Ontario wants students to learn about Indigenous treaties

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Photo: flickr/ Caleb Roenigk

According to the official Government of Ontario website, Ontario is covered by 46 treaties and similar agreements. These were established between the years 1781 and 1930. However, while those of us who have progressed through Ontario's education system most likely recall a rudimentary overview of Indigenous cultures and contributions in social studies class, learning about the substance of treaties was rarely emphasized.

Liberal MPP for Willowdale and minister of Aboriginal Affairs, David Zimmer, recently announced the launch of a program intended to educate Ontario's students about Indigenous treaties. Kelly Crawford, a citizen of M'Chigeeng First Nation, Waabizhishi Dodem (Marten Clan) is the author of the resource guide that will assist teachers in providing more in-depth explanations of treaties is. She currently resides outside of Sudbury, Ontario.

Changing the curriculum

The teacher resource guide titled We Are All Treaty People is for students in Grade 1 to Grade 8. Crawford, who is currently an instructor at Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute located on Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island) and Faculty Liaison with Queen's University, asserts that this isn't the first change that has been made in the curriculum.

"[The] curriculum has changed over the years and there are many people doing great work in this area of First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) studies, however currently the concepts around treaty relationships are not part of everyday discourse," says Crawford.

The idea of learning about treaties may sound very technical to some, the fear of the complexities of legal jargon is off-putting for many -- especially when we stop to consider that this is for kids. However Crawford makes it clear that this about much more than the specifics of historical legal documents.

According to Crawford, a treaty or treaty relationship is not a distant memory or something to be archived in history. "We are talking about a living agreement that has a living connection. For example, students are taught cities and provinces, it is second nature for young students to know the city and province they live in, but what about the traditional territory? Or treaty area they live in? We are at a time when we need to be creative to ensure students are receiving this knowledge," Crawford explains.

Policy versus practice

The push for Ontario to move toward a more comprehensive means of educating students about Indigenous issues has been urged by many. In 2013, the organization People for Education stressed that Ontario school boards needed to revamp their curriculum.

"[We] are not doing enough to educate all of our students about the complex relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada, or about contemporary and historical First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture, perspectives, and experiences," warned Executive Director Annie Kidder in a statement.

However Crawford argues that the challenge does not necessarily rest in the policy-making process or in composing a curriculum engaging Indigenous perspectives, histories and contemporary issues. "It is a completely different challenge to deliver this in the classroom. We are failing our teachers by not supporting them with the proper tools, knowledge, experiences and resources in relation to First Nation, Métis and Inuit Studies," states Crawford.

Supporting our educators better

The We Are All Treaty People teacher resource aims to ensure that Ontario's students have a thorough understanding of the impact of treaties and treaty relationships throughout the province; all while contributing to positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Supporting educators is a multi-faceted initiative requiring several resources. Crawford explains that the teacher's guide supports the use of the "We Are All Treaty People" book. The guide was composed after educators found that the book itself was difficult to use alone as a resource since it is packed full of material and as a result, is perhaps too overwhelming for an elementary classroom.

Crawford states that the guide is meant to break it down into more accessible pieces. "[The teacher's guide] includes a video, similar to a read-aloud, separated into chapters to make the material easier to navigate." She also acknowledges that a part of the difficulty rested in the anxiety educators faced about delivering the material in an accurate and respectful manner.

"There are various lessons connected to the Ontario curriculum which include relationship building teaching strategies and treaty teacher tips that inspire active learning while supporting the capacity of teachers in relation to treaty education," states Crawford.

Outside Ontario

Ontario is not the only province looking to better educate students -- especially non-Indigenous students -- about the specifics of treaties. Manitoba currently has a Treaty Education Initiative supported by the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. Saskatchewan has a K-12 Treaty Kit supported by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner.

"It is my hope that Ontario will one day have a Treaty Relations Commission," Crawford continues, "Although we can certainly share best practices, I think it is important to remember that every treaty is unique and brings with it the perspectives from many.

The bigger picture

Crawford argues, "The earlier we start students in basic understandings the better off they will be in the long run."

With significant issues such as violence against Indigenous women and the institutional barriers to keeping not only Indigenous culture, but people, alive currently framing Canadian political culture, education about treaties points to a broader narrative about further educating Canadians about the multiplicity of systemic issues Indigenous individuals face. The implementation of more comprehensive education surrounding Indigenous treaties may spur future generations to encourage more measures of governmental accountability, as well as thinking critically about other issues facing Indigenous individuals.

Ashley Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog www.lionpolitics.tumblr.com and follow her on twitter @asplawinski.

Photo: flickr/ Caleb Roenigk

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