Why I’m Fighting to Decolonize Canada’s Education System

When Indygo Arscott realized that Indigeneity isn't adequately taught in schools, the Toronto teen started a petition, made a Twitter account—and launched a movement

Indygo Arscott's headshot

(Photo: Courtesy of Indygo Arscott)

Every day, I sit in a grade 10 classroom in Toronto learning what my school board considers to be “Canadian history”—things like Canada’s role in World War I, the Charleston dance and the lyrics to “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles.

Nine days out of ten, I am bored out of my mind. I’m never really interested in the history we are taught at school because it doesn’t feel like it had any real relevance to my life.

But then we got to the point in the school year when we (briefly) covered the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. We touched on the difference between a traditional Indigenous education compared to modern European schooling and why some Native men wear their hair long. Finally, my teacher started talking about residential schools.

Since grade 1, when kids used to make fun of me for being Native, I’ve usually been the only Indigenous person in the classroom. The topic of residential schools has always been close to my heart, so I already had boatloads of information on the topic—but it was interesting to see how those around me reacted to the skeletons kept in Canada’s closet. Responses varied from tears to confusion to laughter (which made me roll my eyes and scowl).

And then, our student teacher told me something I didn’t know about residential schools: our first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, had introduced them to Canada. I was taken aback and questions flooded my mind, but one stuck out in particular: Why had I always learned he was a hero? Until this point, I hadn’t known he had introduced residential schools to Canada, because none of my teachers had addressed that. It took 15 years of schooling for this fact to come up in a lesson. I was furious.

The residential school system, explained

These institutions, which were in place from the 1870s to the 1990s, caused irreparable harm to Indigenous peoples, and the Canadian government’s justification for this system was horrible.

In the eyes of MacDonald, residential schools had two different purposes to serve Canada. They were to be a “solution” to the problem that he and many members of Canadian government at the time had with Indigenous peoples. MacDonald saw Canada’s Indigenous population as almost sub-human. As a burden. Opposite to what he wanted Canada to be. He wanted assimilation, and he didn’t hide those feelings, saying in 1879: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

MacDonald also wanted to rid Indigenous populations of their traditions, cultures and languages, as the Harper government later admitted in its official apology—something that didn’t happen until 2008, by the way. Under MacDonald, the Canadian government actively tried to make sure there wouldn’t be a future for Indigenous peoples. It isolated Indigenous children from their traditions and culture. It presented them with European, Catholic values they had never seen before. It stripped them of their identities. They were given uniforms and were forbidden to speak their own languages; boys with long hair had it cut short. These children were between the ages of four to 16, and they went through trauma that most of us can’t even imagine facing.

The painful legacy of residential schools

As the infamous quote goes, residential schools were set up to, “kill the Indian in the child.” Propaganda made these institutions out to be comfortable, happy educational places for children, but this was anything but true. Survivors have recounted their experiences of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. More than 6,000 children died in Canada’s residential schools. And those who did make it home are dealing with the consequences to this day. Besides all of the psychological damage, intergenerational trauma and loss of culture is still prominent within Indigenous communities around Canada.

I’ve experienced those consequences myself. Previous generations of my family have endured the trauma of residential schools first-hand. Due to this, my family members and I have almost totally forgotten where we come from, which means discussions about these issues are uncomfortable, exhausting and upsetting. I know I am not alone on this; there are other Indigenous children out there who have no idea who walked before them and have nobody around to ask.

Looking to the future

That’s why the classroom discussion on that fateful morning brought up a lot of repressed thoughts. I’d been mocked for this part of my identity my entire life; I didn’t treat it as something to be proud of. But this conversation, while upsetting, empowered me. It made me realize that I am the product of strength and resilience. History doesn’t want me alive, but despite all of this, here I am. I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—just sit around and do nothing. It has never been easier to create a platform. So, during lunch that day, I started a petition explaining my vision. I want to get the 13 schools in Canada named after Sir John A. MacDonald to change their names. I want leaders in education to listen to Indigenous voices and make some much-needed changes in their systems. I want to take steps towards the decolonization of the public school system in Canada.

After that, I made my Twitter account, and nothing has been the same since. I was greeted by a whole new community of people who shared the same ideas as I did. People who supported me, people who looked like me, people who stood with me. Many people have stood before me in advocating for change in Indigenous education. One in particular who inspires me every single day is Shannen Koostachin, who, at 13, became a leader in the fight for better, safer schools on Canadian reserves.

I’ve since written about this for Teen Vogue and now I want to share my story with FLARE readers.

MacDonald’s name has to be removed from Canadian schools. He was not somebody children should be learning to look up to; I don’t think he should be immortalized on anything but a tombstone. But even if every school in Canada that bears his name chose a new one, there’d still be so many more steps to take. Our classrooms need to uplift Indigenous voices, honour truth, recognize Indigenous victories and acknowledge Indigenous struggles. Non-Native students deserve to know the truth behind their country’s history and Native students deserve to know that our history is NOT extracurricular.

This is a goal that might not get accomplished in my lifetime, or yours, but it is something that we need to work towards.

This post was originally published on February 23, 2018. Follow @decolonizeont to learn more about Indygo’s work.

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