Dec. 16, 2020

Despite pandemic and rising tensions, reconciliation must continue

Education about racial injustice more important than ever, writes Yvonne Poitras Pratt, Werklund School of Education, for Academica Forum
Continuing reconciliation against the backdrop of a pandemic and rising tensions

For many Canadians, reconciliation remains an ambiguous and abstract concept that will not be fully realized in our lifetimes. The term itself is politically loaded and hotly contested; most notably by Indigenous peoples who face the everyday lived consequences of how the term is envisioned and enacted. For many non-Indigenous, the fear of making mistakes or missteps in this contentious terrain halts any commitment to the work and ultimately any progress. In 2020, these stark realities are backlit by a global health crisis and a spotlight on ongoing racial injustices. In this unparalleled time of uncertainty, the question of whether we will move forward as a nation of diverse citizens – further divided or united – refuses to go unanswered.

In these uncertain times, education seems the only promising way forward.

Educators, like many other frontline workers, are carrying a workload far heavier than normal as they navigate the new realities of safely and effectively delivering face-to-face and online learning in pandemic times. In these uncertain times, are we willing to continue the fight for equity and justice?

Our decisions will be grounded in whether we are prepared to collectively face the full truth of our nation’s past and, in doing so, confront the differing consequences of how past and present choices have impacted the First Peoples. The following actions represent ways forward for those who wish to pursue justice and equity as national goals, in and outside their classrooms.

Doing nothing is an actionable choice with consequences

Just as citizens not voting in a democracy has inevitable outcomes, the decision to not take part in the aims of reconciliation has real life consequences. These outcomes may seem far removed from the everyday life of Canadians yet we have only to witness what is happening south of the border to realize the consequences of turning away from ongoing injustices. The greater question then becomes: what are the consequences of continuing to do nothing? As educators, the short-term discomfort of facing truths and committing to action can yield transformative learning for ourselves and for our students.

Small steps can yield big results

Start by asking yourself some basic questions:

  • What do I know?

  • What do I think I know?

  • What do I not know?

From there, make plans to change your learning trajectory. Start small by listening to music, podcasts, webinars, or watching an Indigenous film or movie from the privacy of your home. What you do on a personal level can later be replicated in your classroom as your students will benefit from what you learn and share: Have your students watch an Indigenous film and create posters based on its central message. Line the hallways with this telling artwork. Remember, taking a more active approach can yield strong learning outcomes for your students but planning for this event will require guidance from trusted sources, a stance of humility, and active genuine listening.

Working with and learning from Indigenous people is something that requires years of listening, continual questioning of your position, and strong guidance from Indigenous people. Your school may want to work with local First Nations, Inuit, or Métis communities on an outdoor or indoor space that reflects and honours local oral traditions or stories from the land. Mistakes and missteps will happen; recognize them, apologize if necessary, and learn from them. Ultimately, what is important is that a step has been taken and that learning is prioritized.

Decolonizing first, then Indigenizing

In a bid to respond to the TRC’s Calls to Actions, many postsecondary institutions have taken up Indigenizing efforts. What is left behind by some in their zeal to Indigenize is the difficult work of adopting a critical stance – the hard work of decolonizing – as a first and necessary step before Indigenizing. This work begins with an examination of self and positionality, and the consideration of whose responsibility it is to decolonize.

Part of decolonizing is recognizing our relationship with residential schools. The TRC has shed light on some of the most horrific accounts of Canada’s colonial past through survivor stories recounting abuse of children in residential schools. This is a reprehensible and shameful part of Canada’s history yet we must recognize that our colonial past holds many more stories of deep injustices: the illegal pass system imposed on First Nations on-reserve; the swindling of lands through Métis scrip; the deliberate withholding of food rations and other basic essentials during treaty-making; the forced removal of Inuit peoples from traditional homelands; and the list goes on and on.

While some may be tempted to forego the demanding work of reconciliation in our shared moments of hardship; it is precisely a rededication to this vital undertaking where educators demonstrate a genuine commitment to our collective wellbeing. Education has been used as a destructive tool in Indigenous peoples’ lives; let’s refashion this tool into a creative and empowering force for the First Peoples of Canada.

Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, PhD,  is an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education