Education has key role on the road to reconciliation – Sen. Sinclair

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Andrew Autio

In order for Canada to continue moving forward in reconciliation, the public education system must teach the true history of Indigenous people, according to Sen. Murray Sinclair.

Sinclair served as the chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015.

In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report was released with its 94 calls to action. Approximately 1,500 Residential Schools operated in Canada, with the last closing in 1996, which tore young children from their families and home communities to be forcibly taught colonial style ways of life.

Sinclair was also a judge for 28 years in Manitoba. He was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 2016.

In an online event co-hosted by District School Board Ontario North East in Timmins and Northern College, Sinclair expressed appreciation to further the message and how important it is for everyone, particularly current students to learn the nation’s history.

“I can see that there’s a great deal of interest on the part of the educational authorities in your area to try and figure out where education fits into the dialogue around reconciliation,” he said.

“A commitment to reconciliation requires a considerable amount of thought, as well as ultimately, the development of a plan of action. So I commend you for that, and I hope that in some small way I can contribute to that this evening.”

The reality of the situation is that too many generations of Canadians were misled through the education system.

“The history of Indigenous people in this country has been poorly taught in our school system, going back a long time, right from the beginning of confederation in 1867.

“There was a deliberate effort made to denigrate the existence of Indigenous people, to deny their validity as human beings, as civilized people, to in fact talk about them in ways that referenced them as being inferior beings in the world.”

Something that must be remembered, according to Sinclair, was that before confederation, there actually had been efforts made by British and French colonials to recognize the per-existence of Indigenous people and the rights they had, and participation in decision making.

“There was a considerable amount of respect that was shown to the intelligence that Indigenous people brought to the conversation with colonial authorities about what they saw their rights to be, what they saw their relationship to be about. That is in fact reflected in some of the historical documents that were maintained by colonial representatives of the time.”

From a numbers standpoint, it was very important for the early settlers to create positive relationships.

“For the longest time, until well after confederation, Indigenous people were in fact the largest population of recognized people in the country. The largest population of people in Canada, at that time in 1867, were Indigenous people.”

Unfortunately, the history books often disregarded that fact.

“That fact is skewed by the historical reflections.

“We have been taught to believe differently. We have been taught to believe that Indigenous people were inferior, that they were uncivilized, that they were sub-intelligent, that they were unable to maintain their communities.”

School children were often taught that Indigenous people were going to go extinct without the help of European colonials. They were portrayed as saviors of sorts.

“The myth of extinction and the myth of inferiority were predominant features of what was taught in our public system, literally from the time of confederation.

“European settlers were portrayed as being highly civilized, that they came with a kinder, gentler disposition, and that they were here to protect Indigenous people, sometimes from themselves.

“That they were more intelligent, and that they were able to take care of the Indigenous population, and that in order for the Indigenous people to survive, that they had to assimilate, they had to be indoctrinated to living as white men. That theme was spoken about many times by our first Prime Minister Sir John. A. MacDonald.”

Sinclair explained that MacDonald believed that forcing Indigenous people into the urban, colonial style society, was for their own good, and that it would preserve their culture.

“Not realizing that in fact, by forcibly assimilating them to Canadian society, he was also making them disappear by treating them as if they had nothing unique about their culture.”

Indigenous history was not a part of what was taught in the public school system, which was a huge wasted opportunity for generations of Canadians.

“You would think there would be a great deal of knowledge, that could have been taught about what Indigenous people did, and what their lives were like prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1491 in Canada,” said Sinclair.

“The teaching of Canadian history was about the teaching of the white man. The teaching of the European. The arrival of the European, and what they brought to this conversation.”

There are some sobering realities that need to be acknowledged before the country can move forward.

“We need to recognize the education system failed children, not only failed Indigenous children but it failed non-Indigenous children. Because by teaching them this message, we’re also teaching non-Indigenous children the myth of their own superiority and that’s not right. We need to stop doing that.”