By Sue Tiffin
Learning around Treaties Recognition Week at J.D.Hodgson Elementary School last week has led to conversations about history, but also current events, as students gain a greater awareness of treaties and the ongoing rights and obligations they define for everyone who lives in Canada.
In Mike van den Hengel’s Grade 8 class, they’re conversations that happen throughout the school year, but he notes the topic is one that has been made more school-wide this year, with teachers using daily activities, educational videos, and projects around writing, oral language and media literacy to further explore the topic.
“For my class particularly, we’re really jumping in and looking at the number of treaties, the kids are in the process of making a documentary about each number of treaty,” he said. “I’m hoping when they’re done we might even be able to share those with the entire school, so that they can kind of have an understanding of, you know, different areas of the country. I know we know the provinces, but do we really know what land that was previously, or what treaty that land is under and maybe what some of the impacts have been for different groups.”
Treaties Recognition Week has been commemorated in Ontario during the first week of November since 2016.
“This annual event honours the importance of treaties and helps students and residents of Ontario learn more about treaty rights and relationships,” reads information on the provincial government’s website. “By learning more about our collective treaty rights and obligations, we can create greater understanding and nurture these relationships.” The week responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action of 2015 to increase treaty awareness.
“For the immediate grades, we start talking about things like resource development in Canada,” said van den Hengel. “Disproportionately resource development does impact First Nations people, and … it’s a conversation that we’re starting to have, about our life [depending] on resource development. A lot of our product technology, a lot of the things that we take for granted and a lot of the things that power our societies are based on this, but they come disproportionately at the expense of Indigenous people, and this is something that, I think it’s a conversation we’re having that, you know, there’s almost like two countries in one, in a way.”
Current event discussions have revolved around the Mi’kmaq lobster crisis, the land claim dispute in Caledonia, and the Wet’suwet’en pipeline conflict.
“It’s been interesting to hear some of the kids and their perspectives on things, because I’m not sure they’ve had these conversations either, and it has been a focus point in my class at least for a few years now, but for some of them, there seems to be kind of an awareness,” said van den Hengel. “Kids have a pretty strong sense of fairness, right, so some of the things that are going on, they’re like, is that necessarily fair, but also we do need some of these things in our life, so how do we work these relationships out.”
According to the Government of Canada website, the first treaty was signed on this land – between Indigenous groups and the British Crown for the British Colonies of North America – in 1701, while the first treaties signed with the Canadian government occurred in 1871. The most recent treaty signed, the Cree Nation Governance Agreement, occurred in 2018.
“Treaties uphold Indigenous rights to land, resources, water, health care, education and much more,” reads a statement from the Toronto Public Library. “At times, Canada has not upheld their end of these agreements. But Indigenous peoples continue to uphold their end of the agreement. These treaties, signed by previous and current governments, include everyone who lives in Canada. Everyone is responsible to uphold treaty rights.”
Van den Hengel begins the conversation going over the baseline of what a treaty is with his students.
“It’s pretty much the foundation of the country, as well,” he said. “I mean, when a lot of these treaties were signed, they were land sharing agreements, and I kind of talk about that.”
While he was working in Milton, van den Hengel brought students to the Woodland Cultural Centre near Brantford. It was there, during a treaty workshop, he learned of an experiential learning experience to help students understand the Haldimand proclamation.
“That treaty initially was 950,000 acres, so you’d set out a bunch of hula hoops for the kids to stand in,” said van den Hengel. “Then there’s all these land claims and all these other portions of this particular treaty that were then signed away to settlers as they came to Canada. As each one of those happens, kids have to get out of their hula hoop and go find their way into another one. By the end there’s one or two hula hoops and it obviously doesn’t fit 25 kids anymore. That’s kind of a visual representation.”
COVID-19 social distancing means van den Hengel had to create a different type of visual this year.
“After that I go into the history of it, when the treaties were signed, who they were signed by, which First Nations groups were held under those treaties, and kind of what the outcomes have been since,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with, there’s some information I have to give the kids, but then there’s some individual investigation they do themselves … The more information I find about this online … as the internet has expanded in northern territories around Canada, [a lot of the First Nations themselves are] more willing to get the information out themselves, so kids can get their side of the story.”
The conversations have been productive, van den Hengel said, and noted that many students are carrying those discussions on, outside of the classroom.
“A lot of the kids, apparently, from parents I’ve heard have been going home and talking about these things, so that’s encouraging,” he said.
The documentary project has kids working in groups – the online digital program they’re using allows them to work together while not being in proximity to each other, working in different areas of the classroom on the same project. After viewing Ken Burns documentary clips as an example of good historical documentaries, the students set out to make their own.
“They’re going to research a number treaty somewhere in Canada, see which First Nations groups were kind of there before the treaty was signed, what their lives were like before, and then some of the resource projects are how the Canadian government has benefited from the treaty, and also how some of the First Nations have benefited from certain treaties as well. I’m not going to say that all of these things are particularly negative,” said van den Hengel. “In some ways, there are First Nations around the country that are doing particularly well, particularly if they’re close to some of these resource developments, that’s a point that’s often lost as well.”
Students’ documentaries will document the findings of their research.
“What they’re going to do afterwards is kind of look at the outcomes of the treaty and how it’s impacted that area, how it’s impacted traditional ways of life, culture, and how it’s impacted Canada, as well, so what has been the benefit for Canadian citizens, of this treaty,” said van den Hengel. “It’s not all bad. It’s also one of those things where some of these promises that were made were never kept. And, they’re going to come to their own conclusions with their own research and everything as well. There’s no predestined outcome or anything, it’s kind of just like, look into the treaty and tell me what you think has happened there.”
The students have been excited to participate in the project, which also works to develop greater media literacy skills. It’s been exciting for van den Hengel, too, to teach the students after his own experiences of working on a reserve for three years.
“It’s something that’s near and dear to me,” he said. “I like imposing some of that on the kids, and giving them some of the knowledge that I gained, because I was ignorant when I went out there. I really didn’t know too much about First Nations people, Indigenous people, their culture or anything. It was eye-opening.”
According to their land acknowledgement statement, the Trillium Lakelands District School Board operates in the traditional homeland of the Ojibway Nation and the Huron/Wendat Nation, and now includes communities from the Mohawk Nation, the Pottawatomi Nation and the Metis Nation of Ontario.
“It’s going to be a focus for us as a school throughout the year, this is a big thing with reconciliation is maybe coming to terms with aspects of our history that we haven’t before,” said van den Hengel.
For more information visit ontario.ca/Indigenous, the school board’s Indigenous Education page at https://www.tldsb.ca/indigenous-education/or via the websites of Indigenous communities.