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Letter: Students missing out on important facets of history, culture

Brooklyn Wolfrey, 9, of Rigolet, Labrador, performs a drum dance Thursday with Stan Nochasak of Nain, Labrador, but now living in St. John’s, during a rally at the Colonial Building in St. John’s in support of Beatrice Hunter, a member of the Labrador Land Protectors group who is being held at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.
Brooklyn Wolfrey, 9, of Rigolet, Labrador, performs a drum dance Thursday with Stan Nochasak of Nain, Labrador, but now living in St. John’s, during a rally at the Colonial Building in St. John’s in support of Beatrice Hunter, a member of the Labrador Land Protectors group who is being held at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

George Santayana’s famous saying — “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” — comes to mind when thinking about how indigenous topics are taught in the typical classroom in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In our Canadian history classes, there is a strong emphasis on Eurocentric history. Subjects such as the European discovery of the New World, the two World Wars, and the Cold War take up a massive amount of class time and teacher attention.

Conversely, history surrounding aboriginal Canadians as well as discussions of their current realities in Canada are often treated as less important topics and are quickly glossed over in our schools. Many may argue that the majority of class time and resources should be spent teaching students more Eurocentric history because the majority of them are of European descent. However, this often results in an ignorance of the history of the peoples who occupied these lands before colonization. It also ensures that our students are less knowledgeable and have limited understanding of how the events brought about by colonization have shaped the future for aboriginal Canadians and the various issues they face today.

As an education student at Memorial University, I was required to teach for three months in a high school as an intern teacher. Upon teaching the culture and diversity portion of the Canadian geography course, I noticed a fundamental problem that exists in the curriculum regarding the teaching of subjects surrounding the history and cultures of indigenous peoples. My primary observation was that there is very little time devoted to the study of the original inhabitants of the land we now call home.

I was to discuss the changing population of Canada throughout history, from the first inhabitants to today’s cultural mosaic. In total, about three classes were spent discussing aboriginal groups throughout Canada, and the residential school system, and following this, the focus quickly shifted back to European immigration.

Having only a few classes devoted to aboriginal issues, and focusing on only one or two issues, made me think about what these students are taught throughout their education. This was reflected clearly in discussions I had with students. Many could identify only one or two First Nations groups, and most had not heard of the pressing issues facing indigenous Canadians today, such as pollution caused by the construction of Muskrat Falls, or Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women.

Many of the students were also unaware of the cultural practices of the native groups near them, such as the throat singing of the Inuit, the recreational activities exhibited at the Northern Game,s or of the contributions to our own culture that have come from indigenous cultures.  
My fear is not that we are headed back to a resurgence of government-funded assimilation such as residential schools. Nor do I believe we must make European history and cultures out to be unimportant. Instead, I feel that when our curriculum makes the existence and struggles of aboriginal groups seem trivial, our future Canadians will grow to accept the same stereotypes and preconceived notions of the cultures that this country has systematically tried to erase in the past.

As such, we must ensure that education about indigenous history and culture is given the same respect and value as Eurocentric subjects.

Doug Freeborn
St. John’s

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