Road to Congress: Understanding the realities of Aboriginal life

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host the 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York, YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Susan Dion, professor in York’s Faculty of Education, is a member of the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies, one of the organizations participating in this year’s Congress.

In recent months, the Canadian public has learned about the Cree community of Kashechewan, where high levels of E. coli bacteria were found in the drinking water after flooding caused sewage to back up into the community’s filtration plant. Recent reports show that the conditions in Kashechewan are common in First Nations communities throughout the country. The problems of the First Nations are often invisible until they become a crisis, and according to Professor Susan Dion (left) of York’s Faculty of Education, educators simply don’t do enough to shift student awareness. Dion is working with pre-service and in-service teachers to encourage them to engage critically with the curriculum so that they can teach young Canadians the realities of Aboriginal life.

Dion, who spent 10 years teaching in Ontario primary schools, was spurred to pursue a career as a university professor after encountering the “People of Native Ancestry” unit. The grade four students were meant to learn about aboriginal culture, but the lesson consisted of a handful of legends and an arts and crafts session where children learned to make totem poles out of cardboard tubes. Dion was appalled that the lesson went no further than this. “As an Aboriginal person and as a teacher, I felt we could do better,” says Dion.

While awareness of the teachings and culture of Aboriginal people is important, Dion argues that we can’t truly understand the position of present day native people without understanding the legacy of conflict between indigenous communities and European settlers. The failure to teach this conflict distorts our perception of the First Nations, thereby reproducing a kind of “noble savage” myth of indigenous culture. Dion suggests that this myth is permissible because it doesn’t contradict the cherished national perception of Canada as peacekeeper. “We don’t learn that the Cree were starved into submission. We hear about the building of the railroad instead,” observes Dion.

The real history of contact is difficult knowledge for teachers to take up in class, which is part of the reason the stereotypes continue. “It’s easy to talk about the native with a bow and arrow on horseback, but it’s quite another thing to talk about the genocide of the Beothuk [the indigenous people of Newfoundland],” says Dion. Falling back on the curriculum can be a convenient way to avoid controversy or uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, many teachers simply don’t know the complexities of history, and despite good intentions they may simplify their lessons from fear of appropriation or inaccuracy.

To overcome this reluctance, Dion, must first draw her students’ attention to the ways that the textbooks simplify Aboriginal culture. To drive home the point, she encourages teacher candidates to draw on their own experience with Aboriginal people, to uncover what she calls their shared history. Teachers who have had limited contact with Aboriginal people are encouraged to recall any image or association the word Aboriginal calls to mind. “A student might say something like ‘I remember in grade one there was a page in a math book – one little two little three little Indians’,” explains Dion. By coaxing teachers to remember their own experience with these representations, they gradually come to see how the images are constructed. These clichés are then countered by texts and images produced by Aboriginal visual artists, writers and filmmakers.

The progress is slow, but Dion knows she does not work in isolation. Her work is part of a larger effort to foster awareness of Aboriginal people in Canada. The ultimate goal is to establish a dialogue between people, one in which the dignity and the humanity of Aboriginal people is preserved, where they are not seen as helpless figures to be pitied. “People talk about giving Aboriginal people a voice. We don’t need to be given a voice,” says Dion. “We have our own voices, and we have been speaking. We need non-Aboriginal people to hear what we’re saying.”

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris D’Agostino, master’s student in English.