teacher and students sitting on stairs displaying indigenous history projects
Photo by Christine Cousins

Teaching Indigenous Histories Through an Authentic Voice

Tanya C. Leary

As a mother and educator, all I seem to think about lately is the legacy we are leaving. What kind of future will our children have? What kind of stories will inspire them to live passionately and change the world? I want them to have a strong sense of environmental stewardship and ecological identity. I want them to be kind. I want them to understand the true history of Canada and her Indigenous peoples. But how can I change a national narrative – a narrative where, too often, an authentic understanding of Indigenous issues, peoples and their stories is missing. It is important to me that children know that Indigenous people in Canada are not just a people of the past with a tragic history. It’s important for our students to learn about the historical and current contributions made by the first peoples of this land.

In her 2009 Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes the importance of multiple narratives about groups of people. She reflects on times when she has been guilty of perpetrating a single story about other people, and when a single story has been told about her as a woman from Africa. She stresses the importance of telling many stories in many different voices to ensure that we get at the complexity and diversity of people’s experiences. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower.” We have much to learn from people and their stories, the experiences they live and the challenges they overcome.

Many moons ago, when I was apartment hunting in university, I stumbled upon a lakefront rental. It was in Curve Lake First Nation, historically named the Mud Lake Reserve, just north of Peterborough. The house belonged to the late Elsie Knott. After I was settled in, I learned who Elsie was from her daughter Rita who is the Anishnaabomowin (Ojibwe language) teacher at the Curve Lake First Nation School. I eventually worked shoulder to shoulder with Rita in my very first teaching position and witnessed the children’s love of their once mother tongue.

Elsie Knott’s legacy should be a story we share with our students. She was a woman of humble beginnings. She spoke only Anishnaabomowin until the age of nine. She had only a Grade 8 education because kids in her community didn’t have access to a high school. The government didn’t fund education for “Indian” children past grade 8 in her day. This didn’t stop her though.

Growing up, her family was financially poor, but rich in spirit and determination. Her father was part of the band council, and she sat alongside him listening to her elders speak of the challenges her community faced. Later in life, she realized she wanted to make a difference. In 1954, Elsie became the first Indigenous woman to be a band chief in Canada. This was just a year after an “Indian woman” could vote in a band election, and six years before Indigenous people were granted the right to vote in a federal election.

In the late 1950’s, Elsie brought education to the children of her community. She started by driving children to school to the next town in a pickup truck. It couldn’t have been easy on that long winding unpaved road out of the village, especially in the winter. She eventually converted a funeral hearse to take the children to school. Not only did she transport students for 30 years, she went on to negotiate and raise funds to build a school and a church, and to pave the roads in her community, among other things. Elsie was a historical icon who empowered the people in her community for decades.

Elsie is part of a history of Indigenous women many of us don’t know. This history tells stories about perseverance, about trailblazing; it tells the stories of lawyers and environmentalists, artists, teachers, authors, human rights activists and many others.

In 2016, ETFO created a poster celebrating 21 First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) women for their contributions in arts, education, politics and environmental and human rights. There are seven First Nations women, seven Métis women, and seven Inuit women named in the poster, but there are many more that students could potentially research. As I was looking at this poster, I thought about using it as a teaching tool. Students could begin an inquiry project through a social justice lens exploring the work of women such as Dr. Cindy Blackstock. Through the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, Dr. Blackstock has fought for the thousands of Indigenous children caught in Canada’s dysfunctional child welfare system. Students could research other women on the poster, such as environmentalist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, educator and spokesperson for Idle No More Dr. Pamela Palmater, visual artist Christie Belcourt or Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis.

Researching FNMI heros and heroines gives our students inspiration. Researching FNMI issues gives our students understanding. Students could explore why so many of Canada’s Indigenous children do not have access to education in their own community and have to move away from home to attend high school. They could explore why so many of Canada’s children still do not have access to clean drinking water. What is a water walk and why is it important? They could consider why so many young


women and girls posing with political leaders

Tanya Ferro reflects on her students’ participation in Girls’ Government, a program that encourage grade 8 girls to get involved in government and public policy.

Kiké Roach posing in a hallway

Voice speaks with civil rights lawyer and Ryerson University’s Sam Ginden Chair in Social Justice and Democracy Kiké Roach.