Erasing the Indigenous

October 10, 2017 § 7 Comments

In 2015, then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified appointing women to half of his cabinet posts with ‘It’s 2015.’  And we all applauded.  He was elected largely because he wasn’t the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.  But he also won based on election promises of gender equality, LGBTQ equality, as well as a ‘new deal’ for the indigenous population.

But here we are two years on, and the plight of the indigenous population of Canada remains the same as it ever was.  Trudeau has not exactly lived up to his campaign pledges to re-set the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state.  This is not all Trudeau’s fault in the sense that he reflects a deeply racist Canadian society.  I have written about this numerous times (here, here, here, and here, for example).

Last week in my Twitter feed, I was gobsmacked to come across this:

This couldn’t be real, could it?  It had to be another bit of Twitter and untruths.  But, no, it’s real:

Even Global News picked it the story today.  So, let’s think about the history presented in this Grade 3 workbook.  According to it, the indigenous population of Canada agreed to simply pick up stakes and move to allow nice European colonists to settle the land.  Nevermind the centuries of occupation, and all of those things.  Nope, the very nice Indians agreed to move.

I wish I could say I was shocked by this.  I’m not.  This is pretty much part and parcel of how Euro-Canadian culture thinks about the indigenous population, if it thinks about the indigenous population at all.  Or, when Euro-Canadians think about the indigenous population, it’s in entirely negative ways; I don’t think I need to get into the stereotypes here.

I tried to do some research on this workbook and the company that published it, Popular Book Company.  My web sleuthing turned up next to nothing.  If I Google the book itself, all I get are links to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Indigo.ca (Indigo is Canada’s largest bookseller).  Finally, I discovered that this series is popular amongst homeschoolers in Canada, and, as of 2015, over 2 million copies were in circulation.  My attempts to find anything out about Popular Book Company came to nothing; all I could find out is that it’s a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, PopularWorld.

I suppose the actual damage done by this outright stupidity is limited.  Nonetheless, it exists.  But how this stupidity occurred is another thing.  From what I learned on the interwebs, this edition of the Grade 3 curriculum was published in 2015, the previous edition in 2007.  I can’t tell if this stupidity was in the 2007 version, but it is certainly in the 2015 edition.

I have experience working in textbook publication. I have written copy for textbooks, I have edited textbook copy.  And I have reviewed textbooks before publication.  And this is for textbooks at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education.  To get to publication, textbooks go through rounds of edits and expert review.  My guess is this didn’t happen here.  I have also worked with provincial boards in Canada to revise curriculum, including textbooks.  Deep thought and careful consideration goes into this process.  And I have friends who work with homeschoolers, at least in Québec, to ensure that the textbooks and curriculum homeschoolers use and follow is appropriate.  And they take their job seriously.

So how did this happen?  Who wrote this stupidity?  Who allowed it to go to publication?  And why did it take two years for anything to happen?  Initially, Popular said it would revise future editions of the workbook.  Eventually, however, it agreed to recall already extant versions and make sure that this is edited when the book is re-printed.

Great.  But how did this happen in the first place?

Bringing the Past to Life

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

Twenty-odd years ago, I took a course on pre-Revolution US History  at the University of British Columbia.  I don’t know what possessed me to do this, frankly. It must’ve fit into my schedule.  Anyway, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in undergrad.  It was taught by Alan Tully, who went onto become Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor of American History at the University of Texas.  We read a bunch of interesting books that semester, including one on the early history of Dedham, Massachusetts.  But, the one that has always stuck out in my mind is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Diary of a Midwife: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812I remember being deeply struck by this book as a 20-year old in Vancouver. I had a pretty strong interest in women’s history as an undergrad, but this was one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

In my last semester teaching at John Abbott College in Montreal, I taught US History, and assigned this book. I even got in touch with Dr. Tully to tell him how influential that course had been on me, and how influential this book had been and to thank him.  I think he was chuffed to hear from me, even if he didn’t remember me (I wasn’t a great student,I barely made a B in his class).

I am teaching US History to 1877 this semester and I have assigned this book again.  Last time I assigned in, in 2012, my students, much to my surprise, loved it.  And they loved it for the same reasons I do.  Ulrich does an incredible job showing the size of Martha Ballard’s life in late 18th century Hallowel, Maine.

Based on the singular diary of Ballard, Ulrich delves into the social/cultural history of Hallowel/Augusta, Maine, drawing together an entire world of sources to re-create the social life of Ballard’s world.  I’m reading the book again for class, we have a discussion planned for today.  I’m still amazed at how Ulrich has re-created Ballard’s world.  And even if Ballard’s written English isn’t all that familiar to us today, 200+ years on, you feel almost like you’re in the room with Ballard.  She has her own singular voice in my head, I feel like I know her.

Writing history isn’t easy. It is a creative act, attempting to bring to life things that happened 10 or 200 years ago.  We work from disparate sources, with multiple voices, created for a multitude of different reasons.  They agree with each other, they argue with each other.  And it’s our job to bring all of this together.  In many ways, we’re the midwives of the past.  The very best History books are like The Diary of a Midwife or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: they bring the past to life. They make us feel almost like we were there.

Irish History

April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments

It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers.  I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years.  Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides.  The Famine, in particular, gets me down.  The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well.  It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora.  Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.

It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas.  But, Irish history is massively complicated.  My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up.  I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic.  But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously).  So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.

My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Waylast week.  It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did.  But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers.  And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin.  He’s confused.  He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland.  When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused.  And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders.  This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.

One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history.  He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland.  But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated.  He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.

Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation.  And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.

And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.

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