The tragic discoveries of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools for Indigenous children have more and more people looking to educate themselves on Canada’s dark history.
Indigenous Canada is a free, 12-week online course offered by the University of Alberta. Tracy Bear, an associate professor with the U of A’s Faculty of Native Studies, launched the course in 2015.
“Our history has implications today, and I think making that connection is what Indigenous Canada can really do for Canadians,” Bear told Global News.
Bear says the course has steadily grown in popularity over the years, but it saw a spike of interest a few years ago when Canadian actor and Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy reached out and became involved with the course, hosting YouTube debriefs with the instructors and promoting the course through his platforms.
She says it also saw a sharp increase in demand following the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves at the site of the Kamloops residential school.
Bear says while it gives her hope to see more people educating themselves, these are conversations that should have happened decades ago, and the national shock shows how little many Canadians know about Indigenous history and residential schools.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this and how people are seeking out knowledge. Part of it gives me great hope, and I can understand the capacity of human nature to be compassionate and loving and caring and kind, and I really appreciate that,” Bear said. “I just — does it have to take the discovery of bodies, children’s bodies, at mass graves at schools to have this sort of concern?”
“I think this kind of history should have been taught 30 or 40 years ago and just now in 2021 people are wanting to learn. So part of me is like ‘better late than never,’ but another part of me is like — taking a cue from the movie The Matrix with Keanu Reeves — it’s really time that Canadians took that red pill and woke up to the realities of Indigenous peoples in Canada.”
Bear says it’s vital that all Canadians know Indigenous history and understand its social implications today.
“If you are a person who sees the outside and sees Indigenous people struggling — say you’re not in academia or politics or anything like that — you’re seeing Indigenous people in the news, and not in a good way. You see us at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator that Canada has to indicate poverty and ill health, we’re at the bottom of that all the time,” she said.
“So if you don’t have, as a Canadian, that understanding of what put us there, you can have some real racist views about Indigenous people and who they are. So I think this really elevates everyone’s awakening (to) understanding this.”
The First Nations University of Canada in Saskatchewan also recently launched a course in light of the discovery at the Kamloops residential school.
Since fall 2016, the University of Winnipeg has mandated an Indigenous course requirement for all its students, to ensure all students have a baseline knowledge about Indigenous people and culture.
The University of Manitoba has recently introduced something similar for its Faculty of Arts students. Cary Miller, the head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, said it was something many students had been calling for.
“I think Manitoba is an unusual place in Canada because we are nearly 20 per cent Indigenous in population, and so the very real reality is that upon graduation, students will be entering a workforce in which one out of five colleagues, bosses, clients, patients etc. are Indigenous,” Miller said. “And if they don’t understand and respect Indigenous people, it will hurt their job, it will hurt the entrepreneurial business they create, it will hurt their practice.”
“Much as there are always going to be individuals who are resistant to this kind of education, I think there are a lot of students that recognize the demographic reality of our province and the need to do this learning.”
Miller says part of the process has also been education for U of M professors as well, and faculty and staff have been doing workshops on how to handle discussions surrounding race.
“If we’re going to ask professors to talk more about issues of race in a class where they may never have purposely tread those waters before,” she said, “then we have to teach professors how to talk and manage discussions about race.”
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.