Reconciliatory Education: Mandatory Unsettlement

Today, the discussion about reconciliation reached a crescendo in Ottawa. There, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report detailing its findings from over six years of working with thousands of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools system.  But now the challenge for Canada and Canadians will be to avoid interpreting reconciliation in ways that don’t re-colonize Indigenous peoples. It may therefore be worth paying attention to how reconciliation is being defined, and how some are already planning to use it in the education system.

For its part, the TRC defines reconciliation in terms of action. It is the active rejection of “paternalistic and racist foundations” as the basis for an ongoing relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada. It has called for reconciliation to be a “new vision” based on a commitment to mutual respect. This new vision could be reached, notes the TRC, by mandating “education for reconciliation” in Canadian schools where students learn more about Indigenous peoples.

For others, reconciliation is the continuation of struggle. In a brilliant piece in The Globe and Mail, Hayden King and Erica Violet Lee note that reconciliation might best be understood as an on-going “conflict” where Indigenous peoples will demand the return of men, women, children, knowledge and land, and Canada will keep refusing. This approach inherently challenges a mode of reconciliation predicated on ‘turning the page of history’ – reclaiming is not about forgetting.

Elsewhere, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that reconciliation is a “contradictory object.” Apropos: “[reconciliation] only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain.”

To me, this framing is reminiscent of how s.35 of the Canadian Constitution has been “interpreted” to the benefit of the state. Likewise, there is a real risk that reconciliation could be used to solidify Canada’s control over Indigenous peoples; all that is needed is for the term to be interpreted in ways that do not challenge Canada’s settler colonial foundation. As Belcourt rightly observes, therefore, “a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.”

Tracing the definition of reconciliation over the coming months will be an on-going project, and one that will require Indigenous peoples’ voices pushing back against those who would like to define it in ways that reaffirm Canadian paternalism. Tracing this debate might become increasingly confusing. But one place where the tension over the definition of what reconciliation could mean is already evident is in how some universities are approaching mandatory Indigenous education.

Much has been said about making Indigenous studies courses mandatory at Canadian universities in recent months. In February of this year, Lakehead University announced that starting September 2016, all undergraduate students at that university will be required to take a course with Indigenous content. In November, the University of Winnipeg announced that it would be following suit.

But content and politics matter.

In an article published in The Globe and Mail on December 20th, 2015, Annette Trimbee and Wab Kinew write that the University of Winnipeg will provide undergraduates with a list of approved courses from which they can choose their mandatory Indigenous course. Students will select a course that “aligns with their degree program or one that piques their intellectual curiosity.” This is in keeping with the approach that Lakehead University is taking as well; for Trimbee and Kinew, this means that, for example, “business students will learn how to engage with indigenous communities,” thereby giving University of Winnipeg students a “competitive advantage.”

Thus, based on what I’ve read so far, both Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg’s definition of reconciliation could be summed up  as “learning more about Indians.” Despite my open criticisms to this approach, I’ve not seen a statement by either university noting that said mandatory courses will actually challenge students’ complicity with settler colonialism and white supremacy.

As you might guess, I see this orientation as problematic. It is worth noting that the “learning about the other” approach has historically been used as a tool of colonialism around the world, in which Indigenous nations’ claims to their own lands have been “interpreted” in ways that justify the occupation of a dominating, foreign power. Given this, one could ask: Whose interests are centered when mandatory Indigenous education is defined as learning about “the other” rather than learning about how Canada remains a colonizer in the present?

I therefore wonder how useful it will be to Indigenous nations when students come knocking on their doors having taken a half-credit course about Indigenous culture(s) without also equipping these same students with an understanding about how their approaches might perpetuate a relationship where Canada justifies its regulation of Indigenous peoples, and their political and legal systems. Is this reconciliation? If it is, we have a problem. To paraphrase Billy-Ray Belcourt: a university reconciled will not necessarily be a university decolonized.

For mandatory Indigenous education to be actually reconciliatory in this historical moment, therefore, it must flip the lens and unsettle students’ complicities with settler colonialism, and it must do this in addition to teaching about Indigenous issues.

Only then can Canadians start finding concrete ways to give land back to Indigenous nations, which, to me, is the minimum starting point for what reconciliation should really be about.

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