Archive for the ‘Indigenous Perspectives’ Category


Newly awakened citizens are still coming forward in the wake of the June 2021 discovery of buried children at Kamloops Residential School to report that they were never taught during their K-12 education about residential schools and their horrible legacy. That was definitely true twenty-five years ago, but less so today because of gradual, incremental changes in provincial social studies curricula. The massive 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made it one of its highest priority calls to action and that did inspire a wave of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) curriculum initiatives. What took so long is worthy of closer scrutiny and Ontario provides insights into what stood in the way of such changes,

Mandating curriculum change does not necessarily lead to effective, consistent or discernable modifications in teaching practice. Implementation challenges can thwart policy guidelines and directives and it’s critical to assess the gaps between the official pronounced curricula, the formally sanctioned teaching resources, compulsory course offerings, and the actual received curricula.

What stood in the way of implementing Indigenous topics and perspectives in our classrooms? Some revealing answers to that troubling question are found in two rather obscure but vitally important pieces of educational research on the fundamental challenges of effecting FNMI curriculum change in two different provinces, Ontario and Alberta. Studying Paul Joseph Andre Chaput’s M.A. thesis, “Native Studies in Ontario High Schools” (Queen’s University, Geography, 2012), demonstrates why Ontario curriculum reform fell short from 1975 to 2012. A more recent July 2018 article, examining Alberta social studies teachers’ resistance to teaching Indigenous perspectives (David Scott and Raphael Gani), provides a few more of the critical pieces needed to provide a more thorough and reliable answer.

Since the TRC, provincial and territorial governments have been entrusted with a very specific mandate — to make the history of residential schools, Treaties, and historical and contemporary contributions of First Nations, Metis and Inuit a mandatory educational requirement for all K-12 students (Call to Action, 62.i). While it emanated from the TRC, the whole idea of teaching self-standing FNMI courses and cross-curricular perspectives was hardly new to most familiar with social studies curricula.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has invested considerable time, energy and resources into the creation and implementation of a “Native Studies” high school curriculum from the early 1970s to the present.  Its initial iteration, the 1975 People of Native Ancestry (PONA) curriculum guide and documents, were, in large part, an outgrowth of the ‘Indigenous cultural revival’ that swept Canada after the fist wave of closures of the residential schools. That curriculum was also generated, especially since the passage of the 1982 Constitutional Act, in periodic collaboration with advisers and educators representing the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

The fundamental shortcoming of Ontario’s initial PONA Native Studies initiative was that it was entirely focused on creating and implementing a self-standing set of optional social studies courses. By the fall of 1999, the provincial curricula had expanded to a suite of ten individual Native Studies high school courses spanning Grades 9 to 12. Proposals from the Northern Native Language Project (NNLP) to offer up to half the instruction in higher level courses in an Indigenous language were resisted, then shot down by federal authorities in Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) more committed to advancing English literacy and raising graduation rates. While the initial Native Studies courses were innovative at the time, they were only offered in 39 Ontario high schools and in significant number in only four of those schools between 1999 and 2006.

Growing public demand in Ontario for improved Indigenous education, the Ministry of Education responded in 2006-07 with a new, broader strategy known as the Ontario First Nation, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Policy Framework intended to expand Native Studies content in schools right across the province. It proposed the implementation of “quality Native Studies education,” to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, with the aspirational goal of raising the awareness of all Ontarians of Indigenous perspectives, histories, and cultures. While educators expressed openness to including such perspectives and teaching about residential schools, Ontario respondents were reportedly “uncertain about what to teach and how.”

Indigenous residential schools began to pop-up in Ontario classroom resources. From 2000 onward, Ontario’s core history textbooks such as The Canadian Challenge (Don Quinlan and others, Oxford 2008) started to include short references to the Indigenous residential schools, and that expanded following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 formal apology for the abuses students suffered in Canada’s residential schools. One of the most widely used textbooks, Creating Canada: A History of Canada – 1914 to the Present (Jill Collyer and others, McGraw-Hill-Ryerson 2018), identified the abuses, referenced the 2006 financial compensation package, featured Harper’s apology, and gave expression to rising demands for further initiatives addressing unresolved problems affecting Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Yet Ontario’s overall 2007 FNMI curriculum initiative fell short of achieving its rather lofty objectives.  No target dates were set for implementation of the curriculum in all schools and critics pounced on the policy’s more explicit commitment to raising Indigenous student outcomes and graduation rates.  Nurturing of the revitalization of Indigenous cultures took a back seat to what were labelled “neo-liberal” educational goals for FNMI students.  The policy’s sated key priority lent credence to such claims. That was to, in the words of the document, “close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in the areas of literacy and numeracy, retention of students in school, graduation rates, and advancement to postsecondary studies” by the year 2016. 

Educating students about Indigenous concerns and fostering cultural sensitivity may have been goals of the FMNI curriculum, but there was no explicit commitment nor benchmarks for assessing progress. Increased funding from 2006-07 to 2010 did grow the number of schools offering Native Studies courses from 51 to 267, courses offerings jumped from 75 to 478, and more school boards offered the courses. Number of students enrolled in the courses rose from 2,216 (2007-08) or 0.31 % of all high school students (716,103) to 1.14% by 2009-10.  That’s still less than the proportion of Ontarians of Indigenous origins estimated to be 2 per cent. Training teachers adept at working collaboratively with Indigenous homes and communities also surfaced as a problem. Small enrolment courses did not prove financially sustainable, so effective 2011-2012, the minimum number of enrolled students per course was doubled from 6 to 12. Even academic allies such as P.J.A. Chaput mused about whether the courses were still too dependent on provincial funding to be sustainable long-term in Ontario.

The pattern of implementation and uptake was remarkably similar in Alberta. The Alberta Education department made the teaching of First Nations, Metis and Inuit perspectives a key pillar of the 2005 social studies curriculum. Introducing a curriculum mandate did not assure its implementation and, according to researchers David Scott and Raphael Gani, met with a combination of ambivalence and passive resistance,  

Over the eighteen years of FNMI curriculum implementation, Alberta educators at various stages of their careers offered up three main explanations as to why they either resisted or dodged taking responsibility for integrating FNMI into their teaching. Scott and Gani neatly summarized those rationales:

  1. No perspectives can be identified because of the highly diverse nature of Indigenous peoples and their communities;
  2. Only educators who are Indigenous can authentically offer insights into or teach Aboriginal perspectives;
  3. Prioritizing Indigenous perspectives is problematic because “all perspectives deserve equal treatment.”

The most common explanations, according to Scott and Gani, actually mask a more all- encompassing explanation. Most social studies educators, they claim, embrace worldviews and apply curricular frameworks that preclude integrating FNMI perspectives. If and when Indigenous residential schools are taught, it is in isolation or simply in passing because it is not central to the theme or prevailing narrative in social studies curricula.


Ontario’s latest curriculum revision during 2018-19 put renewed focus on implementing the TRC call to action though a revamped First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Studies curriculum.  Beginning in 2019, Native Studies (2000) was supplanted by the FNMI curriculum with an emphasis on a broader range of learning outcomes, tilting more to social and emotional well-being. A new youth development framework, Stepping Stones (2012) was adopted that de-emphasized improved academic outcomes. Appropriating such models from modern social psychology and youth development may well prove equally problematic because Indigenous education researchers such as Lindsay Morcom have expressed concern that they are drawn from outside the realm of Indigenous wisdom and experience

Much has improved in the Ontario curriculum when it comes to teaching Indigenous content and perspectives. Teaching units including FNMI topics and perspectives are more common in mainstream courses in latest Ontario curriculum from Grades 1 to 10.  Ontario’s new FNMI curriculum (Grades 9 to 12), revised in 2019, is, in many ways exemplary because it offers a comprehensive, detailed, historically-sound, and fairly challenging set of ten high school Social Studies and English courses. There’s one big problem – none of the new First Nations, Metis and Inuit courses are mandatory for Ontario high school students. While residential schools are in the current curriculum, it is still entirely possible for students to graduate from high school without exposure to a dedicated course allowing for more detailed analysis of the residential school tragedy and its enduring impact. 

What took so long for teaching about Indigenous Residential Schools to find a place in Ontario’s mandatory Canadian history courses? Did the earlier Native Studies elective courses contribute to the problem?  Would it have been better, in hindsight, to put all of those resources into integrating Indigenous content and perspectives throughout the curriculum?

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