Throughout this Grade 11 English class we attempted to deconstruct the historically rooted colonial bias in North American society that shapes anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism. We also examined the biases that adversely impact Brown and Muslim identities. The goal was to rid ourselves of harmful biases that perpetuate settler colonialism and discrimination, to practice articulating our truths, and to recognize the connections between our struggles in a way that will empower us to shape a better society.
To introduce the topic of bias we read Shireen Ahmed’s op-ed in the Globe & Mail responding to Don Cherry’s allegations against brown people for not wearing poppies on Remembrance Day. By questioning Cherry’s unsubstantiated claims and sharing that both her grandfathers fought in the Royal Indian Army alongside Canadian soldiers, Ahmed exposes Cherry’s bias about WWI war veterans. Students were asked: “What is bias? What is Don Cherry’s bias? What are some specific facts, pointed out by Shireen Ahmed that Cherry probably doesn’t know about?”
To subvert the myth that European immigrants are the standard for citizenship on this land, students learned about the Indigenous citizenship laws set out in the Two Row Wampum which marked the conditions for living here that the first British settlers agreed to and that Canada violated and continues to violate today.
In a subsequent lesson, students were asked to summarize an article about Syrian refugees who had raised money to help Canadian fire victims. We discussed how these Syrians had successfully modelled Indigenous protocols for living responsibly on these territories.
Students watched We Were Children to learn about the trauma inflicted on Indigenous children by Canadians who ran residential schools. Paramount to any lesson on residential schools is recognizing how Canadians are still engaging in the horrifying practice of separating Indigenous children from their parents. After the movie, students used a Venn diagram from a unit entitled “Canada’s Apology” to identify a common thread between residential schools and the issues raised by Yvonne Boyer, Tamara Malcolm, Cindy Blackstock, and Baby H.
As part of the “Canada’s Apology” unit, each student was given a scenario and asked to deliver a proper 5-step apology to be evaluated by the class. Following this lesson, students were asked to evaluate the different apologies made by Canada, the RCMP and different churches for running residential schools. Students quickly realized that apologies don’t make sense when the act that is being apologized for is still being perpetrated.
Many students in the class were newcomers to Canada, displaced by wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. As I looked for authors that might align with my students’ perspectives, I came across the incredible short story entitled “Storyteller” by Iraqi writer Anoud, in Banthology a collection of stories by writers from countries that Trump imposed his travel ban upon in 2017. In “Storyteller” the narrator gives her account of having survived a car bomb in Iraq, of losing her family and how the trauma of war has impacted her life and the decisions that she has made. Anoud brilliantly displays the injustice of her situation when she is confronted with an art piece of a car bomb in a British gallery. Tourists freely gawk at the subject of her trauma, but when she gets too close to it she is thrown out of the gallery. Images of George Bush on a television in a restaurant trigger her to yell out, causing the owners to call the police. The irony of being terrorized by the West dropping bombs in her country, and then being labelled by the Western world as the terrorist is too much to bear. It is through telling her story that she can end the stereotypes and heal from the trauma. (Questions for “Storyteller”)
Desmond Cole is another writer who knows the power of telling his story. By sharing his experiences with carding he does his part to push for change. To learn about anti-Black racism in Canadian society, we watched The Skin I’m In and responded to the following prompts. We then looked at a news article about a 6 year old who was handcuffed by the police. Students were asked “What is the bias about black people that encourages the handcuffing of a 6 year old black student in Kindergarten?” and “Where does this bias come from?”
To answer these questions we watched Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary share her research on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and we took turns jotting down notes on a shared Google doc entitled Deconstructing Anti-Black Bias. (Answer key to Deconstructing Anti-Black Bias). Dr. DeGruy Leary explained that in order to perpetuate the horrors of slavery, you need to believe that the enslaved are not human and that they are at fault somehow (pathologize the other e.g. as inherently violent), in order to live with yourself. This psychological trick was never interrupted, just as North American society has never done the work needed to heal from the trauma of chattel slavery and the colonization of Indigenous territories that is at its foundation.
As we read Cherie Dimaline’s novel The Marrow Thieves, we encountered multiple references to the Weendigo — the cannibal that takes and takes and takes. Dimaline’s story about Canadians hunting Indigenous people to steal their bone marrow is not so far fetched when considering all that Canada has taken from First Nations throughout its short history. To introduce the Weendigo lesson, I read Basil Johnston’s one page account of the Weendigo from his book entitled “Ojibway Heritage”. I gave students a 5 (easy) question content quiz after listening, to help them strengthen their listening/memory skills. Students were given a chart to list all the things that Canada took from First Nations. Spread out on the table were colonial events that a Design class had written into grey clouds (made for use with the map project). As students moved around the table they thought about what was being taken from First Nations through the descriptions of the events. After this activity, students learned about the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. For the entire Weendigo lesson click here. For the complete list of Canada’s colonial events used to make clouds for the Map Project click here.
For the culminating activity, students were presented with a recent news article about the 12 year old Indigenous youth who was handcuffed at BMO for trying to open a bank account with her grandfather. Students were asked to express what they thought about this event and to explain how it follows historical patterns, referring to 3 different clouds from the Weendigo activity in their answer.
Students were then asked to make a cloud for a historical event that has shaped an anti-Black bias in North American society as described in Dr. Joy DeGruy’s lecture.
After learning about Canada’s colonial legislation and continued acts of aggression against Indigenous people, students read chapter 12 of Lee Maracle’s book entitled My Conversations with Canadians. In this chapter named “Conversation 12: Response to empathy from settlers” Maracle shifts thinking around the notion of being marginalized by refusing to see Canada at the centre and by questioning why anyone would want to be accepted into an oppressive system that does not value relationships. She states that Canadians would need to believe that they are the centre of the universe in order for her to be marginalized, and she explains how, according to her traditional teachings, only she can be at the centre of her existence, in relationship with all aspects of creation that sustain her. Maracle states how Canada’s legal system is based on “principles of dishonest, meaningless relationships with others” (129), and she skillfully pulls the rug out from under any notion of the current colonial system as the standard to aspire to: “After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and in the oceans, and after spoiling the air, the lands, and the waters, who would want to be you?” (132).
To end the course, students read “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” by Audre Lorde who asks:
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you are you doing yours?”
Students were asked to connect Lorde’s reading to the course material, and to make an eye catching sign that clearly expresses the words they need to say, as prompted by Lorde.
For the full Culminating Activity assignment click here: Cognitive Dissonance/ “Marginalization”/The Transformation of Silence.
This course material follows action plans set out by the TDSB to develop skills for Global Competencies, Literacy, Indigenous Education, Excellence in the Education of Black Students, and activating student voice.
Cleave, S. (2018). Banthology Stories from Banned Nations. Dallas, Texas: Deep Vellum Publishing.
Dimaline, C. (2018). The Marrow Thieves. Toronto: Dancing Cat Books.
DeGruy, J. (2005). Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Milwaukie, Oregon: Uptone Press.
Johnston, B. (1976). Ojibway Heritage. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Lorde, A. (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. London: Silver Press.
Maracle, L. (2017). My Conversations With Canadians. Toronto: Book Thug.