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Blog Contest: Is Teaching History “for Social Justice” Working Well for Indigenous Students?

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
28 May 2013 - 10:22am

It is common to hear that teachers should be concerned about social justice, and teach to enhance it in Canadian society and beyond. Indeed, many dedicated and sensitive teachers are doing excellent work to address issues many people would associate with social justice, and the history classroom is often a place to consider this theme and the questions it raises. The study of the past inevitably provides case studies of violations of human relationships and the efforts of communities to renew and reconstruct those relationships.

What does “social justice” mean and how do assumptions about it create different conditions for different student populations within schools? Is social justice about creating the conditions for equality or is it about recognizing subjectivity to different systemic barriers? Is it the same as advancing “diversity” or “multiculturalism”? How does teaching (history) “for social justice” address the needs, strengths and interests of Indigenous students? Is social justice the same as “decolonizing”?

I am considering these ideas by drawing on the perspectives of several scholars who have carried out relevant research. This short summary of their rich and interesting contributions will not be sufficient so I suggest in advance that readers look these works up themselves rather than taking my word for it!

Carla Peck (2011) argues convincingly that the ethnicity of students substantially impacts on the way they engage with history education and understand historical significance. Peck describes ethnicity as fluid, plural, complex and influenced by different inter- and intra-group dynamics (2011, p. 308). I understand the term “Indigenous” to signal more than ethnicity, even in the wide sense Peck uses it (for example Indigenous groups identify with land in particular ways and have been subjected to, and survived, particular historical processes). Peck’s research nevertheless helps urge teachers to begin with the assumption that different students may bring different identity lenses to learning history.

This can be problematic when teachers use difference as an excuse for not responding to their students. Consider this research: In interviews with head teachers of social studies departments in ten Vancouver high schools (all of whom were white males) Paul Orlowski found that cultural deficit discourse is pervasive. In other words, teachers explain the lack of success by Aboriginal students in terms of their culture rather than a problem with schooling. Orlowski explains that one teacher “responded to my suggestion of changing the conditions for Aboriginal students with “That would certainly be spoiling them a lot”” (2008, p. 127). Orlowski concludes: “Overall, the teachers refused to accept the suggestion that they alter the curriculum to help make it more relevant for Aboriginal students” (2008, p. 126).

Several scholars illustrate how teachers use a lack of understanding of, or comfort with, Indigenous cultures as a way of avoiding teaching about them (for example, Dion, 2007; 2009; Higgins, Madden & Korteweg, 2013). Teachers claim to be “perfect strangers” to Indigenous peoples and this allows them to be excused from teaching about Indigenous experience in more depth. Would Canadians tolerate teachers saying the same thing about other significant populations in Canadian history and society? Evidently, most history teachers do not have direct experience of many of the things they teach about and they do not ask to be excused; instead, they learn more!

What about liberal and multicultural concepts that suggest (or require) schooling to celebrate the contributions of all Canadians – doesn’t that help Indigenous students? Verna St. Denis (2011) would argue it does not: “Multiculturalism works against Aboriginal sovereignty and anti-colonialism in its production of national histories that imagine Canada as a socially just and successful multicultural state” (p. 310). By this she means that multicultural discourse allows teachers to avoid recognizing the unique and specific claims, rights and positions of Aboriginal peoples (and their histories) in the experience of relating to this land prior to the arrival of Europeans, and through colonization and decolonization. Instead, it is possible to “trivialize Aboriginal content and perspectives, and at the same time believe [teachers] are becoming more inclusive and respectful” (2011, p. 314).

Decolonization and decolonizing is not the same as social justice according to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012), it is a “distinct project from other civil rights-based social justice projects” (p. 2). In fact, they argue that equating decolonization with social justice (or absorbing the first into the second) “is a desire to not have to deal with this (Indian) problem anymore” (2012, p. 9). Decolonizing is, instead, a way of addressing the history of colonization from Indigenous perspectives, deconstructing structures from the past and in the present associated with settler colonialism, and considering a different future with reference (and relevance) to the imperatives of Indigenous peoples. This, of course, relates to directly addressing the appropriation of Indigenous lands in Canada by settlers and immigrants.

This may seem like an extreme prospect to consider in a history classroom. From my experience as a non-Indigenous settler from Arctic Canada, and through what I have learned from scholars, it is not such an extreme prospect. It is what many Indigenous peoples in this country want and work towards. Those of us who are non-Indigenous should consider this more fully and deeply, particularly in working with Canadian youth. As Michael Marker (2011) has suggested: “It will be more than difficult to reconcile a history curriculum that seeks to inculcate national identity and citizenship with indigenous desires to assert sovereignty and reclaim pre-contact understandings of time and space” (p. 111). He argues this point with hope that teachers will try, nonetheless.

What do you think?



Dion, S. D. (2007). Disrupting molded images: Identities, responsibilities and relationships – Teachers and Indigenous subject material. Teaching Education, 18, 329–342.

Dion, S. D. (2009). Braiding histories: Learning from Aboriginal peoples' experiences and perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Higgins, M., Madden, B. & Korteweg, L. (2013). Witnessing (halted) deconstruction: white teachers’ ‘perfect stranger’ position within urban Indigenous education. Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI:10.1080/13613324.2012.759932.

Marker, M. (2011). Teaching history from an indigenous perspective: Four winding paths up the mountain. In P. Clark (Ed.), New possibilities for the past: Shaping history education in Canada (pp. 97-112). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Orlowski, P. (2008). “That Would Certainly Be Spoiling Them”: Liberal Discourses of Social Studies Teachers and Concerns About Aboriginal Students. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 31(2), 110-129.

Peck, C. (2011). Ethnicity and Students’ Historical Understandings. In P. Clark (Ed.), New possibilities for the past: Shaping history education in Canada. (pp. 305-324). Vancouver, UBC Press.

St. Denis, V. (2011). “Silencing Aboriginal Curricular Content and Perspectives Through Multiculturalism: “There are Other Children Here” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33(4), 306-317.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40. 

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