Teachers have to untangle complicated histories. Students, especially Indigenous students, must contend with them.
Madyson Arscott is determined to decolonize the public school system.
Like many, though not all school systems, Arscott’s Toronto school has somewhat taken up the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including land acknowledgements at the beginning of the school day.
But sitting in history class last week, she heard something that infuriated her.
“The teacher said John A. Macdonald started them, which I had never known before,” said the Grade 10 student, who is Ojibwe.
Just up the street from Arscott’s school sits Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute, one of 13 public schools named after Canada’s irst prime minister.
For her, reconciliation now includes changing the name of schools that bear his name. So she set up a petition on Change.org to ask her school board in Toronto to consider decolonizing, including removing the name and generally moving away from the colonialist structures that underpin the education system.
“Aiming at the TDSB was just a small step for me,” she said. “I would really like the schools named after Sir John A. Macdonald to be named into something else or to honour an Indigenous person. That’s a start to reconciliation.”
“He caused a lot of pain and he causes a lot of pain to this day. We shouldn’t be idolizing him.”
Arscott’s righteous anger is supported by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario which passed a motion in August asking Ontario school boards to do the same thing Arscott wants: remove Macdonald’s name from any of their schools. The usual suspects were outraged that teachers might have some thoughts on history. We can’t erase histories that we don’t like, they claimed. Then the politicians weighed in rendering the conversation largely indecipherable.
The voice of teachers and students got lost in the summer drama.
Teachers have to untangle complicated histories. Students, including and especially Indigenous students like Madyson, are left to contend with learning those histories.
Already, there is a generation with an incomplete version.
Saskatchewan education minister Bronwyn Eyre recently complained that her son was taught that European settlers, her ancestors, were pillagers and colonialists.
That’s not what happened in his class. CBC News found the lesson in question “outlined the ‘traditional perception of land’ by First Nations and Western European peoples.” (Eyre apologized for discussing her son’s homework in public, which misses the point entirely although I’m sure he appreciates it.)
An education minister who mischaracterizes education is a re lection of an education system that still re lects the prejudices of history, and is marked by colonialism and white supremacy.
For Madyson, that means decolonizing the education system is bigger then just her: “It would feel kind of reassuring. Not just Indigenous histories; schools should acknowledge LGBTQ histories, Black histories – not just something that you learn for a couple days.”
She continues, “It would feel like a safe place.”
Vicky Mochama is Metro’s national columnist. She appears every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Grade 10 student Madyson Arscott.