indigenous canada: online course from university of alberta

This is a detail from artwork that
was used throughout the course.
Earlier this year, I studied and completed "Indigenous Canada", a 12-week MOOC offered by the University of Alberta. It's a general overview of Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective. It was a mostly good experience, along with some issues that were less than ideal.

What was good:

1. It's always eye-opening to study history from the perspective of the non-dominant and non-elite -- the conquered as opposed to the conquerors. This is the kind of history I've always read, from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to all the feminist, labour, and civil rights books I've read, and histories of the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and South America. But this was the first time I read a history specifically of my adopted country written from the Indigenous perspective. It's a great way to learn about Canada.

2. The module on the residential schools deepened my understanding of this horror. As bad as I thought it was, it was so much worse, in every respect.

Two huge takeaways for me relate to intergenerational trauma -- how it happens, why it continues.

One of the characteristics shared by almost all Indigenous cultures is an emphasis on family, usually extended family. In oral traditions, knowledge transmitted directly from generation to generation. Skills -- hunting, gardening, cooking, building, healing, everything you can think of -- are learned by observation and participation. Values, morals, and ethics -- all the guideposts of life -- are transmitted through storytelling and observation. From birth to death, every aspect of life is shared communally, and done for the benefit of the new generations, to build for the future.

Now imagine a culture such as this with no children. Villages where all the children have been stolen. The trauma and grief and shame left behind. The despair, the helplessness.

At the same time, imagine generations of children who have never been exposed to familial love, or at best that love was a distant memory. Generations of children who have been raised institutionally, with harsh discipline, meager food rations, minimal health care, forced lessons intended for wage-slavery, and of course, verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Generations of children who have been forbidden to speak their own languages or learn anything about their cultures -- and who are indoctrinated to believe that their original cultures are dirty and shameful.

When these children become adults, how can they know how to raise families of their own? They have not seen normal parenting. They lack the supports of their culture and communities. They know only shame and abuse.

These entwined conditions are at the root of the intergenerational trauma that echoes through Indigenous communities in countless destructive ways. The wonder is how people and their cultures have survived at all -- a testament to the determination and resiliency of the human spirit.

3. The modules about resistance -- both historically and currently -- were great.

4. I learned a lot that challenges the dominant narrative of Canada as a force for good, or at the very least, a benign society. Canada doesn't do US-style chest-thumping, but we can certainly be smug about how wonderful we are -- but only if we don't include the original inhabitants of this land.

What wasn't so good:

Most of the negatives were related to the administration of the course.

1. The captioning on the videos was terrible. Anyone who relied solely on the written material would lose a lot of understanding.

2. The quizzes after each module were poor. In many modules, there were no good answers, or there was more than one good answer, reducing testing to guesswork. Worst of all, when you got a wrong answer, the quiz didn't identify the correct answer. That's an impediment to learning.

3. In the module on treaties, the questions were all dates and treaty numbers -- strictly rote memorization, as opposed to conceptual learning.

4. The quizzes were not very challenging. I understand this is a beginner's course, not intended for in-depth study. But the learning level seemed more like middle school or high school than college or university.

I'm very glad I had the opportunity to take this course, as part of my own professional development. My next course will be San'yas Cultural Safety Training. This is BC-specific, developed by Indigenous educators, and mandatory for health and social service providers in the province.

No comments: