Historically Illiterate

One of the pet peeves I have as an educator is the wilful ignorance many people have when it comes to their own country’s history. Stereotypes and tropes are allowed to survive, indeed thrive, largely due to propagating lies. These lies then disseminate within the popular discourse and result in further ignorance. It’s not uncommon to find those who have the greatest access to information choose to remain ignorant, and be on the wrong side of history.

I’ve written before on how important critical thinking skills are, and how essential it is for educators to foster them in their students. This is particularly true for students when they are wading through the media’s torrential output. Students will need to examine the message, which often includes reading between lines, and the agenda of the messenger.

A piece, which recently caught my eye, was published by the National Post, and written by Conrad Black. In it, Black laments how Canadians are being made to grovel to Indigenous demands, and how that is entirely unfair. It is rife with historical inaccuracies, and tired racist tropes. It is all very much part of a system of disinformation that has long plagued Indigenous peoples, and contributed to systemic abuse through generations. Why this was chosen to see print in a 21st century newspaper is beyond me, but I’m an educator, not a publisher.

To adequately demonstrate how problematic the article is, I have decided to pick it apart to the best of my abilities.

[Please note that I do not pretend to be a grand purveyor of the TRUTH, nor do I know everything. I am still very much learning, and my knowledge will continue to evolve]

Black states:

Despite the fact that many hundreds of billions of public dollars have been spent with constructive intent in Canada in this field since the Second World War, and for decades Canadian courts have generally been very sympathetic to the petitions and legal demands of native groups and individuals, it is not discernible that their condition, quality of life, or socio-economic levels of achievement have progressed much.

This paragraph, the third in the article, is where the train completely leaves the tracks. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Treaty Rights that were negotiated between the British Crown, the Canadian Government, and Indigenous peoples. He decries the amount of money that has been earmarked for people who are legally entitled to it. Despite being legally entitled to these funds, it is not unusual for this money to simply not make it to its intended target. That does not even address the fact that there is a funding gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students. It’s somewhat difficult to achieve what you want achieved when you are chronically underfunded, or not funded at all.

As for the final sentence of the above quote, it is unimaginable that someone would completely invalidate the effect the Indian Residential School System had on people. This isn’t ancient history; the last Residential School closed in 1996. The trauma inflicted on students in this system is inter-generational, and has had a profound impact on quality of life.

Everyone regrets this and very few people claim to have much idea of what to do about it. It is a highly sensitive issue and any discussion of it is fraught with the explosive danger of being construed as racist, reactionary or misanthropic. I am none of those and I think that most people can agree that any analysis of this subject must begin with a recitation of facts, some of which conflict with conventional wisdom and the habitual case advanced by nativist militants.

Here we get into revisionist history to better fit Black’s agenda. The facts he chooses to prop up his arguments are biased and leave glaring holes due to their imbalance. It’s a prime example of how History curriculum has failed many. By providing a distorted view, and leaving out key elements, students like Black are offered a highly nationalistic takeaway. This is a problem area as it is exclusionary of important voices.

Most of the Indigenous were nomads. They did not occupy this country in the conventional sense, though it is easy to think otherwise when almost every ceremonious official begins all public remarks with a reference to the native group that was traditionally, in pre-European times, at or near the place where they are speaking. They did not build many structures intended to be durable, and mainly lived in tents which they moved frequently (or igloos). The exceptions were fairly rudimentary wooden structures, which is why the location of unsuspected burial grounds creates such controversy when raised as evidence of an ancient settlement. The natives were themselves immigrants, across the Bering Straits between Siberia and Alaska, more than 40,000 years ago.

First off, they did not occupy this country, they occupied this land. What we recognize as countries wouldn’t exist for tens of thousands of years. Different First Nations, like the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), existed in what would become the USA and Canada, before colonizers drew imaginary lines. Many of the Haudenosaunee had permanent communities. The Wendat (Hurons) also had a location Champlain visited in 1615, that comprised of eighteen villages with 30,000 inhabitants, called Wendake by the Wendat and Huronia by the French. The tent trope Black mentions is perhaps a reference to First Nations in the West, but more likely stems from old Hollywood cowboy films that contributed to his education.

The original inhabitants were not “immigrants”. Words have meaning, and the definition for immigrant is: “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country“. When the First Peoples came to this land, countries did not exist. They spread out across the continent, but they didn’t go through any sort of immigration process. This is another tired trope many will use to delegitimize Indigenous land claims. By making Indigenous people immigrants, it’s easier to take land they weren’t entitled to.

The Indigenous people were extremely skilled in various handicrafts, and as woodsmen, hunters, and warriors; they were physically remarkably strong and nimble and had a life expectancy approximately equal to Western Europeans at the time of contact. But the claim that the civilization the Europeans found in what is now Canada was in any other sense competitive with that of Western Europe is nonsense. For all its failings, this was the Europe of Shakespeare, Descartes, Galileo, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Many of the things we think of as touchstones of an advanced technological society — agriculture, written languages, metallurgy and knitted fabrics and materials — were largely or entirely absent. Even the wheel was not to be found.

This paragraph speaks for itself, and makes a mockery of his prior claim of not being racist. The Indigenous people indeed had agriculture, and farmed the land when it was suitable to do so. It is incredibly disingenuous to say otherwise. For all the supposed advancements of the Europeans at point of contact, they would have died during their first winters had it not been for Indigenous ingenuity. Indigenous knowledge of medicine literally saved lives. The quality of the European knitted fabrics didn’t account for much in the harsh climate they encountered. Inuit clothing has stood the test of time for millenia, and if European explorers had been similarly garbed perhaps more of them would have survived.

Settlers drove entire civilizations to extinction, like the Beothuk. How many notable figures were lost to the sands of time as a result? Oral tradition was how knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, and if Black knew more about Canadian history he would know how Indigenous students were physically abused for speaking their languages at Residential Schools. This effect resulted in languages being forgotten, and knowledge lost. That was a calculated move by the Canadian government, and was akin to setting the Royal Library of Alexandria alight. Inuit oral tradition was certainly accurate enough to contribute to the discovery of Franklin’s ships, after the Government sank millions into its scavenger hunt.

As for the wheel, many of the Indigenous peoples used waterways for much more efficient, and practical, methods of transportation. I seem to recall the European voyageurs opting to use Indigenous technology to traverse the land, rather than the supposedly more “advanced” European wheel.

It is also bunk that the Europeans invaded and usurped an Indigenous “nation” or group of nations, in the manner that is now often implied, similar to how Nazi Germany invaded Poland or the Netherlands. The country was very sparsely populated and no native group or authority purported to govern anything larger than mainly itinerant bands or tribes, or to have borders or any concept of national space and jurisdiction. Europeans and those from other continents who immigrated legally to Canada and their descendants, have a right to live here equal to that of any Indigenous person.

The country wasn’t sparsely populated, because the country didn’t exist. Instead you had hundreds of different First Nations who had individual claims to the territory they were using. The British Crown understood this, which is why it attempted to get many of them to sign treaties. Peace and Friendship treaties did not cede any land to Britain and the resulting country of Canada (as is the case in Nova Scotia). Other territories were never covered by a treaty, like the majority of Eastern Ontario. Ottawa sits on the traditional unceded lands of the Anishinaabe people, and by law, the Anishinaabe have every right to it. Canada is supposed to respect the rule of law, and finds itself beholden to laws the majority of its citizens don’t understand.

Could the Europeans have found isolated pockets of territory no Indigenous societies had claim to? It’s conceivable. However, that isn’t what happened. Swaths of an entire continent were scooped up by kings across the ocean, and treaties were drawn up after the fact. It’s also not bunk that Indigenous lands were invaded by an occupying force. Ottawa is literally on territory that was not given or surrendered. For 20th century examples of an occupying force evicting Indigenous inhabitants, perhaps he could look towards Rooster Town, or the High Arctic Relocation.

Frequently made allegations of attempted genocide against Indigenous people by Canadian governments rest on one written command by the agitated British general Jeffery Amherst during the Seven Years’ War that perhaps a communicable disease could be put in some blankets distributed to rebellious Indians, but nothing came of it, and the incident did not occur in and has nothing to do with Canada. The claim of cultural genocide, an attempted transposition of the concept of physical extermination, as in Nazi death camps, to education, is also fraudulent. As I have written here and elsewhere before, it is scandalous that the present federal chief justice would fasten the prestige of her position to such a monstrous defamation.

Black seems to be unaware how complicit his first Prime Minister was in intentionally starving First Nations out in the West. Perhaps Black needs a reminder of what ethnic cleansing constitutes: “the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society“. The entire point of the Indian Residential Schools was to “kill the Indian in the child“. There is nothing fraudulent about such quotes, and Black is being willfully ignorant. If he wants to make Nazi comparisons, perhaps he should learn that the Residential Schools also performed medical experiments on the children entrusted to their “care”. It was also well known tuberculosis was rampant in these schools, but the government did nothing. Thousands died and many were dumped into unmarked graves.

This is an apt demonstration of how History teachers in Canada need to do a better job at presenting the subject. The amount of resulting ignorance has contributed to domestic policy causing further harm. Ignorance of this magnitude is inexcusable in the Information Age.

It was misconceived and unevenly administered and much horror and great sadness resulted. But the alleged desire of Justin Trudeau to ask Pope Francis for an apology is an outrage. The churches involved were carrying out government policy. And the national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women is itself another flawed exercise. There are 164 missing Aboriginal women, and there have been, since 1980, about 1,100 Aboriginal women murdered, and about 90 per cent of those murders have been solved — a similar proportion to the success of homicide investigations for non-Indigenous women. The plight of Aboriginal women is tragic and distressing, but we already know many of the reasons behind it, and could begin meaningfully addressing them today while sparing us the expense and delay of an inquiry that has been dysfunctional from the very outset.

The churches were complicit in the forced conversion of thousands of children. The priests who were meant to look after the children were complicit in horrendous physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. That isn’t debatable. It happened. The tired excuse of “I was merely following orders” no longer carries weight. Adolf Eichmann made sure that line of defence can no longer be used. Black is neither woman, nor Indigenous, so his qualms concerning the missing and murdered Indigenous women bear little weight on the matter.

This federal government should stop truckling to this Anglo-French-Canadian self-hate, which is a blood libel on French and English-speaking Canadians. It should restore the Accountability Act of the Harper government and impose a reasonable standard of conduct on the most autocratic native leaders. A referendum should be held among native people offering a series of generously funded options, from assisted integration in the society of the whole country to continued separateness, but with assurances of responsible local government and meaningful employment, even if in useful forms of workfare. And there must be some theory of eminent domain for the national interest in matters like the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, with equitable compensation where appropriate.

Again, Black demonstrates a lack of knowledge concerning Treaty Rights. He doesn’t get to dictate his wishes. He has to abide by the Treaty that governs the land he lives on, and/or the wishes of the Indigenous peoples if he is on unceded territory. If he doesn’t like that, perhaps he could find another location to live. Alternatively, he could try to take it up with the Supreme Court or the United Nations.

The fact that he would willfully obscure Canada’s history with revisionist nonsense is a glaring reminder of how vigilant historians need to be. History teachers in particular need to ensure the curriculum they are teaching students is balanced and inclusive. It has nothing to do with perpetuating self-hate. Rather it’s about reconciling past wrongs, and learning to move forward together.

There are many splendidly motivated and very qualified experts in this field, native and non-native. The governments should avail themselves of them and end this long slide into deepening victimhood unjustly laid at the door of the whole population of Canada. Almost all Canadians are altruistic and want treaties that have been violated to be honoured with compensation. But they are tired of grovelling to complainants, many who are not blameless in their own condition, and of courts even accepting to hear such nonsense as the claim that Ktunaxa Nation of 800 people would suffer religious persecution by the departure of the spirit of the grizzly bear from a mountain in the Kootenays if a ski area were built on part of that mountain, and that they had been inadequately consulted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after 25 years of intense good faith negotiation.

Teachers also need to keep a watch for ugly vocabulary like “victimhood” and “grovelling”. Racist tropes that have no place in current debates need to be examined for what they are. Treaty education should also be standard in social studies classes so students can understand the significance of their rights, and the rights of the land’s Indigenous inhabitants. Teachers should be given professional development opportunities so they are adequately trained to teach the subject.

The fact that a man who exists outside of an Indigenous culture feels he has the right to criticise the spirituality of that culture should not be lost. This behaviour has eroded Indigenous rights for generations. Those of us who hail from settler families do not get to decide what is or isn’t nonsense to a culture. This is what Imperialism looks like, and students need to be trained to identify it (what they later choose to do with that knowledge is ultimately up to them).

In this as in some other matters, Canada must behave as the mature and well-motivated country that it is, and condemn efforts to portray John A. Macdonald, chief founder of the country and a great statesman even in the era of Lincoln, Bismarck, Disraeli, and Gladstone, as an evil racist. As Michael Ignatieff used to say (rather ineffectually): “Rise up Canada;” generously but firmly.

MacDonald was racist, and many of his actions were demonstrably evil. This is not a matter of hindsight being 20/20 and looking at the past through a modern lens. His attitudes towards Asian immigrants made many people of the time uncomfortable, including his own supporters. If such attitudes shocked people in the 1800s, it is entirely justifiable to call them for what they are in 2017.

I agree that people need to rise up, but not for the reasons outlined by Black. There needs to be a pushback. Historical illiteracy of this magnitude is frankly unacceptable and such historical revisionism has no place in popular discourse. This isn’t an attack on free speech (I’m not saying Black should return to jail for what he said), nor is this a call for censorship. It’s a derision of outdated attitudes that are enabled through lies.

Six Weeks as an ESL Teacher

June and July had me back in the classroom teaching ESL to university students and professionals. It was refreshing to be properly employed as a teacher once more, and not beholden to practicum requirements. It was my first time teaching Hispanic students, and initially I wasn’t sure how relevant my Korean experience would be. I was also curious how my uOttawa teaching experience would influence my pedagogy.

After a few hours on the first day, rusty English-teaching skills sprang back into action after being dormant. They are a different skillset than what I would use teaching in an Ontario elementary classroom (even though I had many ESL students there too). Teaching these kinds of classes were my bread and butter for so many years, and I’m effective in them. It’s a markedly different scenario when you are teaching a subject you know inside and out, compared to one where you are learning as you go along.

It was an interesting teaching system as well. The first three hours of the day, I would spend with my “homeroom” class, and teach them to use English within a Canadian context (basically use their English with Canadians). Then for 90 minutes, I would switch rooms and teach history and culture to a different class. It was my first real chance to teach a dedicated history class (which is my teachable subject in Ontario), and I really wanted to make the most out of it.

Over the course of the six weeks, I had four different homeroom classes, and four different history classes. Their levels ranged from A2, B1, and B2. Fresh from my university practica, I approached my initial classes like I would as an OCT-certified teacher. It was a bit too dry and formal for my tastes, and I knew I wasn’t being as effective as I could be. So I opted for the teaching style I had refined in Gangneung, and that worked a lot better.

That being said, my B.Ed degree had greatly informed my teaching habits. I was able to diagnose students’ particular needs in ways I would never have in Korea. I was able to better assess and evaluate them (assessment for, as, and of learning). I could even identify learning disabilities when I saw them, and adjust my material accordingly (universal design). I found that my unique experiences, having taught EFL in Korea, and obtaining a B.Ed at uOttawa, made for an extremely well-rounded teacher.

Based on the feedback my students would give me, it seemed like they agreed.

One of the things I was proudest of, and was able to carry through my six weeks, was to have my students voraciously consume history. I was able to pull all my knowledge together and deliver content they found ridiculously engaging. I opted to go for the “darker” aspects of history, and present them with facts they wouldn’t find along the more touristy paths of. Murder, mayhem, and ghosts seemed popular.

It was my first time teaching students about the Residential School System, and I am glad I had the opportunity to do so with adults. I found appropriate material that would take my voice out of the equation as much as possible. The storybook I used (Little Butterfly Girl) is something I will take with me for future elementary classes. It really hit home, and brought forth some tears. Canada’s treatment of Indigenous People drastically altered how many of them viewed the country.

I gave the students guided tours at museums, and was able to include historical facts that were (purposefully) left out of exhibit displays. Not being able to be with them all the time, but wanting them to explore the city, I created an RPG based on Ottawa’s history, that used a unique hashtag so I could follow along with their progress. They were able to see spots of the city they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to know about, and would invite students from other classes along for the ride. Inquiry-based learning was the key to a lot of the success.

The only downside was that it ruined a tour they went on in the final week, because my history class already knew everything about all the stops, and could answer the guide’s questions. I guess the guide was perplexed Mexicans knew so much about Ottawa’s local history.

These history classes were such a success, my homeroom classes wanted me to bring some of that into my English Context classes. Many came up to me after the fact and told me I was their best history teacher, which was a nice compliment. History often gets a bad rep for being dry and boring, so I was happy to correct that. I was taken aback by how interested they were in looking at Canada with a critical eye (my previous classes would often demand their other teachers go into the “dark history” as well). I can see a market for ESL-based history classes that use this lens, and I might very well start creating my own content for such an appetite. I need to find the balance between presenting a balanced view of history that isn’t exploitative (one of my concerns).

Like Korea, I was able to do a lot with them outside the classroom. That enriched the learning experience for them, because they were able to use their English skills in a less structured setting. On a whim, I decided they would shoot short films (the next day they would have an evaluated role play, and this was a good way for them to practice). In Daegu and Gangneung, the students would create video content with me as well, as I used it for educational purposes (and they wanted to learn to make YouTube videos like their teacher). So for an afternoon, my class took over different areas, while the other teachers and staff members looked on in bemusement at a fantasy film being shot.

One of the best things about the job was that it afforded the teachers a lot of leeway over what material they taught in their classes. If you were short on ideas, you could basically rely on a bevy of resources they gave us on a USB. Some of the lower level students (A2 especially) needed more structure to the classes. I did end up creating a lot of my own content, though, like I had done in Korea (four years in Gangneung pretty much saw me create and use my own original material). What I created was flexible, and I was able to use it in different classes with different levels (again, inquiry-based learning worked its magic).

It was an overall excellent experience, and it gave me many fresh ideas going forward. It energized me in a way that reaffirmed how much I truly love being an educator. Now I am going through teaching withdrawals, as that kind of deep thinking and engrossing conversation can be addicting!

Campaigns of Disinformation

The ability to think critically has made its way to the forefront of necessary skills. This kind of deeper thinking is a vital component to a teacher’s lesson, and there has been a push among ministries of education to promote it. Despite its obvious need, these are skills slowly honed over a student’s life, and they don’t come easily. If there is a failure to cultivate critical thinking, students are often at a disadvantage going forward academically. It also makes them susceptible to the orchestrated campaigns of disinformation one so readily sees propagated on social media.

Or alternate facts.

These kinds of buzzwords conjure a mental image of American politics. One might find a few correlations between the kinds of education systems in America, and the success of fake news among the voting public. Populist politics certainly requires herds of voters to turn off critical thinking abilities in order to have a modicum of success.

While I was in Korea, I saw the rise of populism in various Western democracies. As somewhat of an outsider peering in, it offered me an interesting perspective on the entire phenomenon. I’ll admit to underestimating the success it would have, or perhaps I overestimated society’s collective ability to repel it.

In any case, it forced me to examine teachers’ roles in all this. Discussing society and politics is part of my mandate as a teacher with a history teachable (what we call a subject a teacher specializes in, in Ontario). For some, discussing these topics gets tricky. I believe responsible teachers should leave their political party affiliations at the door while donning their teacher’s cap. Being paragons of neutrality is tough in political discussions, but leaning too heavily on a particular political party will lead to influencing student thought. If instilling critical thinking skills is of paramount importance, then students need to be able to arrive at conclusions on their own. Undue influence from a teacher can easily undo all that, and hurt students’ capacity for critical thought.

Now disinformation, on the scale we are seeing in recent years, appears to be a heavy influencer among the far-right. Traditionally, the far-right, with its demagogic tendencies and populist politics, has not been a viable player on the Canadian political scene. One does not have to come across as a zealot to combat disinformation from these sources. To shore up students’ critical thinking abilities against these kinds of social media campaigns, arguments rooted in reality and facts is the only route to take.

Now the question one might ask is: is this actually a problem in Canada?

In short: yes.

By the purest of happenstance, I stumbled upon a prime example over the weekend. While on my stroll downtown, I noticed a rally on Parliament Hill. Upon closer inspection, it turned to be two rallies. The larger rally took place in front of the steps of Parliament, and was speaking out against the government’s treatment of Lyme disease (or its lack of appropriate treatment). The smaller rally was on the lawn, and had dozens of people speaking out against the alleged oppression of free speech in Canada.

This blog post will look at the latter rally.

Video shot by myself of the rally participants

The rally in question was organized to vent displeasure towards the Federal Government. It was poorly attended, and as I drew closer, I could see why. It was a collection of fringe groups decrying immigration, foreigners, and a particular Abrahamic religion. In their midst, I found the typical fascists one would expect to find at these gatherings, with their distinctive taste in fashion, and questionable flag design. They were shouting at people and hoping to elicit a reaction, but their theatrics confused tourist groups who snapped pictures in bemusement.

Now, that is my take on the event. If you’re interested in seeing how it was reported by the far-right’s media, you can see that here. For those not interested in the clicking on the link, they claim 5,000 people took part. The Ottawa Citizen found that number to be more than a bit off, and had this to say, including a photo of the crowd size (that’s in line with my video). iPolitics and BuzzFeed also chimed in.

Upon returning home, I took to Twitter to see if I could find reference to the rally. Discouragingly enough, I saw people claiming to have participated in the march and stating that 5,000 people did in fact show up in solidarity. After observing incidents like this from abroad, it was a bit surreal to find myself in the middle of a campaign of disinformation. The video I embedded above shows how many people showed up, so the lie about thousands of people being there looks ridiculous. The people in their Twitter echochamber were obviously desperate to convince others they had more support than they actually had, and by my estimation it worked. There was backslapping over the supposed 5,000 marchers, and calls of ridicule for mainstream media sources who chose to ignore a massive march (that obviously never took place). The same event took place in other Canadian cities, so it was orchestrated to involve a million Canadians, but it did not reach such lofty ambitions.

It’s not the fact that these people were unsuccessful in securing a million Canadians, or 5,000 in Ottawa. It’s the blatant discrediting of reality to support a narrative far removed from such trappings. This is how it began in the US, while I was in Korea, and I can see it happening in Canada.

Social media has provided an amplification for lies to easily spread. Media Literacy is a component of the Ontario curriculum, and this gives teachers the impetus to hone students’ critical thinking skills. Being able to identify reliable sources of information, and the proper vetting of facts, is something students need in this 21st century world. Examining stories that are obviously wrong, would make for an activity many students would sink their teeth into. Students with the ability to evaluate media sources are students who become citizens capable of making informed choices.