National Aboriginal History Month and Canada 150

National Aboriginal History Month and Canada 150 – 3 Rs for Leading Courageous Conversations with Students

by Ilaneet Goren 

National Aboriginal Day (NAD) on June 21st is a celebration of the diverse cultures, contributions and stories of First Peoples in Canada. The theme of Canada 150 has permeated many of the festivities this year, sparking critical conversations.

While NAD has been proclaimed as an official holiday in 1996, it wasn’t until 2009, not that long ago, that the House of Commons voted to recognize the month of June as National Aboriginal History Month. This was an important decision, but it also came astoundingly late considering that Indigenous people were the original inhabitants of the place we call Canada and were part of its creation together with the with the British and French colonists.

This is an example of a much larger issue:  systematic exclusion of Indigenous narratives from Canada’s history, something we must grapple with amidst the slogans calling for us to celebrate our country’s 150th birthday.

As we celebrate Aboriginal History Month we are mindful that it is about more than putting up posters or attending events: it is also a call to think about the struggles of Aboriginal peoples to secure their human rights and land rights, which were codified in treaty agreements.

As a team of non-Indigenous educators who come to this conversation as allies, it has been of paramount importance for us to recognize our own relationship to this land as settlers who have participated, even if inadvertently, in the process of colonization. It’s been part of our own education journey to keep building awareness, knowledge, skills and relationships while also looking at our programs and organizational practices to remove any barriers that perpetuate inequity.

In our workshops, we use the image of an iceberg to help us think about the critical issues we might miss when we keep the conversation at a surface level. Many Indigenous leaders, educators and activists are speaking out about the problems with the Canada 150 narrative, calling our attention to what we’ve been missing because we’ve been uncomfortable to have these conversations.

How can we have more inclusive conversations about Canada’s history? 

How do we incorporate all of the pieces – the multiple experiences, histories, and narratives – so that we have a thoughtful and informed conversation about celebrating the centuries-long presence of First Nations peoples on Turtle Island (North America) while also celebrating our country’s 150th anniversary?

How do we help students and educators understand the ongoing discrimination Indigenous people continue to face?

And how do we create a respectful space for diverse, often competing perspectives and engage students in courageous conversations about the challenges with the Canada 150 narrative?

One of the key things we can do as educators is give students the tools to think critically about the messages they consume in the mainstream media and culture. The idea is not to deter people from celebrating but to use it as an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities, and our role in shaping these relationships for the next 150 years.

Our 3 Rs process – Reflect, Recognize, Respond – used with students in Harmony Movement’s Social Changemakers programs, offers helpful guidelines for leading this process:

  1. REFLECT – Before even starting the conversation it is important to reflect on our own identity and worldview. Ask yourself:
  • How do I relate to this issue and what connects me personally to this conversation?
  • How do I understand my own identity, power and privilege in connection to Indigenous history and peoples?
  • What are some misinformation, misconceptions or biases that might be influencing my thinking on this subject?
  1. RECOGNIZE – In order to change something we must see it clearly for what it is. Recognizing the challenges with some of the messages around Canada 150 opens up a space for critical inquiry as well as collective growth and healing. Consider these questions:
    • How are anti-Indigenous racism, colonization and the trauma of residential schools impacting Indigenous students and their families today?
    • How do Indigenous students learn about their ancestral history, culture and traditions within the current education system?
    • During Aboriginal History Month and throughout the year, how do Indigenous students see themselves reflected and represented in school culture and curriculum?
  1. RESPOND – Once we’ve reflected on our own identity and recognized the systemic inequities impacting Indigenous communities today, we can respond from a more conscious and informed place. Here are some questions to help guide the actionable steps:
  • What Indigenous community partners and resources can I draw on to help students get a more rounded perspective on Canada’s history?
  • How can I integrate Indigenous voices and perspectives into student learning throughout the year?
  • How can I use Aboriginal History Month and Canada 150 as opportunities to have critical conversations about colonization, its legacy, and its impact on Indigenous communities?

Celebrating Aboriginal History Month must go beyond posters and artwork, although these are useful tools. Similarly, the way we talk about Canada 150 can make a difference between reproducing inequity and moving toward social justice and reconciliation. Using an “equity lens” and seeing beyond the tip of the iceberg can prepare students to have courageous conversations with their peers.

Additional resources to explore:

National Aboriginal Day Resources

Know The Land – Territories Campaign

KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Full Circle: First Nations, Métis and Inuit Ways of Knowing by OSSTF