Newsletter: How much does reconciliation really mean if it can be cut with the stroke of a new government’s pen?

Ontario reconciliation commitment shaky after Conservative curriculum cut

Just how safe are the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action if a new provincial government can swat one aside with no First Nations consultations and no consequences?

I was left pondering this question after Ontario’s ministry of education suddenly cancelled a project that was supposed to infuse some Indigenous culture and history into school curriculum so students could finally get an accurate depiction of when settler and Indigenous histories intersected and the difficulties and challenges that resulted after contact.

Ben Menka, a spokesperson for Ontario education minister Lisa Thompson, told reportersthat  the decision was consistent with government promises for cost-saving measures. Premier Doug Ford, now cloaked in the red and blue of Progressive Conservative, blamed bureaucrats for making the last-minute call to cut the curriculum-revision project.

The curriculum revision started two years ago, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action in 2015. The work was supposed to be done in three phases over three summers, with different elders, educators and specialists from across Ontario participating in each phase. The final result should have significantly changed what kids in Canadian classrooms learn about Indigenous people, our culture and our history, not to mention the difficulties and challenges of Indigenous–settler history.

This would be a far cry from what I learned about Indigenous people when I was in school. I never learned about the Indigenous history of my town or region that was spoken about by my late mother and aunts. Instead, from a textbook with no cover, I learned about the Iroquois and about the extermination of the Beothuk peoples from Newfoundland.

Shy-Anne Bartlett is an Indigenous educator who was also one of the curriculum project’s participants in Ontario. According to Bartlett, the project was two weeks away from completing its final curriculum revision when word of the closure came down.

“I got an email at 3:55 in the afternoon saying that all flights, hotels and upcoming revisions sessions were cancelled,” Bartlett told me in a recent interview.

To add insult to injury, participants had to use their own credit cards to cover the hotel cancellation costs, with only the promise of a future reimbursement from the new Ontario government. But the sudden cancellation violated the hotel’s 30-day cancellation clause, Bartlett says, leaving her out $1,600.

“This pales in comparison to the opportunity children are losing to learn and understand Indigenous history and culture,” she notes.

The move is a slap in the face of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a slap in the face of residential school survivors, whose experiences — along with those who died in those schools — the TRC pushed Canadian teachers to instil in all children, so they can finally begin to acknowledge and understand this country’s true history and, hopefully someday, how to transcend it.

To cut such a curriculum change — which is already so long overdue —  seems mean-spirited to me. Not only was the curriculum project cut, but projects for Indigenous languages in Kindergarten and even a sign-language project for the deaf were shelved too.

American novelist Pearl Buck wrote that the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. That doesn’t look good for Ontario right now. Projects for reconciliation and for the deaf should have been protected first, not cut first. I’ll be curious to see what cuts are made to the new premier and MLA stipends, or ministries to do with business and industry.

Doug Ford told other media that he didn’t specifically direct the reconciliation curriculum project to be cut; it was just among the many expenses that his new government promised to cut. Officials with Ford’s office didn’t respond to my requests for an interview. I wanted to ask him how he squares this reconciliation move with one during his time in municipal politics.

Ford was on city council in Toronto when that  council declared a “Year of Truth and Reconciliation” in the city in 2013 — two years before the TRC released its calls to action. I’m not saying Doug Ford drove those groundbreaking reconciliation efforts in Toronto; that was the work of the city’s Aboriginal affairs committee, especially. But, as a councillor, Ford had to have seen committee reports, listened to presentations to council and, maybe at some level, even understood the importance of reconciliation.

Maybe he’s telling the truth that the sudden curriculum cut was a money thing, and not an attack on Indigenous people or a concerted effort to roll back the TRC’s changes. Maybe it really was just a bunch of senior bureaucrats scrimping dollars. Particularly in a new government’s first year, power is often vested in a bureaucracy’s most senior managers. Although I wonder if some bureaucrats in this case may have been waiting for a chance to hatch some ideas of their own and claw back some measures they don’t support — especially when you consider just how fast reconciliation landed on the cutting block.

The ministry of education says it’s committed to finishing the initiative. But it didn’t say what that meant, what it would look like, or when.

That’s cold comfort to Shy-Anne Bartlett. I asked what reconciliation means to her, and what message cutting a reconciliation initiative sends. Reconciliation means understanding what she endured as a child, she says.

Bartlett, 42, was removed from her birth home as part of the “60’s Scoop,” and never had a chance to say goodbye to her family. “A lot of how I am and how I react has to do with they way I was removed. It hurts forever,” the married mother of one says. “I often think too that when some of the people who were involved with residential schools look back, they must have terrible memories, too. It would be easier to deal with if people were educated, knew and understood. The only way we can start to heal is to begin to accept it.”

As for what reconciliation may mean to Ford’s government, Bartlett says the damage is done and will reverberate in negative ways. “When they cancelled this, the message was clear to Indigenous people: Your history isn’t important to us. Your issues aren’t part of our agenda,” she says. “And non-Indigenous people who never supported Indigenous people or reconciliation will be emboldened by this. They’ll say, ‘We don’t need to support it because the government doesn’t support it.’”

Should the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action have been binding on each province? Let me know what you think via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.

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