Kids' textbook whitewashes Canadian history and I wish I were more surprised

"We are dangerously close to maintaining a racist and ill-informed status quo when it comes to educating our children."

photo: via twitter @Zelliemani

You might have heard that last week, an Ontario book publisher got called out for the highly erroneous content it included in a kids’ curriculum workbook.

One of Popular Book Company Canada’s Complete Canadian Curriculum books contains the following passage about Canadian history:

“When the European settlers arrived, they needed land to live on. The First Nations peoples agreed to move to different areas to make room for the new settlements.”

As a Métis woman and mom, I’m horrified that these words appear in a modern Canadian curriculum book.

It gets worse. Another passage says: “The First Nations peoples moved to areas called reserves, where they could live undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of the settlers.”

Hustle and bustle, or, you know, genocide.

Most problematic for me is that this content is not being touted as opinion; it’s being delivered as fact, and beyond that, as facts that should be taught to our children.

The fact that this garbage was ever published highlights a few important issues. First, that there is clearly a lack of Indigenous voices at all level of Canadian publishing. Second, that we are dangerously close to maintaining a racist and ill-informed status quo when it comes to educating our children— because sadly, this is not an isolated case. Just last month, the media reported that a Vancouver grade 9 class assignment on a Susanna Moodie book asked students to connect the “politically incorrect” terms from a book to the “appropriate definitions,” drawing lines between “darkie” and “African American,” and “squaw” and “Aboriginal woman.”

So how do we deal with kids’ educational materials that are offensive, biased or flat out wrong? I cannot tell you how many classroom interventions have peppered my children’s educational careers. But they were lucky (and as a by-product, so were their fellow students): We are Indigenous and part of a large, supportive community. An Auntie could come in to explain cultural practices, an Uncle to bring his drum. One daughter brought her jingle dress and made a presentation to her class; another was able to bring books written by family members with their specific teachings.

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But what is less lucky for my children is that they were forced to confront racism, misinformation and hurtful, ugly untruths about their own ancestors and modern day community to begin with—in school, no less. What was less lucky were the nights I stayed up, righteous parental anger fueling long letters and information packages on genocide, residential schools, colonization and terminology to teachers, administrators and librarians.

Conversations are valuable teaching tools but the luxury of being able to deal with this kind of material as part of a conversation comes only to those who aren’t impacted in very real and personal ways. It is assuming that the students and their families are not Indigenous themselves, often dealing with the ongoing impacts of colonization.

In the case of the Sussana Moodie worksheet, there were true or false questions, such as, “She wrote using disrespectful language not because she was mean, but because these were the words that everyone used at that time.” The student who brought the issue forward was herself Indigenous. My guess is that “squaw” is not the way her grandmothers identified, that they would be outside of the “everyone” the question refers to. And therein lies one of the fundamental problems with Canadian curriculum materials in general: Who are we talking to/about? Canada is not the great white north and to assume so alienates, and others, and promotes the kind of environment where Indigenous women and girls go missing and are murdered at epidemic rates.

What we as Canadian parents can do is actually quite powerful. We can stock our homes with Indigenous books and advocate for schools to do the same. Theytus Books, Kegedonce Books and The Gabriel Dumont Institute are great places to start, as are any books that have won the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. Then there are the blogs that round-up and provide critical analysis on Indigenous books, like Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature blog (just as relevant for Canadians). Seek out events to bring your family to, such as the Indigenous Writers’ Gathering, held every year in partnership with the Toronto Public Library.

 In the case of the Popular Book Company Canada, bookstores are pulling this particular edition from their shelves. Originally, the publisher said it would “make the necessary changes in upcoming reprints.” When the backlash continued, it said it would issue a recall. In rewriting the passages in question, I’d suggest that they reach out to the diverse and myriad resources available. Or, if this volume is any indication, maybe stick to publishing the kind of stories they seem best suited for: fiction.

 

Read More:
Your kids are learning about race right now—make sure they’re learning the right things
My daughter is at risk because she’s Aboriginal and female

 

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