Emily Chan and Maria Hupfield
Emily Chan and Maria Hupfield

Walking and Talking Treaties: The Power of Students’ Inquiry in Deepening the Social Studies Curriculum

Emily Chan

“Wait a minute, why aren’t Aboriginal people mentioned on this plaque?” asked Eden, a grade 4 student at ALPHA Alternative Junior Public School.

Our class was visiting the Chinese Railway Workers Memorial in Toronto which is within walking distance of our school. Eden was referring to our studies on Chinese Canadian and Aboriginal labourers who worked alongside each other during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The memorial is dedicated to the 17,000 Chinese railway workers, 4,000 of whom died nameless while building the railway in the late 1880s.

Eden’s question prompted me to think deeply about the railway as a symbol of colonization and its effect on this land and its peoples. There’s an urgency for teachers to actively listen to students’ inquiries about the history of land rights, treaties and Indigenous sovereignty in Canada and the US. Current events such as Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent approval of the Pacific Northwest Pipeline in BC, Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, decades of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations in Northern Ontario and the rise of Idle No More demands public attention to the historical impact of colonization on First Nations communities today.

In 1885, the transcontinental railway was celebrated as an opportunity for Confederation, uniting the country from coast to coast. Yet, the intertwined history of the railway and land treaties signed by the Canadian government with First Nations meant that Indigenous people were and continue to be subjected to systemic discrimination and attempted assimilation by the establishment of reserves, residential schools, the Indian Act and contemporary federal legislation such as Bill C-45, passed in 2014, that institutes further infringements on Aboriginal rights and freedoms.

Planning for Integrated Curriculum About Treaties

In 2016, the Ontario government introduced Treaties Recognition Week to bring awareness to the treaty relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Treaties Recognition Week is meant to support students with mandatory learning about the legacy of colonialism and the rights and responsibilities we all have to each other as treaty people.

Still, it is up to individual teachers to create integrated curricula to address this history of marginalization. I was inspired to explore the connected histories of Indigenous, settler and immigrant communities when I did not have a swift answer for Eden. I consulted Indigenous parents at the school, attended professional development workshops at the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre and shared ideas with local historians and community artists. After two years of planning, Walking and Talking Treaties was created.

Walking and Talking Treaties was a collaboration with artist Maria Hupfield, Anishinaabe from Wasauksing First Nation Ontario with a settler anglophone Canadian father from Montreal. The project was also developed with Jumblies Theatre, a community arts organization in our school neighbourhood. We launched the initiative in November 2015, and it culminated in an art exhibit at A Space Gallery as part of the 2016 Images Festival in Toronto.

The class investigated Canada’s Aboriginal and settler history as well as their family ancestries. We began by examining “The Last Spike,” a photograph of Canadian Pacific Railway officials at a ceremony of the railway’s completion, as an example of a historical document that tells only part of the story. None of the labourers were present in the photo. Students learned that the absence of immigrant and Aboriginal peoples’ contributions in Canadian historical documents was the norm. Moreover, the Canadian government’s policy of “aggressive assimilation” of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children into settler or Euro-Canadian culture led to generations of people robbed of their own Indigenous knowledge. Our challenge as educators is to address such pervasive gaps in history. Walking and Talking Treaties highlights our responsibilities to meaningfully connect the impact of treaties to students’ lives.

Returning to the Chinese Railway Workers memorial, Eden, who is of mixed Cree Métis heritage and now in grade 6, stood on top of the memorial to begin our journey. The memorial sits at the foot of Spadina Avenue, once a portage route used by the Anishinaabe. Our class embarked on three walking field trips on Spadina, or Ishpadinaa in Ojibwe, over the duration of this project to connect our history lessons to the school neighbourhood.

“We are walking on history,” reflects Rowan, a grade 5 student. Heading north on Spadina Avenue, Chinatown is sandwiched between the memorial and the Native Canadian Centre, both of which are cultural and community centres. To walk along Spadina Avenue today is to trace a path of sharing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences.

We Are All Treaty Peoples

Why is it important to recognize ourselves as treaty peoples? Wolf, a grade 5 student, explained, “People sacrificed their lives for people today.” Miriam and Rowan, in grades 5 and 6, further describe their understanding of treaties:

Treaties were made a long time ago to keep peace between settlers and native peoples. Settlers were used to the idea of owning land, while Aboriginal peoples were used to stewardship of the land, in keeping with the idea of caring for all our relations including human and non-human beings. Settlers and Indigenous peoples signed treaties beginning in the late 1700s. You’re supposed to honour treaties to be trustworthy, but that’s still a problem today because Indigenous rights have not been acknowledged in many areas with treaties.

Our class read Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance, watched segments of CBC’s “8th Fire,” examined a timeline of Canada’s history of colonization, reviewed maps of First Nations territories and treaty boundaries of Ontario and learned about Idle No More. The students connected the past with the present. Teja, in grade 4, explained, “everything changed when the treaties came and Indigenous people couldn’t stand up to settlers because it was illegal for them to do so.”

Students learned that Canada would not exist without treaties. Our collective prosperity is owed to the treaty agreements that still exist today. The name of the treaty that Toronto belongs to is the Toronto Purchase, signed with the Mississaugas of the New Credit in 1805.

Student Inquiry Strikes Again

“I still don’t get it,” Jasper said to me quietly a few months into our studies. In that moment, I could almost hear brakes screeching in the classroom. To generate understanding, the students brainstormed different names for Toronto. They came up with Tdot, GTA, Big Smoke, IVIVI, The 6 and YYZ. The students joked that some names were outdated while others were acceptably current. I suggested that all the names could make a layer cake, with the older names on the bottom.

“So one of the lower layers would be Toronto Purchase, the name of the treaty here!” Jasper shouts. Several students’ expressions brightened with understanding.

“Turtle Island should be the bottom layer!” Larkin, in grade 4, enthusiastically suggested, referring to a Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe creation story of North America.

I could relate to how Jasper felt. As a teacher, I feel nervous when I do not have all the answers. Seeing this not as a failure but an opportunity, the students and I grappled with these big ideas about treaties and came to a solid understanding together. This embedded learning process affirms that, as a teacher, I learn with


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