By Regan Brodziak
“Education. We need to educate our children.”
Of all the responses to the question of how people foresee themselves participating in reconciliation, education always emerges as a top contender. The children are the future, they reason. They are the solution.
I was always skeptical of this response.
Of course, it’s an unfairly simple question. A question of this scale demands a response that is far more complex, far more nuanced than one can provide in a 15 minute roundtable discussion.
Nonetheless, for a number of reasons, this answer was always off-putting to me. In my mind, it seemed like a response that didn’t demand anything substantive on our part. Because education is by its very nature a forward-looking feat, it seemed like a convenient excuse for inaction, one that could almost justify complacency. It just seemed too passive.
Of course, I now know that this is not so. Over these past 3 months, I’ve had the opportunity to challenge my assumptions and develop a stronger appreciation for the value of education in reconciliation. For my Stretch Experience, I was offered a position as a practicum student with Native Counselling Services of Alberta in their legal education and resources department, Bear Paw Legal. Given my apprehension about education as a mechanism of reconciliation, this may surprise you. Nonetheless, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity and excited to see what I would learn.
Unfortunately, some of what I learned was deeply disappointing.
As part of their outreach mandate, Bear Paw attends events in the community to provide basic legal education and to promote our services to the public. At one particular event, I was tasked with quizzing passerbys (most of whom were children) on basic legal concepts. All in all, the activity was quite fun and we managed to engage children in what might otherwise be a boring subject. However, there was one question that was of particular concern to me. It went as follows:
“The stereotypes about Indigenous people in Canada are true. True or false?” The responses were overwhelmingly “true”. I would often rephrase, replacing the word “stereotypes” with the words “bad things” or something of the like. Regardless of the vocabulary, their responses remained the same.
Let me be clear that I am by no means faulting the children. It was clear that they responded the way they did not out of malevolence, but out of never having been exposed to such things before. Their side-eyed giggles that bordered on discomfort told me that they were confused by the question.
It’s also important for me to point out that I’m not a child psychologist, and that my experience with children is relatively limited. I know painfully little about cognitive development, and I know even less about the cognitive abilities of a middle school-aged child. Perhaps it was unreasonable of me to expect a child of that age (presumably 12 to 13 years old) to understand such an abstract question.
But the problem isn’t that they didn’t understand the question; the problem is that we aren’t preparing them to understand the question. We can’t expect them to intuitively know what we haven’t taught them. An issue of this scale requires that we take an active approach in conveying to them that these stereotypes are NOT true. We need to prime our children for the issues that they will inevitably encounter in the future. We need to equip them (in a manner appropriate to their cognitive abilities) with a least a base understanding of the colonial inequalities that remain. If we don’t, they risk being shaped by the first thing of this subject they encounter. Unfortunately, it’s likely that their first encounters with this subject will only affirm the stereotypes that we’re trying to discredit.
This isn’t to say that we should impose on our children a particular political agenda before they have the opportunity to develop their views on their own. In fact, I argue that this isn’t political at all. Teaching the leaders of tomorrow that all human beings are deserving of respect and dignity should transcend even the deepest of political divides.
I’m still critical of efforts with only a passive commitment to reconciliation. I’m critical of those who use reconciliation as social or political capital. I’m critical of those who get defensive at the implication that they are somehow complicit in and derive benefit from the expropriation of Indigenous peoples. By this definition. I’m critical of myself. I’m just as guilty as the next, and I still struggle to know my place as an ally. Much to my own dismay, I sometimes find myself preaching with doing anything substantive to challenge the status quo, and I find myself getting defensive when confronted with the reality that I’m part of the problem. But you know what doesn’t fit within this framework of passive commitment? Education. If we do it properly.
I now understand what I couldn’t when my peers responded with “education”. Reconciliation should be a forward-looking feat. The past should be used for critical reflection and to inform the future, but beyond that it serves very little productive purpose. My Stretch mentor and supervisor, Dr. Patti Laboucane-Benson, is very clear about this. No shame, no blame, no guilt, she says. This has dramatically changed how I approach reconciliation.
We have made such incredible progress and I truly do see a future that is far better, far brighter than the past. But this change isn’t some natural, linear progression. This change is a product of the foresight of those who actively invest in the next generation.
At the risk of sounding trite, much like my peers would say, the children are the future. Let us not abandon or overlook the opportunity of education because it’s an uninventive, perhaps even tired solution. It may be a banality, but it’s one that’s necessary.