer to home.

Former members of the historical thinking project, including Dr. Gibson, hope future federal budgets may restore its funding.

For now, it maintains a website and runs an annual summer institute – this year's is in Ottawa at the Canadian Museum of History and Canadian War Museum - with backing from supporters including Canada's History Society.

Historical thinking concepts are especially important as provinces and territories revamp curricula to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Gibson said.

"It's great to include topics – but just focusing on topics isn't going to reshape how they think about their past," he says.

Editor’s Note In an earlier version of this story, Charlene Bearhead was identified as the education lead with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. Ms. Bearhead is no longer in that position. Her current role is Education Coordinator for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
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