Learning on Stolen Land

We can’t understand Canada’s nature without understanding the nature of Canada’s strengths and weaknesses.

Author: Lora Yurdakul for Alternatives Journal

Knowledge is at the forefront of academia and literacy, positioning itself within research, lectures, discussions, and projects. However, within the confines of Western academic institutions, knowledge is often homogenized and insular. Simply put, our education system has failed to provide students with different knowledge bases. After all, how can Canadian educational institutions boast diverse student populations, yet fail to provide different perspectives in the classroom?

Given that Canada was founded by colonizers, it is not surprising that the Canadian education system is built on colonial views. Educational institutions predominantly transmit knowledge that a) perpetuates Eurocentrism and b) overlooks Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing. The lack of Indigenous perspectives in Canada’s academia has been acknowledged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, who have called for the development of “culturally appropriate curricula”. In a country whose land has been cared for by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, it is disappointing that Indigenous perspectives are not included within environmental science curriculums.

Moving the education system away from a Eurocentric point of view is a complex task, as it involves developing a willingness to unlearn and deconstruct deeply ingrained colonial views. To begin moving away from eurocentrism, I think that a steppingstone is practicing cultural humility. Cultural humility is a manner of respectfully understanding cultural differences by not judging one’s culture, but rather showing a willingness to understand it. This concept involves being open to different cultures and committing to a lifelong evaluation and critique of one’s actions and thoughts. Oftentimes our approach to learning about new cultures is subject to previous biases and judgements. While learning about new cultures is exciting and a step towards inclusivity, it is important to be conscientious in our learning approach, be mindful of power imbalances and respect the information that we are provided with. By practicing cultural humility, we are able to let go of our previous biases and approach the conversation with open- mindedness and respect.

Another facet of moving away from Eurocentrism and becoming more accepting of other cultures and knowledge systems involves being comfortable with not knowing. Not knowing is often an uncomfortable feeling in an academic setting. As a student, I am no stranger to feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed when a professor asks a question, and my mind draws a blank. The truth is, when it comes to learning about different cultures, we don’t know what we don’t know. To expand on this statement, I believe that in educational settings, we are all subject to following norms without questioning why things are the way that they are. In particular, the lack of Indigenous perspectives is not recognized, much less acknowledged by a majority of members in academic settings. In fact, I myself only realized that my environmental science and biology courses were explicitly transmitting Western-based knowledge in the last year of my undergraduate degree. That is when I began to question why my courses delivered a Eurocentric point of view and I questioned why Western conservation and land management methods were presented as if they were the only ones to exist.

In an attempt to bridge the divide between Western-based and Indigenous perspectives, I believe it is fundamental to acknowledge our lack of knowledge and the omission of Indigenous perspectives in Canadian curricula. Overall, in order to elicit tangible change within the education system a willingness to transcend disciplinary biases and boundaries must be self-realized, not imposed. While the process of being comfortable with not knowing requires in-depth reflection and internal dialogue, some questions to guide your thought process include:

• What do I know about Canada’s history?

• Who taught me what I know? Is my knowledge reflective of different perspectives?

• How were Indigenous perspectives introduced in my learning environment?

• Are there gaps in my learning? Is my learning biased by Eurocentric views?

Moreover, there is the need to recognize Canada’s colonial history and ongoing oppression of Indigenous communities. This is often easier said than done, as recognizing the unjust treatment that Canada has and continues to impose on Indigenous communities requires a greater moral conscientiousness. One thing to keep in mind is that a decolonizing lens has to come into the frame when we have these types of discussions and reflections. While there exist two sides to every story, numerous textbooks and learning resources omit Indigenous perspectives and focus on colonial history. In addition, Indigenous Knowledge has often been misrepresented and treated as inferior by Western observers; this power imbalance must be recognized and challenged. For non-Indigenous learners, we must question our knowledge sources, broaden our knowledge by engaging in open dialogue, and hold those in our community accountable.

Lastly, a key component of including Indigenous perspectives in education is providing Indigenous students and scholars an avenue to engage within the academic setting. There is a pressing need to diversify classrooms, not only in the content that is being taught but also who is teaching it. The difference between appropriation and inclusion is distinct. For example, while settlers may want to include Indigenous perspectives and content in their teaching material, they indisputably lack the knowledge and training to do so. Educators and academics must recognize that while they can include Indigenous content and readings in the classroom setting, they cannot speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples. In addition, listening and honouring what Indigenous peoples want to be taught in classrooms is essential when including their perspectives.

In short, while education is responsible for creating a divide between Western-based knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge, education is also capable of establishing change. Cultural humility is a lifelong learning journey that incorporates rebuilding one’s knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of different cultures. I refer to cultural humility as a lifelong learning journey as there is no definite end of one’s learning; there is always room for improvement or a new experience waiting to be experienced and reflected on. While including Indigenous perspectives in education is a complex and multifaceted task, it is one that is necessary to create an inclusive and representative learning environment. The first step is to approach different perspectives with openness and willingness.

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