In the wake of the continued unaddressed legacy of settler colonial violence, my teaching attempts to make visible the core relationships that we hold to the places we inhabit and all the people with whom we find ourselves, as a basis for the development of ethical relations. This I have come to, after thinking through some questions alongside students, who have provided a starting point for the intersections between my teaching/ research worlds.
As a generalist elementary teacher, I have taught hundreds of students in Ontario for almost nineteen years. For the greater part of my time in the classroom, I have worked with students to develop a critical stance towards social inequities. Students have capaciously grappled with many of the complexities of exploring power relations, and have passionately voiced their concerns through their actions. It is only in the last eight years that I have questioned the limits of taking up social justice concerns, understanding that this assemblage of issues sometimes called ‘social justice’ can be taken up in detrimental ways that negate relationships to the places we inhabit. In acknowledgment of this (and because of my own positionality), I began to take a decolonizing approach to my practice.
Over time, many of the curricular and pedagogical concerns that inspired my work resulted from student-generated inquiries that stemmed from official curriculum. For as limiting as it tends to be, the curriculum afforded me opportunities to examine many issues that resulted in potent conversations. For example, provincial social studies expectations require grade three educators like myself to examine social relationships during the formation of the Canadian nation state. Using these curricular expectations, teachers are asked to navigate difficult historical contours and contested versions of histories. I noticed that this positions young students to explore the inception of settler colonial structures, but they are only asked to explore this with a fixed date stamp attached, excluding perhaps the possibility of unearthing the complexities of present-day realities and their own positionalities as political subjects. Even with the limitations of official curriculum, I was provided with an entry point for introducing conversations about students’ relationships to Indigenous histories and peoples.
Many of those classroom conversations weaved themselves into my own understandings, feeding my own questions and making them to a large extent co-constructed. Eventually, student concerns gave impulse to a pilot study with one of my grade three cohorts. That research project was meant to ascertain how the grade three students I taught made sense of one aspect of settler-colonial destruction, Indian residential schools. We worked through difficult terrain and pondered serious and involved questions about humanity, oppression, racial subordination, and resistance. In rich classroom conversations students questioned their own subjectivities and their own privilege, and the implications of living in this nation-state. Students’ inquiries touched on perspectives such as: identity (“who am I, really?” or “why am I here?”); notions of reconciliation (“If reconciliation means to say sorry, don’t we need to give back our homeland instead of money?” or “the government keeps saying sorry and they should mean it now and give back the land”; and racial constructs (“racism against white people can’t exist”). When eight- and nine-year olds bring to their peers, concerns such as these, I take seriously where students are coming from and listen carefully.
Below is one example of several collaborative paintings they did.
Title: The feelings of a human
Our message is that it’s not good to change the spirit and spiritual beliefs of Native children. Children have lots of power in their mind. Children should be happy and treated like humans too. Just because a Native person has a different culture, it should be respected. Cultures are not bad.
We did the red eye to show it was evil and cruel to take away their traditions. We made hair short because the government told the nuns to cut it because it was an important part of their culture.
The line shows the different thoughts, lives, looks, and feelings of the government and Native child. The silver background is to show the government is happy with what they’ve done. The red is to show that Native people are sad and angry and want to go back to their families.
In all of the works, students were able to contribute compelling ideas on power, relationships, displacement, assimilation and identity. Through their work, I learned that it is possible for young elementary students to take up difficult histories about settler colonial destruction and develop a grounded truth-seeking stance. Rather than reducing what they had learned only to questions of oppression, I saw emerging conceptualizations of how young children saw themselves as implicated in a stance of ethical relationality. These young students considered issues of responsibility and provided realistic and ethical suggestions for living here. They enacted important living symbols that deferred to treaty responsibilities in their individual and collectively-produced work. Their representations surprised me because they stemmed directly from Indigenous wisdom traditions of the land (specifically governance and notions of relationality). One example below, shows how grade three students represented on moccasin vamps what reconciliation meant to them (Figures 1 and 2). Over and over, these young students framed reconciliation as a tangible outcome when birthed from a principled relationship that values and defers to Indigenous protocols, traditional knowledge systems, and ideologies. Students’ conceptions of land rights and land title issues were at the forefront of ethical relationality and as a basis for understanding the events leading to Indian residential schools. Their insights required me to listen well and ask further questions about how students develop these perspectives.
Figure 1: “If we use reconciliation, we can change what happens in the future.”- Abraham
Figure 2: “Reconciliation means we have to fix what happened.”
Students’ understandings were made possible by anchoring their life experiences, to the contested stories of Canada’s creation, and accounts of Indigenous pasts and presence. I provided opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with the self in relation to the world. Students delved deeply into their life stories as a way of understanding their lives and positionalities on this land. Students’ juxtaposed their memories with Indigenous stories and wisdom teachings of this place in their co-constructed texts and visual representations. They mobilized their identities sharing how their life stories interacted with the stories of here. For example, they shared personal stories of displacement due to conflicts in their birth countries that in different/same ways reflected the displacement lived here by Indigenous peoples. I noted how their experiences revealed memory as a multiple voice—that is to say that they incorporated more-than-self accounts, understanding the interrelatedness of their/other stories. This mediation between their lives and texts, hinged on the development of a connection to others.
As a result of this pilot study, I became increasingly interested in locating a process through which together we could capture our stories in the midst of existent historical ambiguities and contested versions of (his)stories. This process needed to channel stories in such a way that illuminated the presence of many people. The approach would have to accommodate students’ own stories alongside those that told about Indigenous presence and significance—while holding space for a multiplicity of stories without falling into the logics of Indigenous erasure. This is how I came to wonder how a métissage sensibility (the textual braiding of stories) could be mobilized towards ethical means. This is how this year’s students are taking up our work together. The questions I am now posing to students relate to how they envision relationships and connections to the places they inhabit, through storied connections that speak to the ethical nurturing and sustainability of all relationships. I cannot predict what their words and works will reveal but I can with some certainty say that young children are able to do this necessary work.
In recognition of the work done by Indigenous artists and community members to develop awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited peoples.