Changing the subject in teacher education: Indigenous, diasporic and settler colonial relations

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Martin J. Cannon, OISE/University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

In current and past teaching for well over a decade now  I have been engaging with people – in the majority of cases, non-Indigenous peoples – in the shared challenge of  thinking about the histories of racism and settler colonialism. One of the recurrent obstacles in doing this work involves the discomfort that ensues in upsetting people’s everyday investment in seeing Canada as a fair, generous, and tolerant nation. A far greater challenge, perhaps, has to do with our starting points:  It has to do with asking white settler and diasporic peoples to think about and transform their own investment and relationship with colonialism.

In Canada, it is typically Indigenous scholars, teachers, and populations that are left to explain away the impact of colonization on our communities, even the impact of residential schooling. Some scholars, such as bell hooks, already have written about the troublesome ‘service positions’ this tendency can sometimes create for those called upon to engage in this ‘service’ work.  One problem is  that so long as we remain focused on racism and colonialism as belonging only to Indigenous peoples, we do very little in the way of having non-Indigenous peoples think about matters of restitution, their own decolonization, and what it might mean to transform their complicity in ongoing dispossession.

I am not the only Indigenous person in Canada to raise the matter of having non-Indigenous peoples think about their relationship with settler colonialism, and the implications of this relationship, particularly for education. 

This issue in fact recalls to our mind the writings of Verna St Denis, and the story of the Kanienkehaka man mentioned in John Milloy’s book, A National Crime, who, when asked to recount his experience of residential school for an Indian Affairs publication in 1965, responded astutely: “When I was asked to do this paper I had some misgivings, for if I were to be honest, I must tell of things as they were; and really, this is not my story, but yours.”

My call to a different way of doing things – a changing of the subject as it were – is, therefore, not entirely new. What is new is the kinds of questions I am asking, specifically: What sorts of transformative and/or equity-minded frameworks will bring about changes in the structural and interpersonal advantages that accrue to settlers as a result of colonialism and, in some cases,  the fact of hegemonic whiteness? What sorts of equity-minded and transformative frameworks can people participate in as settlers – those allies who want to be proactive – and how might these transform teacher education programs and priorities in Canada?

Education scholar Susan Dion has addressed similar questions. In Braiding Histories Dion’s  concern is with the self, especially the bifurcation of self/Other that takes place in educational settings where much of learning is structured by the acquisition of facts, information, and attributes that “presupposes a distance (or detachment) between the learner and [the] learned.” Other scholars, such as Carol Schick and Verna St Denis, suggest the bifurcation of self/Other leads some white teachers, students – and even faculty – to conclude that they do not have a culture or, at least, that they are culturally neutral and, therefore, that they can  be a helper to Indigenous peoples in defining theirs.

I understand my colleagues to be calling for a more systematic and far ranging pedagogy aimed at having non-Indigenous peoples think about the construction of the Other and, indeed, their own investment in a politics of representation, the land, its use, and its history. The tendency to focus on ‘the Other’ does very little to help non-Indigenous peoples know, understand, and challenge normalcy and/or their own investment in colonial dominance and self-identification. This kind of decolonizing work is time consuming, difficult, and challenging, but also imperative in light of literature that identifies the limits of the ‘colonizer who refuses’ or that is critical of the politics of apologies and ‘reconciliation’.

How do we engage privileged learners to contest settler colonialism and bring about change in education and their own classrooms? This question requires further inquiry, but I have found Andrea Smith’s writings useful when trying to appreciate fully the importance of this question, especially where finding ‘common ground’ is concerned. Smith explains that it is often much easier to start from a framework that assumes everybody as a potential ally rather than as a potential opponent.  It is important for learners to crystallize their involvement in questions of social inequality by considering the impact of oppression on their everyday lives.

As an example, I often find it productive in my classrooms to raise the potential for environmental destruction as a way of giving teacher educators a reason to start addressing related oppressions. I try to connect consumerism and environmental destruction, including the way these are intimately connected to histories of colonization and forms of predatory capitalism. In doing so, some teacher candidates begin to realize that the advantages accruing to them from colonialism might not afford any guarantees or relief from environmental devastation.

It is worth asking if the work we do to engage privileged learners in these ways results in any tangible outcomes, especially where addressing and working toward the reparation of colonial injustices is concerned. On these matters the work of Tyler McCreary – who has explored issues related to settler responsibilities in Canada – is exemplary. McCreary also speaks directly to the effectiveness of pedagogy employed by the late Patricia Monture who famously started her courses by asking all people to define their treaty rights.

In seeking to reconcile colonial pasts, some will ask whether it is enough to have Canadians come to understand and to identify treaty rights. How, if at all, do these articulations result in a structural relinquishment of advantages acquired through settler privilege? And so we arrive back at the question: how do we engage privileged learners to take responsibility for histories and legacies of settler colonialism and make change? Will it take place through the introduction of Indigenous world-views into teacher education curricula – or for that matter – efforts to ‘Indigenize’ the academy? And finally, what does it mean to ask Canadians, especially new Canadians, to take responsibility for colonial injustice?

Working across differences will be hard work. The reality is that these conversations, especially the ones about the complicity of diaspora in the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples, have only started to play themselves out in Canadian scholarly literatures and with startling gaps in educational writings. The building of Indigenous-diasporic relationships has received ample, though often times discomforting, attention in international contexts. Haunani Kay Trask’s Settlers of Color and ‘Immigrant’ Hegemony: ‘Locals’ in Hawai'i, and Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura’s Asian Settler Colonialism are both exemplary examples.

Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with 17 graduate students who were thinking through some of these ideas in the Canadian context. My course, Centering Indigenous-Settler Solidarity in Theory and Research, is a graduate seminar, which aims to explore, and reflect on the building and rejuvenation of alliances.  The objective of this kind of course stems in part from realizing that I work and teach in one of the most ethnically diverse graduate programs and cities in the country. But my rationale was also much more personal. It stems from realizing that I can no longer stand back or avoid my responsibility as an Indigenous intellectual and scholar to work toward the building of intercultural relationships, not when the very core of my emotional, spiritual, and physical being – as both Haudenosaunee and white – embodies these very alliances.

We need to stake out, name, and explore the kinds of intellectual, intimate, and intercultural relationships that exist, and might be further realized and rejuvenated between white settler, diasporic and Indigenous populations  including the possibilities, challenges, and limitations that surround the building of these alliances in theory, research, and practice. I am not alone in making this call in education. Indeed, Susan Dion outlines a strategy for engaging diaspora in anti-colonial dialogue in her ‘critical pedagogy of remembrance.’ Celia Haig Brown also addresses the need to build diasporic-Indigenous relationships in her work.

The works of Dion and Haig-Brown do not exhaust the range of possibilities for engaging diasporic populations in thinking about Indigenous peoples and the history of settler colonialism. Nor do they speak to the emotional and psychic complexities this can – and often does – create. What such works do suggest is a need for further research, scholarly engagement and writing in this area. Educational, classroom-based, and pedagogical literatures need to think about having non-Indigenous peoples – especially new Canadians, some of them Indigenous peoples – locate and name their investment in continuing colonial dominance in Canada, including how best to engage with questions of reform.

What does it mean to effect equitable outcomes in teacher education today? I would suggest it starts, not in thinking about decolonization as an exclusively Indigenous practice, but rather, in recognizing that every non-Indigenous person has a stake in making restitution for continuing colonial dominance. It involves working to disrupt the binary of self/Other. In broader institutional terms, it requires more than the incorporation of Indigenous culture and world-views into teacher education and other curricula. It also involves placing a developing literature concerned with the building of settler-Indigenous alliances into productive dialogue with educational literatures aimed at anti-colonial and solidarities pedagogy.

Martin J. Cannon (Oneida, Grand River Territory) is co-editor with Lina Sunseri of ‘Racism, Colonialism, and Indigeneity in Canada’, and an assistant professor of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at OISE, University of Toronto. 


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