Written by Jeff Woodward
We’re coming up on the Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada so as many of us here at Onlea prepare to see our families, feast and be grateful for all of the joy and success in our lives, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on one of the courses we helped create at Onlea, and how it profoundly affected me when I took it as a student.
First some background, I’m 47 years old, born in Saskatoon and raised all over Western Canada but my primary formative experiences were in Northern Saskatchewan and on Vancouver Island. I come of age at sort of the right time that I was exposed to many of the progressive policies that governments of the 60’s and 70’s instituted: multiculturalism and experimental educational programs both spring to mind. I was part of a school program called Students of High Potential in Prince Albert Saskatchewan that approached education wholistically, combining social studies, language arts and science studies into a broad milieu that taught me to spot and make connections between disparate subject matter in a way that serves me well to this day. I was raised in quiet suburban neighbourhoods where kids rode their bikes, played sports and caroused with often little or no adult supervision. It was also a time and place where we played games like cops & robbers or cowboys & indians, and that’s the flipside to the story of my idyllic childhood. Prince Albert where I lived is home to a massive indigenous population; there are at least a dozen reserves within a few hours drive of P.A. and most notably for this discussion it was home to one of Canada’s longest operating residential schools, which only closed in 1996. Long after I’d moved away.
As a kid growing up amidst all these people, I knew or learned shockingly little about them. We were taught a version of history that was decidedly white in tone. If “Indians” were mentioned at all, it was only as obstacles to expansion and progress, or as pathetic wards that the government needed to take care of and protect from themselves. Outside of school, indigenous people were commonly derided as lazy, wasteful, and yes, even savage...in the 1980s. Probably the most personally troubling connection I have to the Prince Albert Residential School is that as a youth in the 80’s I played hockey frequently against kids from the school. I remember them as ragged, undersized and miserable; wearing old or borrowed equipment, and they just weren’t very good. We’d regularly wallop them, both on the scoreboard and physically, and we were casually cruel to them as only children can be.
As I’ve gotten older and grown as a person, my connection to that school (as tenuous as it might be) and my behaviour (as much as the folly of youth might excuse it) has haunted me. I’ve tried to educate myself, I’ve tried to advocate for Indigenous rights and I’m both lucky and proud to call many incredible Indigenous Canadian friends. I’ve always felt like I’ve suffered from a knowledge void though, or maybe a better way to put it is that I’ve felt like there’s a dark curtain draped over a version of Canadian history that I’ve never had access to.
In 2017, (before I started working at Onlea) I heard about a new course being offered that was made in Edmonton by the UofA called Indigenous Canada, so I signed up. What I got was exactly what I’d been looking for, a version of Canadian history, Canadian present and national issues that was told from an Indigenous perspective. The material was beyond engaging, it was often shocking. This was a Canadian story told by people whose voices I’d never been exposed to in such a way in all my years of schooling. Indigenous Canada helped me “unlearn” many of the colonial perspectives I’d been taught to see as concrete when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. In many ways, Indigenous Canada cracked my mind and memories open and poured old ways of thinking out, while slipping different perspectives inside. There was probably no moment more shocking and enlightening for me personally than clicking on one of the interactive learning modules in the course dealing with art and indigenous women’s perspectives only to realize it was taught by artist Leah Dorion, who I’d known in junior high school, and who I’d had no idea was Metis. That made me think about all the other people who’ve had their culture erased the way I had done with her. The hours spent taking Indigenous Canada were nothing less than earth shaking and worldview changing for me, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have learned from those powerful voices.
Here at Onlea, we talk a lot about lifelong learning and the opportunities it opens up for the people who take the courses. Often for us that’s an abstract thing, since hundreds of thousands of people have taken our courses around the world and we couldn’t possibly know the story of each one of them, but as one person who took this one course, I’m reminded daily of the power we hold here at Onlea, we have the power to get it right. It’s an awesome power, and a humbling responsibility, but one I’m extremely thankful to have a small role in every day when I come to work.
I hope this weekend while you’re being thankful for all the things you have maybe you’ll stop for a moment and thinking about something that you can still get right, maybe that’s registering for Indigenous Canada, maybe it’s reading a different kind of novel like The Outside Circle, written by indigenous author Patti LaBoucane-Benson (also Canada’s newest senator), or listening to an astounding exploration of a nearly extinct indigenous language on Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. I guarantee, doing any of these things will expand and shake your worldview and make your life richer in the process. All these little experiences are steps to discovering truth and initiating reconciliation in our country, but as I discovered personally, they’re about getting things right, and I’m so thankful for that chance.