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Toronto School Board makes Indigenous Voices course mandatory for students

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 2, 2023

Education advocates are hopeful that an initiative from Canada’s largest school board to establish a compulsory course focused on Indigenous writers for all secondary students will send a strong message across the country.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) voted 18 to 3 on February 1 to replace its mandatory Grade 11 English course with one titled “Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices”. While the course is already offered in 29 TDSB schools, it will gradually be implemented in a “culturally responsive and trauma-informed” way in all its 110 institutions.

“I think this will send a ripple effect across Canada,” said Indigenous student trustee Isaiah Shafqat, who is the driving force behind the initiative. “Now that every student who graduates from the TDSB will have an understanding of Indigenous history, reality and culture, I would expect to see a bigger commitment to truth and reconciliation from the younger generation.”

Shafqat, a two-spirit Mi’kmaq and Loon clan student at Kâpapâmahchakwêw Wandering Spirit School, began planning this motion about two years ago. After speaking with Elders, Indigenous students, community members and TDSB staff, they determined the time was right to push for change.

“Education is the starting point for a lot of critical and transformative change,” Shafqat told the Nation. “When we are uplifting Indigenous voices, we are sharing the truth and our lived experiences. There has been an overwhelming amount of support.”

While there has been backlash over eliminating literary classics by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Shafqat emphasized the school board is simply dedicating one of 30 high school courses to Indigenous themes. Developed by Ontario’s Education Ministry as an alternative English course, it explores a range of Indigenous literary, oral, media and cultural texts. 

The reading list includes Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. Talaga said the course signifies an “incredibly needed change”, adding that “it’s really important that Canadians, no matter how old they are, know the true history of this country.”

Teachers will be trained to decolonize their practices, centre Indigenous pedagogy and appropriately integrate the 4 Rs of education: relevance, reciprocity, respect and responsibility. Shafqat finds there is more reciprocity in teaching methods in these classes, where everyone is learning together. 

Although the course is dedicated to improving English language competencies, it’s also an opportunity to delve into historical and contemporary Indigenous issues. In Shafqat’s experience, teachers give students more space to absorb this difficult part of Canadian history. 

“There is a focus on the harsh histories but there’s also a focus on Indigenous joy and resurgence, talking about the success of our people across the country,” explained Shafqat. “Some issues that come up, for example, will be the Mi’kmaq fishing dispute on the east coast or Grassy Narrows – I know in my class last year we talked about the Kanesatake Resistance or Oka Crisis.”

After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report seven years ago, school boards across Canada began slowly addressing its call to action for “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and Indigenous peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions a mandatory education requirement for kindergarten to Grade 12 students.”

Next September, Ontario will launch a mandatory social studies curriculum being developed for Grades 1-3, which includes an introduction to the residential school system and the Indigenous relationship to the land. Indigenous issues are already part of the curriculum in Grades 4-8 and 10, including mandatory learning on residential schools in Grades 8 and 10. 

Indigenous content in other provinces can vary, depending on what material teachers choose. Before the Quebec government budgeted $19.4 million in November 2021 to support reconciliation in education, the First Nations Education Council (FNEC) struggled to keep up with teacher requests about Indigenous issues.

Most of the funding is allocated to updating content, aligning history and culture curricula with the truths of First Nations in the school’s region. Along with $4 million to update books and teaching software to reflect modern Indigenous realities, the FNEC helped overhaul outdated teacher training.

“We’re building the foundation for tomorrow so we’re focusing the curriculum modernization efforts on youth at the elementary and high school level,” FNEC director general Denis Gros-Louis told the Nation at the time. “We offered the minister our best advice to create a competency about understanding First Nations and Inuit communities.”

While Gros-Louis was optimistic at the time, by last fall’s provincial election campaign he lamented in a Montreal Gazette op-ed that “efforts to decolonize the Education Ministry’s pedagogical curriculum have all gone largely unanswered.” 

Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville unveiled his priorities January 26 to fast-track training, renovate schools and hire more teachers, the FNEC saàys he neglected to address systemic barriers for First Nations students. 

“Weak collaboration on the development of Indigenous educational content in the new Culture and Citizenship in Quebec course and the adoption of Bill 14 [which enforces stricter French language use in education] are clearly the results of a lack of consideration of First Nations in educational matters,” stated Gros-Louis in a press release January 31. 

While Quebec’s history curriculum has been criticized for ignoring Indigenous impacts, revelations in the last few years forced the government to admit its content regarding residential schools is deficient. 

After the TRC report, the Cree School Board launched a full curriculum review and added a new study unit on residential schools in 2020-21. The material could be a valuable resource for other school boards, particularly an extensive toolkit that focuses on non-Indigenous teachers.

“It’s something that needs to be put into the history programs across Canada,” CSB instructional services coordinator Sherry Weistche, who helped develop the new curriculum, told the CBC. “We have to help them to understand where we’re coming from – but they need to listen.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.