Place and colonization in Tomkins’ curriculum history by Jesse Butler for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Place and colonization in Tomkins’ curriculum history by Jesse Butler for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Growing up in the Yukon, the curriculum I experienced had a deeply colonial character. It consistently gave us the impression that the events, people, and realities that mattered took place far away. Often this meant southern and eastern Canada, but often it also meant the United States or Europe. The place where we lived, while a source of colourful extra-curricular activities (such as the yearly “Rendezvous” celebration, when children dress up in costumes inspired by the 19th century Klondike gold rush), was never a central part of the curriculum. This colonialism was exacerbated by my settler heritage. My father was born in England, giving me automatic dual citizenship. Though I had never been to Europe, my official status there was a constant reminder that important things were happening somewhere else. Our home was at the far corner of every map, on the far edge of that imagined territory known as Western Civilization. All this while, the actual knowledge, history, and culture that surrounded us was consistently overlooked. I left the Yukon when I was 17, searching for the mythical centre of civilization that the curriculum always implied existed somewhere else. Since then I’ve lived in five different provinces. I guess in many ways I never stopped searching.

Nonetheless, I was drawn back to these experiences when reading Tomkins’ (1981) Stability and Change in the Canadian Curriculum. One of the most striking things about it – particularly in the context of our other readings – was the complete lack of attention in Canadian curriculum history to Indigenous knowledges. Indigenous, of course, refers to the knowledges of the people indigenous to the territories now known as Canada. But it also refers to any knowledge that has grown up organically in the places we are living. “Indigenous,” as Deloria and Wildcat (2001) remind us, means “to be of a place” (p. 31). These two meanings have a complex interrelationship – but both are overlooked in our historical curriculum. While the “change” Tomkins refers to in his title has taken many forms, the ongoing “stability” is centred around British values. At various points Tomkins refers to this core British character of our curriculum in terms of “imperialism” (p. 141),  making “young Englishmen” (p. 141), and “Anglo-conformity” (p. 140), finally referring to this as our “stubborn continuity” (p. 154). Like Chambers (2012), I learned that “the Canadian North was expendable” (p. 27), for it was a receiver, not a generator, of this colonial curriculum.

What is most bizarre about the Canadian curriculum in Tomkins’ account is that this “stubborn” colonial character was often taken up as a defense against foreign influence. Both the French and the British colonists were driven by a constant felt need for “cultural survival” (Tomkins, 1981, p. 135), and adopted or constructed their curricula accordingly. This ironic adoption of British curricular models as a way to avoid foreign (i.e. American) influence was particularly championed in Ontario. Under the leadership of Egerton Ryerson, this province created a model for Canadian curriculum that has maintained a remarkably consistent character both across our geographical territories and throughout our history. Far from “taking Indigenous thought seriously” (Haig-Brown, 2008), this model consistently forces Indigenous curricula-as-planned and -lived to the periphery (Weenie, 2008). Indigenous peoples surface in Tomkins’ history primarily as targets for Jesuit evangelism or as special interest groups requiring additions to the core curriculum. We look to other places and times to validate and give meaning to the lives we are living here and now. As Blood, Chambers, Donald, Hasebe-Ludt, & Big Head (2012) demonstrate, this has caused us to lose touch with the places we live, living on top of the land but not dwelling within it.

Through all my moves since leaving the Yukon, for some reason I seem to keep ending up back in Ontario. I wonder after reading Tomkins’ article if my attraction to Ontario is not a result of this colonial curriculum. From the edge of Canada, we learned to look to Ontario for the structure and meaning of our curriculum, even as Ontario was looking to Britain. Perhaps Ontario was as close as I dared to get to the fabled British motherland – the gateway through which the curriculum imports our meanings and values. One way or another I stopped here, and it was here that I have gradually learned that our first curriculum must be local. As constructivist learning theory suggests, human cognition is formed through a child’s network of relationships. The colonial curriculum is imported into the relational contexts of the places we actually live, and it is in the context of those local meanings and values that we must make sense of it. For me, particular relationships in particular places back in the Yukon formed the core of my consciousness, a core I have simply brought with with me from place to place since I left.

As a curriculum scholar, I want to develop a richer understanding of the curriculum of my own life – the trajectory that started with my formation in the Yukon and ultimately brought me here. As hard as I’ve tried, I can never escape this heritage, and as I get older I am making peace with that. Though I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the Indigenous cultures that surrounded me up there, they helped to shape me anyway. I now find myself drawn to local Indigenous communities. In them I find a deep sense of place and belonging that I crave. As I pursue my doctoral studies I will be helping to develop curriculum in a local Indigenous high school. Like me, many of these students have been displaced from their original communities, and are subjected to a curriculum that tells them they must continue to derive their meaning and values from other cultures in other places. I hope I can tell them what no one told me – that they are who they are because of their local network of relationships, and that this is already a rich, living curriculum which does not need validation from anywhere else.


Blood, N., Chambers, C., Donald, D., Hasebe-Ludt, E., & Big Head, R. (2012). Aoksisowaato’op: Place and story as organic curriculum. In N. Ng-A-Fook & J. Rottman (Eds.), Reconsidering Canadian curriculum studies: Provoking historical, present, and future perspectives (47-82). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chambers, C. (2012). “We are all treaty people”: The contemporary countenance of Canadian curriculum studies. In N. Ng-A-Fook & J. Rottman (Eds.), Reconsidering Canadian curriculum studies: Provoking historical, present, and future perspectives (23-38). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deloria, V. & Wildcat, D. (2001). Power and place: Indian education in America. Golden, CO: American Indian Graduate Center and Fulcrum Resources.

Haig-Brown, C. (2008). Taking Indigenous thought seriously: A rant on globalization with some cautionary notes. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6(2), 8-24.

Tomkins, G. (1981). Stability and Change in The Canadian Curriculum. In Donald Wilson (Ed.), Canadian Education in the 1980s (pp. 135-158). Alberta: Detselig Enterprises Limited.

Weenie, A. (2008). Curricular theorizing from the periphery. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(5), 545-557.