Canadian schools must teach First Nations history

This week’s newspaper is particularly interesting in its representation of Manitoulin Island; there is a coalescing of information this week, from a variety of sources that gives a snapshot of at least some important aspects of this place.

Chief among these are a variety of reports on an event last week organized by the Noojmowin Teg Health Centre and funded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was organized primarily as an opportunity for Indian residential school survivors to have the stories of their experiences and their thoughts on these experiences formally recorded as part of a national collection of similar accounts.

The event was also an opportunity for residential school survivors to learn about the application processes for other programs available to them, in particular financial awards for abuses suffered at residential schools that are in place until September of 2012 and were conditions of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

All of this information, in particular the opportunity for people to be able to tell their own stories for audio or videotaping for the permanent record, are extremely important in Canada’s evaluation and coming to grips with its official past, at the very least to ensure that future generations would not ever undertake to decimate a people’s culture.

This same week, The Expositor learned that it has been judged to have produced the best special section out of all of Ontario’s community press.

This recognition is very nice of course, but what is of most significance is the subject of this championship special section. It was a 24-page celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Wikwemikong Pow Wow (now the Wikwemikong Cultural Celebration).

This event is significant not just on Manitoulin but throughout Central Canada as it was, when it began over 50 years ago, the very first such modern public cultural celebration of First Nation traditions. In fact, after generations of government-inflicted cultural oppression (the Indian residential schools epitomize this) the organizers of that initial pow wow had to travel to Saskatchewan and consult with drummers and dancers there about what to do.

Saskatchewan drummers and dancers came to the first few pow wows, the skills were quickly relearned and now there is not a First Nation community anywhere in Central Canada for which a pow wow is not a significant community and cultural event and that does have its own drum group, often more than one.

Little Current Public School and Manitoulin Secondary School, Cambrian College in Sudbury and also Laurentian University in the local region all host pow wows now as the external community pays respect to First Nations culture.

And all of this has been spawned by that initial pow wow, in 1961, in Wikwemikong.

That event, of course, in itself was an important and vitally significant reaction to the Canadian government’s long-standing policy of de-culturalizing First Nations people, the very thing the residential school survivors were subjected to and that the federal government now acknowledges was a disastrous mistake and a blot on the national character.

This paper undertook that supplement because its publishers felt it was important to record the early history and evolution of such a pivotal event.

But that is just a drop in the bucket. During the federal election just past, The Expositor asked, as part of one of its pre-election questions posed to all four candidates, how their parties would encourage a national educational policy that recognizes the contributions of First Nation communities and individuals to Canadian history.

Unfortunately, no candidate gave a clear answer to this part of the question and this is perhaps very telling about what we deem important.

First Nations people are just that: they were here first, or already here, when Europeans and others came to what is now Canada.

First Nations peoples’ relationship with Canada is complex, the more so because of the variety of treaty relationships that exist as important aspects of everyone’s history across the country.

People should not have to wait until they are in university and then opt for a course (or a program) in “native studies”.

It should be a significant part of the history and civic studies curricula in schools at the point when young people have reached the “age of reason”.

Putting such a curriculum in place would be an appropriate response to the indignities perpetrated on First Nations culture. It was all well and good for the Prime Minister to offer an apology on behalf of the country, something that should have been done years ago.

But an honest and useful legacy of the acknowledgement of this wrongdoing would be to teach young people, in schools, the stories of First Nations people and their struggles to maintain their dignity and culture in the face of all odds.