The Settler Grammar of Canadian History Curriculum: Why Historical Thinking Is Unable to Respond to the TRC's Calls to Action

By Cutrara, Samantha | Canadian Journal of Education, July 2018 | Go to article overview

The Settler Grammar of Canadian History Curriculum: Why Historical Thinking Is Unable to Respond to the TRC's Calls to Action


Cutrara, Samantha, Canadian Journal of Education


Introduction

The [Truth and Reconciliation] Commission believes that to be an effective force for reconciliation, curriculum about residential schools must be part of a broader history education that integrates First Nations, Inuit, and Metis voices, perspectives, and experiences; and builds common ground between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. The education system itself must be transformed into one that rejects the racism embedded in colonial systems of education and treats Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015b, p. 239)

[Telling our own stories] is not simply about giving an oral account or a genealogical naming of the land and the events which raged over it, but a very powerful need to give testimony to and restore a spirit, to bring back into existence a world fragmented and dying. The sense of history conveyed by these approaches is not the same thing as the discipline of history, and so our accounts collide, crash into each other. (Tuhiwai Smith, 2008, p. 28)

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) identified that education plays a central role in developing new, reconciliatory relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. This education would involve learning about residential schools, but would have a broader focus on transforming education into a place where Indigenous experiences would be integrated, racism and coloniality would be rejected, and equal respect for Indigenous and Western epistemologies could be demonstrated (TRC, 2015b, p. 239). In this way, the TRC has called for more than just an acknowledgement of residential school history. It has called for a decolonization of education in ways that lead to an Indigenizing of history in Canada.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers and teacher educators suggests that English teachers have been doing interesting work in bringing the voices of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people into their classrooms, but in many history classes there is a stalemate in integrating these perspectives into lessons. History teachers are certainly teaching about residential schools, but are not necessarily moving beyond simply telling these stories and toward a more complex exploration of colonialism in Canada. It is this work, the work of learning about and through colonialism, that can lead to the transformation that the TRC has called for. It is this work that can lead to reconciliation.

There are many reasons why history teachers may not be teaching with the aim to decolonize historical narratives, including individual and structural racism (Vaught & Castagno, 2008; Schick & St. Denis, 2005; Solomon, Portelli, Daniel, & Campbell, 2005), preconceived ideas about teaching history (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2009; Cutrara, in press; van Hover & Yeager, 2007), lack of knowledge or appropriate resources (Cunningham, 2009; Hill, Loewenberg Ball, & Schilling, 2008; Loewen, 1996), and fears about controversial content and wanting to "protect" students (Dion, 2009; Levstik, 2000). Situated in these larger patterns of practice, it is understandable why this work has not immediately flourished. However, more generally, any new approach to teaching and learning, especially one that challenges one's view or position in the world such as the one called for by the TRC, causes a revaluation of one's "knowledge package" of what and how to teach (Ma, 1999). In an English class, with a planned study of novels, short stories, or poems, interpretations are constantly invited; whereas in a history class, a class where a teacher may teach with a certain timeline of facts or an ordering of progress, less room may (seem to) be available for exploring different interpretations of the past.

There have been changes to the history curriculum, however, that have attempted to move history education away from a traditional timeline-based understanding of the past and toward an approach that focuses on learning history with the tools of historical interpretation. …

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