Promises made, promises broken – how the draft K-6 curriculum recolonizes the Métis in Alberta

The draft K-6 curriculum released by Alberta Education (with a specific focus on Social Studies) is a disturbing attempt to reverse many, if not all, of the important steps taken to decolonize education from the clutches of a damaging past. With its decidedly Eurocentric, paternalistic, Christianized, and militaristic way of understanding an increasingly complex and diverse world, this recolonizing approach is sure to perpetuate ongoing confusion and disinterest around the Métis. The token Métis content that is included is either superficial or, in terms of historical events, extremely biased, if not racist. So, what is decolonizing and why is there such a dire need to decolonize education? Here in Canada, and in other nations that carry a colonial past, “decolonizing education [means] identifying how colonization has impacted education … [and seeks to] challenge and disrupt assumptions of colonial superiority” (Poitras Pratt, et al, 2018, Summary & para. 7). In other words, we have learned that teaching students only the limited knowledge powerholders want them to see is damaging, erodes faith in the education system, and exacerbates issues of racism and stereotypes (Battiste, 2013; DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2017; Poitras Pratt & Hanson, 2020; St. Denis, 2007). Do students really need to know how to “Calculate the distance in kilometres travelled by the North West Mounted Police from Regina to Duck Lake during the 1885 Métis uprising”? This insensitive activity is not only geographically misplaced but is also tainted with an aura of colonial taunting. Moreover, the term “uprising” assumes actions were taken against the government when Métis were justifiably defending inherent rights to their ancestral homelands. Resistance is the correct term for such action. Decolonizing, simply put, is removing colonial bias to make space for the full truths of Canada – as uncomfortable and difficult as these may be.

Essentially, the draft K-6 curriculum now being proposed to educators, students, and families across Alberta is a “white-washed” curriculum – meaning one that erases the full scope of our shared past, including dark truths of a colonial past, and instead presents a celebratory version of inevitable takeover by European colonizers. Those working within the Historical Thinking Project pose an important question: “How do we decide what and whose stories to tell?” We see a privileging of colonizing ideas throughout the curriculum, such as Grade 1 students being told that First Nations arrived on these lands as immigrants some 30,000 years ago via the Bering Strait. Does this belief align with the stories shared by First Nations in terms of their existence in these lands since “time immemorial”? We see the privileging of Greco-Roman ancient civilizations as the underpinnings for modern-day Canada rather than any consideration of the early civilizations that were present and thriving in the Americas. This narrow colonial narrative carries on in grade 4 (SS), “Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his lead cabinet member, George E. Cartier, completed the deal to transfer Rupert’s Land to Canada.” Here, language matters – was it a “deal”? Was it a “transfer”? Not from a Métis perspective. The stories that are told and from whose perspective make all the difference. As Métis, we do not see ourselves, nor our distinct positioning, in this curriculum. We ask, then, who holds the power to make final decisions on whose stories and what stories are told to the youngest of Albertans, and why?

The disconnected and sporadic inclusion of Indigenous content in this largely Eurocentric curriculum presents as a hasty afterthought (witness its usual placement as a final item in subject areas/grades). A lack of clarity, inconsistency in terminology, and not understanding the distinctions between the First Peoples of Canada makes for confusing and awkward additions to this curriculum. In several cases, the Métis are confusingly lumped in with either First Nations or Francophone peoples and/or interests. Without a curriculum that explains why the Métis are not simply “mixed-race,” (Adese & Anderson, 2021; Andersen, 2014; Anderson, 1985; Shore, 2018; Teillet, 2019) any teacher facing these confusing areas would likely be unable to reconcile these competing ideas on their own. Is this conflation simply a lack of understanding of who the Métis are, or is it another attempt to portray the Métis as assimilated?

The inclusion of our distinct history as Métis people is similarly disastrous. As a starting point, there is no attempt to introduce young learners to how the Métis people came to be recognized by others as a unique group of Aboriginal people. In the discussion of the Fur Trade, there is a singular reference to “Métis women” but no acknowledgement of the central role and contributions that Métis men, and women, had in the development of the country we now know as Canada. Was this an awkward attempt to acknowledge the matriarchal and matrilineal structures within traditional Metis communities (Macdougall, 2010; Poitras Pratt, 2020), or was it an oversight? We read vague references to voyageurs and coureur des bois, and historical figures such as Jerry Potts, and wonder if these historical figures were not our own people. The material on the 1869 and 1885 Resistances is racist, biased, and damaging. The choice of words in grade 4 SS becomes crucial to how students will learn about the Métis. As a glaring example, “Very few Métis were successful in exchanging scrip for land” – here blame is placed on the Métis for losing their lands rather than a critical questioning of colonial strategies. Métis lawyer Jason Madden refers to this event as Canada’s “best kept secret” that represents North America’s “largest land swindle.” There is no inclusion of why the Métis became known as the “road allowance people,” nor how we were implicated in colonial schooling such as residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, nor how the Metis settlements were established in Alberta (due in large part to lobbying efforts from Métis and First Nations leaders working together with the Ewing Commission). The latter is Alberta-specific history, and its omission represents a significant missed learning opportunity. These glaring errors reveal that no effort was made to locate authentic Métis resources created and shared over the past several years by the education team at Rupertsland Institute, by, with, and for Métis. We can only assume the same omission took place with the First Nations in Alberta. 

Well before the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and 94 Calls to Action, educators across the world and here in Canada, including Alberta, were coming together in the spirit of reconciliation to right the wrongs of a colonial past (Anderson, 1985; Battiste, 2013; Campbell, 1973; Canadian Council on Learning, 2009; Dion, Johnston & Rice, 2010; LaRocque, 1975, 2010; Meili, 2012; National Indian Brotherhood/Assembly of First Nations, 1972; Smith, 2012). Since then, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and scholars have been adding their expert voices to this worthy cause (Cote-Meek, 2014; Iseke-Barnes, 2009; Iseke & Moore, 2011; Macdougall, 2014; Madden, 2019; Métis Nation of Alberta, 2009; Poitras Pratt & Danyluk, 2019; Poitras Pratt, et al, 2018; Tanaka, 2016; Toulouse, 2018). Moreover, there is little recognition of how Indigenous principles of interconnectedness, reciprocity, and respect (which are being increasingly recognized by educators and leaders as essential lessons we can learn from the pandemic) can be realized to help elevate learners’ potential for intercultural appreciation and understanding.

Viewed more broadly, there is no consideration of the current scholarship in Indigenous education which advocates the inclusion of Indigenizing principles across subject areas (Louie, et al., 2017). We saw much potential for more meaningful inclusion in Languages, Science, Fine Arts, Wellness, and Music, by way of the addition of the Michif language, Métis-specific modes of transportation and traditional ways of living prior to European settlement, along with our contemporary lived realities. Yet, these opportunities went unrealized. Sadly, there were many missed opportunities for cross-curricular connections. Nor is there any effort to include social justice concepts or lessons around systemic racism that could help students understand the historical sources of racism and oppression (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017), and why there is so much turmoil in our world today. A solely content-driven approach does not explain why Canada faces ongoing societal issues such as Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, Idle No More, and Indigenous and Black Lives Matter. Further, it is foolhardy to think that those educators who have invested their time and efforts in decolonizing and Indigenizing education, and who have had their eyes opened to the full truths of Canada’s past, will simply walk away from these complex understandings. If Alberta is truly committed to honouring the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to educators, then we have a responsibility to ensure that our curriculum reflects the authentic positioning and voices of Canada’s First Peoples. These are promises worth keeping.

We maintain that any attempt to implement this curriculum will have disastrous results for all learners in Alberta, but especially Indigenous learners who have “suffered significant language loss, systemic and deliberate attempts at cultural genocide, and other forms of violence by colonizing forces” (Poitras Pratt, et al, para. 6). This biased curriculum, with its endless roll call of content-heavy learning outcomes, is a curriculum devoid of colonial truths, and as a result, detaches students from learning the full truths of our shared past. It is entirely the opposite of “what brings people together” (Guiding Framework, 2020, p. 4). It seems an indulgent and irresponsible waste of time, energy, and taxpayer money – especially in these times of fiscal hardship and extreme pandemic challenges to our physical and emotional selves – to discard the rigorous and iterative curriculum work previously undertaken. Thankfully, we now see the general public, and especially educators, across our nation waking up and stepping up.

Over fifty years ago, well respected Métis scholar and activist Howard Adams stood in front of a mixed assembly in 1967 to discuss the state of “Indian” and northern education and spoke to the ways in which education was implicated in the ongoing issues of racism and societal injustices experienced by both Métis and First Nations, 

As Native people, we refuse to accept the popular misconception of an Indian problem or an Eskimo problem. If there is a problem, then it is equally a white problem, but more precisely, it is a Canadian problem. The schooling system of the colonizer was built to colonize and inferiorize us. It has done a very good job and continues to do so. (p. 72)

Sadly, his words ring true today as a federal study on the Métis from Thomas Isaac (2016) notes a need for more education around the Métis at a national level.

As longstanding members of the Métis Nation of Alberta who work collectively and in good faith to bring authentic foundational knowledge about the Métis to educators and students across Alberta, we side with Cree-Métis keytahak Betty Letendre who wisely counsels: “Bring us with you, we are the experts of our histories, our oral history, our western history.”

REFERENCES

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Adese, J. & Andersen, C. (2021). A people and a nation: New directions in contemporary Métis stories. UBC Press.

Alberta Education (2020). The guiding framework for the design and development of kindergarten to Grade 12 provincial curriculum. https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/f3fb3059-fdec-4c62-89b7-a34eb9d33c3c/resource/0a51ffa3-76bf-4f8b-a31c-7481eb2fba5c/download/edc-guiding-framework-curriculum-development-2020.pdf 

Andersen, C. (2014). “Métis”: Race, recognition, and the struggle for Indigenous peoplehood. UBC Press.

Anderson, A. (1985). The first Métis: A new nation. UVISCO Press. 

Barker, A. (2009). The Contemporary Reality of Canadian Imperialism: Settler Colonialism and the Hybrid Colonial State. American Indian Quarterly, 33(3), 325. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40388468 

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Poitras Pratt, Y., & Danyluk, P. J. (2019). Exploring Reconciliatory Pedagogy and Its Possibilities through Educator-led Praxis. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10 (3). https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2019.3.9479 

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Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. Teachers College Press. 

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