We can no longer afford to whitewash our history
The first Indigenous person I met was in university. She lived in my residence and was quite open to sharing stories about her life on the East Coast reserve where her family lived. I still think about those conversations because it was my first introduction into Indigenous culture.
Sure, I learned about “Indians” in high school. The treaties between the Canadian military, Tecumseh and the high-level facts from the Ontario curriculum. But I learned about residential schools from the media. And from an elder who grew up in Etobicoke, I found out that Indigenous families told their children to hide their cultural identities for fear of being tormented by school officials.
As a newcomer to Canada, my culture was not reflected in the curriculum. As immigrants, we weren’t regarded as equals in the circles of the “Canadian’ kids” — you know, the ones whose ancestors founded and built the country.
We were Indians too, but from the Caribbean. Then there were Indians from India, and Africa. And “Indians” from Canada. It was pretty confusing. Even my teachers couldn’t explain the difference.
The first time I heard about the Komagata Maru was about 10 years ago from a colleague. Fascinated, I did some research and learned that South Asians — formerly “Indians” (after someone decided the word wasn’t an accurate reflection) had been living in British Columbia since 1903. They built the farming industry because the government posed limitations on the jobs they could do. Running for office and many white-collar jobs were deemed not appropriate for brown people.
I wrote about it and sent the story to my South Asian friend who lived in Vancouver. Her response was priceless — “I’m going to show it to the kids!” Because it wasn’t being taught to them in school.
In 2009, a group of determined parents in Toronto knew that the outdated curriculum was not helping their kids. The achievement gap and high dropout rate among Black youth was discouraging, prompting the call for an Africentric Alternative School in the Toronto District School Board. The exposure was damaging. “Self-imposed segregation!” people cried.
But the concept made sense. It was a school that simply incorporated African culture into the same Ontario curriculum. Children could learn about Black Canadian figures who contributed to society, such as Viola Desmond and Dr. Alexander T. Augusta, who earned his medical degree in Toronto in the 1800s and was appointed head of an industrial school.
The courses were taught by teachers who understood the challenges students faced, first hand. It was a place to belong and thrive without being marginalized.
Not convinced, I remember naively questioning the executive in charge of the school. Why do we need a separate school? Why don’t we incorporate these facts into the everyday curriculum and why isn’t it just called “history?”
The answer was thrown back at me with a knowing smirk. Good question, he’d said.
I finally realized it wasn’t that simple. While the Ontario curriculum had been updated in 2013 to reflect some historical facts, the older textbooks don’t coincide. Many teachers are left to teach the facts at their discretion. And some have told me that some of the information still hasn’t made its way into the curriculum at all.
After more than a century it was time for change. The headlines about the residential schools was the catalyst that made the government admit that the history we’ve been taught has been whitewashed. All Canadian children need to know that their culture has made contributions to Canadian society.
Then finally, change seemed possible thanks to actions brought forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Writing workshops were scheduled this summer to update the curriculum. Facts about Indigenous culture and contributions to Canada would be mandatory in schools. It was a step forward.
But one month after the Ontario election, just before the legislature resumed, these workshops, years in the making, were suddenly cancelled. The reason? The travelling costs to bring teachers from across Ontario to collaborate on the writing of the new curriculum was too much. It was considered wasteful spending.
We were so close.
Priya Ramsingh is the author of the fiction novel, Brown Girl in the Room.