Recent controversy over the teaching of a university course on residential schools had its positive elements: it elicited plenty of conversation about how history is treated.
It’s not hard to see how this would be a sensitive topic. A non-Aboriginal professor at Mount Saint Vincent University was assigned to teach the course about this sad chapter in Canadian history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were often taken from their families by force to attend government residential schools – a program in place in various parts of Canada through much of the last century – where at least 6,000 died from malnutrition, disease and widespread abuse.
About 7,000 survivors testified before the commission and related graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse at the schools.
Critics objected to having a non-Aboriginal teach the course, saying it compounds longstanding oppression of First Nations peoples, and that the course should be handled by an Indigenous academic. They charged that it goes against current work toward truth and reconciliation between Canadian governments and the First Nations people.
Point taken. But others added well-considered thoughts to show that the issue is not all that simple.
Some have said that, as we finally establish detailed study of this subject in university programs, there aren’t always enough Indigenous professors to teach it in any given region.
Also, it was reassuring to hear that a fellow professor at Mount Saint Vincent, who teaches women’s studies and who is Mi’kmaq, spoke in support of the professor who is to teach the course, saying she has full confidence that her colleague has the historical expertise and is an ally of Indigenous causes.
In addition, the professor teaching the course has said the curriculum will include first-hand accounts to provide a direct voice regarding the experience of residential schools.
An especially optimistic point to make is that this topic is being included in university studies and that there is increasing interest to know this story, sad as it is. So often we hear the observation about history in any given area being primarily about the dominant race or culture.
But we live in a time where people are challenging the application of names such as Edward Cornwallis to bridges, streets, rivers and statues. As often as some of the critics want the name removed, many simply want the story known of the harsh treatment of Indigenous people in the early days of settlement rather than just glory stories about those who claimed victory.
For too long the accounts from that angle weren’t included in the teaching of history. Now they are becoming better known, along with related stories such as the abuse known as residential schools.
In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, it’s good that interest in this historical account and the teaching of it does indeed go beyond race. Similarly, it’s refreshing that a wide range of students want to learn about this story.