January 23, 2019

Decolonization and the Textbook in Western Civilizations: Exploring new Resources

This text was initially published by Vitrine technologie-éducation under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence, before Eductive was launched.

Western Civilization

Western Civilization is the only mandatory history course that students in the social sciences must take, which means that over the course of a year upwards of 1600 Dawson College students will take the course and our department will teach at least 42 iterations of the course, or an average of 21 courses per semester. The students are drawn from a variety of profiles within the social sciences, ranging from Law Society and Justice to Child Studies, and the teachers who teach it will bring their various specialties to the course. Informally, historians sometimes refer to the range of the course as from “Plato to NATO,” meaning it covered the eras between Classical Greece (~500 – 300 bce) to the WWII period. In practice, because the course is only taught over one semester, the areas of focus within this range can differ greatly from class to class as teachers opt to highlight their own specialities or cater to perceived areas of student interest. A “Law, Society, and Justice” class might be focused on changing property law over the past 2000 years, while a Child Studies Western Civilization class might focus more on changing ideas of the family.

Western Civilization has always been a course that reflected the politics of its time. As Peter Novick points out in his book That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, its first iteration appeared at Columbia University in New York after WWI, and it became ubiquitous in North America in the years following WWII (312). The course names Harvard proposed for it, such as “Western Thought and Institutions,” or “The Evolution of Free Society” (314) indicate why: the course was explicitly designed to teach North American students to “love freedom” and hate “‘facile generalizations’ like those of Marxism,”(312). It was also intended to link post-WWII society to the values of the Enlightenment and burgeoning industrial society in the 19th Century. The story of progress was explicit: history was moving in a positive direction and its culmination, or at least its most perfect iteration, was the present-day US.

The Problem with Textbooks

While the course criteria are certainly set by regional bodies such as state or provincial school boards and flouted at every turn by teachers who have their own ideological commitments and specialities, textbooks have emerged as a limiting feature of the course for a few reasons. The first is that producing a suitable textbook that would cover such a range of topics is a gargantuan task, requiring the use of research from many areas of speciality. These topics need to be kept relatively up-to-date, reflecting recent contributions to the fields of research but nevertheless simplified or contextualized enough for them to be understood by a junior audience. The explicitly political nature of the course outlined above has meant that the framing contexts have continued to be a story of progression, despite the fact that contemporary trends in graduate research often highlight the opposite, which means that more and more history teachers find themselves at odds with the content of a textbook. This is exacerbated by the demands of the market: the cheapest textbooks cater to the two largest states in the US: California, which tends to be left-leaning, and Texas, which veers much more to the right. Some of the cheapest textbooks are made so because they are funded by non-governmental bodies that want to promote a story of American exceptionalism. All of these factors—the market pressure placed on textbook production, the push-pull between cutting edge research and a familiar narrative, and the overall pressure to produce a story of American exceptionalism—means that Canadian professors are even more at odds with the most affordable textbooks than even their American counterparts. A reasonably priced textbook will cost at least 80$, and will, for most teachers be at once too comprehensive and fail to provide material they wish to se covered.


In the Canadian context, one topic is ritually ignored by these textbooks. Since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report on Indian Residential Schools, a majority of history teachers, not to mention educators more broadly, have felt ethically called to address Canada’s shamefully overlooked colonial history. The 94 calls to action that conclude the report include the following, listed under the heading “Education for Reconciliation”:

the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

62) We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

  1. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.
  2. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms
  3. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms
  4. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.

Western Civilization is given in the first year of CEGEP which is the equivalent of Grade Twelve elsewhere in the country. The range and flexibility of the course, and the fact that it continues to be mandatory, makes it an ideal place to offer this history. Typical outlines for Western Civilization courses include units on colonialism in the 16th and 17th centuries and imperialism in the 19th Century. However, in the textbooks, the earlier focus tends to be on Spanish conquest in Latin America, and the 19th Century story of Imperialism, which could be told using examples from virtually any corner of the world, is usually exemplified by the European Scramble for Africa. Both histories, however, could be made more relevant to the Canadian history student by illustrating how colonialism and imperialism played out on Canadian soil. Since American-made textbooks will fail to address these issues, a question facing most history teachers, then, is how to teach this material.

Pre-Existing Material:

Indigenous Canada is a 12-lesson Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)Following the TRC, at least two Canadian universities put together free online courses that address various issues relating to reconciliation. One is the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada, and the other is the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education course. Another can be found at Nationalism, Self-Determination & Secession. All of these are MOOC’s, and though the content is excellent, the drawback of such courses is that they take place entirely online and therefore suffer from the massive attrition typical of MOOC’s: see this article on the topic. I have tried several times to take these courses myself and fail to see them through to the end every time. There is also more and more free material available for the interested and the self-directed.

Notable examples include:

Jean-Paul Restoule’s Understanding Indigenous Perspectives is available through open access at the University of Toronto

Pulling Together : A guide for teachers and InstructorsThese resources are all free and open access. However, there are many more resources that address these issues that are of excellent quality. They are being published by the university presses (notable U of Toronto, UBC, University of Regina, University of Minnesota, and Duke University) as well as the independent presses: Fernwood Press, Highwater Press and Anansi all deserve special mention for the excellent work they are publishing. In the section below, I describe the project I developed, in part, with the support of Vitrine technologie-éducation (VTE). After that, I return to considerations about making the project open access whenever possible.

Readings for Treaty People

In collaboration with my colleague, Richard Cassidy, in Spring 2018 we decided to address burgeoning interest in decolonization by developing curriculum that would foster group discussion and group learning. Our project, Readings for Treaty People, is a public education project that puts together brief (five or six-week long) sessions of intense learning for settler Canadians who want to decolonize their thinking. The project is open to people with all backgrounds and educations. However, the material—in the amount we suggest be read for each session and in its degree of difficulty—is geared towards an upper undergraduate level. Educators who want to make use of it at the CEGEP level can easily do so by assigning less material per session. Unlike the above projects, the material from Readings for Treaty People is not meant to be used by individuals, but by groups. The aim is to provide a way for focused, informed conversation to take place over a short period of time, much like it would in a classroom. Indeed, one key audience for this material is CEGEP teachers who want to be able to incorporate decolonizing material into already developed courses. In short, Readings for Treaty People has the potential to be a constantly evolving open textbook. Thought of that way, the sessions outlined below—and accessed via their links—constitute chapters in this textbook.


Treaty Reading – Spring 2018

As treaty making on Turtle Island preceded the arrival of Europeans, we began by reading The Great Law of Peace which established the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and we were lucky enough to find a couple of respected elders from Kanawake — Otsitsaken:ra and Niioie:ren Patton — to come contextualize the Great Law for us. We read the Peace and Friendship Treaties between the Crown and the Mikm’aq nations (1725-1751) as examples of an early stage of treaty making, and then the Williams Treaties (1923) as illustrations of a later, and much degraded, version of colonial treaty making. Lawyer Peter Hutchins was generous enough to come tell us about his experience arguing for the renegotiation of the Williams Treaties that is currently being deliberated upon in the Supreme Court. We then read the White Paper (1969) proposal to effectively extinguish all treaty rights in Canada, and then as a testament to the resilience of Indigenous peoples in Canada had the Pattons return to give us an introductory Kanien’ke:ha (Mohawk) language lesson.


The Indian Act – Fall 2018

This focused on the various permutations of the Indian Act that was first formulated in 1876 and continues today to impose structures and statuses on First Nations peoples across Canada. Despite its many problems, Pierre Eliot Trudeau’s attempt in 1969 to eradicate it was met with fierce Indigenous resistance because, in doing so, the government would have freed itself from its historic treaty obligations. The Indian Act of course should be changed and may very well be replaced by Justin Trudeau’s proposed Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework (2018).


Reading James Bay – Winter 2019

In April 1971, the recently elected Liberal Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa announced plans to dam the rivers and mine the resources of northern Quebec. Without consulting the Cree and Inuit, let alone obtaining consent to “develop” lands that had been central to indigenous economies, culture, and politics since long, long before our first settler ancestors arrived, Bourassa created the James Bay Development Corporation that began transforming the land. He justified this change using a series of agreements made between settler colonial governments, agreements that never consulted the indigenous people who had lived on the land for eons. These agreements included a charter from King Charles II granting Rupert’s Land to the HBC (in 1670), a bill of sale which transferred the land to our nascent Canada in 1870 and gifted it to the province of Quebec in two parcels, first in 1898 and then in 1912. Quebec didn’t do much with the land until 1964, when René Levesque, wanting to demonstrate that the Quebecois were “Maitres chez nous” declared the James Bay Development Corporation.

Working in ways they never had done before, the Cree and Inuit communities combined forces to bring cases to Quebec’s Superior court in Montreal in 1972, seeking an injunction to stop the development and compel a recognition of their still unceded claims to Aboriginal title. Although it would be overturned after only 5 days of deliberation at the Quebec court of Appeals (1974), Justice Albert Malouf’s 170-page decision in favor of the plaintiffs, which granted the injunction and ordered the government off Cree and Inuit lands, compelled the negotiating of a treaty relationship that has evolved and remains ongoing even today, since the rushed and still divisive signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement (1975). This history will be the focus of our next session, slated to begin February 12, 2018.

Going Forward

As should be clear, many of the best texts on decolonization are monographs written by indigenous authors. Clearly, a course intent on decolonization must, first and foremost, privilege the voices of indigenous authors, since, as Gregory Younging writes in his excellent Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples, “Only Indigenous Peoples speak with the authority of who they are, connected to Traditional Knowledge, their Oral Traditions, their cultural Protocols, and their contemporary identity,”(31). There are too many authors to list all of their names, but some that we have admired especially include: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Chelsea Vowel, Audra Simpson, Glen Coulthard, Bob Joseph, Lee Maracle, Eden Robinson, Richard Wagamese, and Thomas King.  Many of these authors will, in the case of the independent presses at least, have earned a nominal advance on sales, an advance that most likely reflects poorly on the amount of effort the work required. For those publishing with academic presses, it is typical that not only will the author have received no advance, but they will be granted no royalties either. In such cases, it is especially important to us that proper recognition and compensation be granted to the authors whenever we use one of their texts.

Thus, while an initial concern is that we respect the rules governing copyright from a western perspective, we would like to go even further, since in some cases the texts we are reading represent Traditional Knowledge. In these cases, questions of copyright refuse the logic of western systems:

In mainstream publishing, the copyright of a work is generally held by the author—the person who “writes it.” But a person who “writes down” Traditional Knowledge or Oral Traditions is not their author. Traditional Knowledge and Oral Traditions are the cultural property of the Indigenous People they come from. It doesn’t matter who “wrote it down.” The copyright should be held by that Indigenous People. Works that contain aspects of Traditional Knowledge should include an acknowledgement of Indigenous collaboration and consultation, and of the Indigenous Peoples who are the sources of the knowledge. Writers should not claim authorship over Traditional Knowledge. This applies to Indigenous authors, too, even if they have followed Protocols. (Younging 40)

I quote Younging at length because his work and his book is transforming publishing in Canada whenever and wherever the works are about Indigenous Peoples. For the sake of our project, Readings For Treaty People, this has meant that much of the work we have circulated within our small groups remains behind a wall, protected by password. While we have, behind those walls, ensured that we have not taken more than what a Western publisher would consider justifiable use (since a 2012 Supreme Court decision, “fair dealing” has meant that “teachers in Canada may make copies of short excerpts of a copyright-protected work for students in their classes without having to obtain copyright permissions or pay copyright loyalties,” (See CMEC). The Fair Dealing Decision Tool generally allows for 10% or a chapter (whichever is greater) to be taken from a book if it is to be used in an educational setting. However, as pointed out by Younging, these rules, and the guidelines around Creative Commons, do not apply to work published by indigenous authors, nor about Traditional Knowledge. This means that in those cases, each text must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, some of the texts we are using are treaties and/or government documents. In those cases, there is no question that the public has a right full and complete copies of the material.

Partial use of CC-BY-SA licensing in the next months for Readings for Treaty People

Licence Creative Commons : CC-BY-SAIn speaking of where we go from here, we will, over the course of the next few months, focus our energies on ensuring that the material on our website becomes increasingly available for use by the public so that our curriculum can be put to use by public education groups such as ours, and in the more traditional classrooms and courses, such as Western Civilizations. The process is slow and intentionally so, because we, along with the rest of publishing in Canada, have much to learn about how to ensure that we respect indigenous Protocols around publishing, in addition to respecting the western protocols. While some of the material we have produced is written by us, and in such cases will be characterized as CC-BY-SA, or Attribution Share Alike, and some, such as treaties which are automatically public domain, others will need more careful classifications. We chose the CC-BY-SA license because we do want future educators to be able to remix and build upon our work even for commercial reasons, while attributing us and ensuring that the work remains as open. It has been incredibly useful to have the time to think through these issues and I’m grateful to VTE for the time it afforded me.

About the author

Jocelyn Parr

Jocelyn Parr wrote Uncertain Weights and Measures, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Governor General’s Prize for English language Fiction, the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writers Prize, longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award (2019) and won the QWF First Book Prize (2017). She teaches at Dawson College.

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