A Reader Response by James Hunter for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

A Reader Response by James Hunter for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

I’m actually part Indian … I’m enough percent that in Canada I can get free gas.

Justin Bieber in Rolling Stone magazine, August 2012.

As a high school student–not much older than Justin Bieber really–I spent my summers working at a marina on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. From across the waterway, with the right kind of wind, I could smell the evening fires burning and the sounds of laughter and thumping drums during many of the seasonal cultural celebrations in Akwesasne—celebrations that have ensured the lasting heritage of a people who have historically struggled against cultural marginalization. I listened from my spot on the north side of St. Lawrence, ignorant that I was also on shore of the Kaniatarowanenneh, where border crossings and customs agents were as commonplace as shadflies and maple leaves fluttering in the wind.  Although my memories of my early education are blurred by time, any understanding I had of treaties as a young man–apart from the type of racist and self-congratulatory narratives involving unfair exchanges that bubble beneath the surface of society—was shallow.  I graduated from a high school on land ceded by a treaty, and I earned my income working at a marina on land that is still under dispute (Burnham, 2012).  It was not until my undergraduate studies when I took a course on First Nations history that I began to grasp the importance of treaties in Canadian history, the grand and  “commonsense” Canadian narrative, and my place as a denizen of treaty land.

Upon reading Tupper and Cappello’s Teaching Treaties as (Un)usual Narratives: Disrupting the Curricular Commonsense, I recognize that I graduated from high school with a peripheral and embarrassingly Justin Bieber-like knowledge of treaties. In the study, Tupper and Cappello examine the amount of knowledge students in Saskatchewan have about the treaties that formed their province. The researchers found that there was not only a limited understanding of the role of treaties, but that the framework in place for teaching treaties across the curriculum was limited. A lack of First Nations education throughout the curriculum not only left non-Aboriginal students with a dearth of information about treaties, but that even Aboriginal students who still lived in the historical echo of the treaties did not question the fairness or overarching role that treaties contributed to their lives and heritage (Tupper & Cappello, 2008, p. 569). The researchers suggested several possible causes for the lack of treaty knowledge and the adherence to the commonsense narrative of Saskatchewan’s history, including the role that teachers play in instruction, and the resources that were available to teachers prior to the implementation of a cross-curricular treaty initiative.

The introduction of land treaties across the curriculum opens up a myriad of discussion points to engage and challenge students to think critically about social justice issues as they pertain to Aboriginal Canadians. As Dwayne Donald wrote in Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonolization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts (2009), the contemporary approach that is focused on the “tipis and costumes” technique of Aboriginal studies does little to advanced a decolonized viewpoint and only reflects the mythology perpetuated by the commonsense curriculum. The goal of an integrated Native Studies curriculum should be to prompt the exploration of the ethical space that exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians using such techniques as Donald’s Indigenous Metissage (Donald, 2009, p. 5).  As noted above, the St. Lawrence River that I learned about as a point of settlement and exploration also holds a specific meaning to the people of Akwesasne as the Kaniatarowanenneh; using Donald’s lens to frame the discussion about land treaties, and juxtaposing the different narratives that center on the same piece of land can advance understanding as “place-stories can help people reread and reframe their understandings of Canadian history as layered and relational, and thus [students can] better comprehend ongoing Indigenous presence and participation (Donald, 2009).

As demonstrated by Henry Giroux in Perspectives and Imperatives; Curriculum Theory, Textual Authority, and the Role of Teachers as Public Intellectuals, the teacher carries an important role in ensuring relevant and uncommon narratives such as treaties are being taught outside of the standard, or in this case Native Studies curriculum.  If teachers are to function as “public intellectuals”, they must not only approach curriculum with a critical view and engage in debate regarding its goals, intentions, and outcomes, but they should take a role in designing the uncommon counter-narratives:  “[Teachers] should create programs that allow them and their students to undertake the language of social criticism, to display moral courage, and to connect rather than distance themselves from the most pressing problems and opportunities of the times” (Giroux, 1990, p. 382).  In Tupper and Cappello’s research, they found that teachers avoided teaching treaties because it was the realm of the Native Studies courses or only for schools with large Aboriginal populations (2008, p. 562), thus claiming to have little need to address treaties in their own discourse of Canadian and provincial history. In my experience as a history teacher, there is still an unquestioning reliance on textbooks as the authority in history classrooms. Unlike in the Tupper and Cappello study where teachers were provided with a Treaties Resource Kit, many teachers use textbooks that may acknowledge the role of racism in Canadian history, but yet also relegate it to  “isolated occurrences confined to exceptionally flawed individuals or to unusual times” (Montgomery, 2005, p. 438).  As pointed out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the purpose of exploring and bearing witness issues of justice is not simply to recognize the injustices of the past as historical anomalies in the formation of Canada, but to ensure the receipt of justice and the continuing healing for those victimized by historical silence and indifference (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada).

Native Studies as a stand-alone course was not offered when I was a high school student, and, much like the participants in the Tupper and Cappello study (2008), I graduated as one of the “60 % of students [who] did not know how treaties affected them, their families, friends, and neighbours” (p. 565). The historical narrative that I was taught throughout my schooling was predominantly Eurocentric, and focused primarily on the discovery, settlement, and pioneer spirit on land that—almost as an afterthought—was previously occupied. By teaching treaties, teachers would be taking up the task of post-colonial critique and positioning their students to question the heritage and power-dynamic that informed and reproduced the commonsense narrative (Weenie, 2008, p. 549).  For Tupper and Cappello (2008), the teaching of treaties across the curriculum addresses not only address the misunderstandings of students who live on treaty land, but would also illuminate the racist and cultural hegemony that underlies the commonsense narrative that has become the dominant vision of history reified through curriculum (p. 568).

Treaty education reinforces the importance of the examination of curriculum as a political document, specifically its role in providing a counter-narrative to the commonsense story that marginalizes groups of people to ensure the dominance and privilege of others.  Understanding that no constructed curriculum is objective or value free provides a framework for questioning the links between curriculum and power (Giroux, 1990, p. 371). A failure to question the popular narrative ensures that the power structure is replicated with each graduating student who believes the narrative is commonsense. In the case of treaties being largely ignored as part of the history and social studies curriculum, the resulting framework of dominance ensures that a particular worldview continues unchallenged. If we agree that curriculum is constructed, and the purpose of curriculum is to ensure social control (Apple & King, 1977, pp. 344, 346), then, those involved with education—from teachers to curriculum theorists—should be willing to provide a counter-narrative. Henry Giroux (1990) turns the focus to the role of the educator as an agent who must  “ask important questions on the counter-hegemonic role that a discourse of curriculum might assume” (p. 366).

The approach that educators take in dealing with Canada’s history will help determine the direction of the country in the future. In To Placate or Provoke?
A Critical Review of the Disciplines Approach to History Curriculum, Samantha Cutrara writes that “a history curriculum that takes seriously our colonial and colonizing history, will be a true Canadian approach to history curriculum and will open up space for what history should do: transform” (p. 101). A more concerted effort in teaching treaties—one that escapes the box of Native Studies and crosses curricula—will build towards a society that is more reflective on its past and critical of its effect on the present conditions of its citizens. While Justin Bieber fell under criticism for his comments in Rolling Stone magazine, he is likely part of a majority of people who are under-informed with regard to the role of treaties in the formation of their nation.  Donald (2009) wrote that “teaching is a responsibility and an act of kindness viewed as a movement toward connectivity and relationality” (p. 19), and whether students study the land treaties or explore the oral histories of the survivors of the residential school system, the tendency to whitewash as racist history in Canada can be confronted.  While my current employer, the Upper Canada School Board has approximately 1000 secondary students (of 12,000 total students) taking Native Studies in 56 sections (Ewan McIntosh, Vice Principal; Teaching for Learning Department, personal communication, September 25, 2012), all students and teachers—and not simply those who teach or attend elective Native Studies courses—would benefit from knowing more about the land that they call home.


Apple, M., & King, N. (1977). What do Schools Teach? . Journal of Curriculum Inquiry , 6 (4), 341-358.

Burnham, K. (2012, 06 27). Mohawks stake claim to waterfront. The Standard Freeholder .

Cutrara, S. (2009). To Placate or Provoke? A Critical Review of the Disciplines Approach to History Curriculum . Journal of the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies , 7 (2), 86-109.

Donald, D. T. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives , 2 (1), 1-24.

Giroux, H. A. (1990). Perspectives and Imperatives; Curriculum theory, Textual Authority, and the Role of Teachers As Public Intellectuals. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision , 5 (4), 361-383.

Montgomery, K. (2005). Imagining the Antiracist State: Representations of racism in Canadian history textbooks . Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education , 26 (4), 427-442.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (n.d.). TRC Mandate. Retrieved 10 10, 2012, from Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/pdfs/SCHEDULE_N_EN.pdf

Tupper, J. A., & Cappello, M. (2008). Teaching Treaties as (Un)Usual Narratives: Disrupting the Curricular Commonsense. Curriculum Inquiry , 35 (5), 559-578.

Weenie, A. (2008). Curricular Theorizing From the Periphery . Curriculum Inquiry , 38 (5), 545-557.