Across the country, Canadians discuss Indigenous and Aboriginal topics, from issues surrounding the colonization of Canada, to the teachings of Indigenous elders in health and harmony. But what do you really know about the histories of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples locally and around the world?
Whether you know next to nothing about Aboriginal and Indigenous history, or if you’ve already started learning and want to learn more, Professor Robert Lovelace wants to help you increase that knowledge.
A long time professor of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Lovelace has spent over 20 years studying Indigenous and Aboriginal issues and history. He was the founding manager of the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s, and works tirelessly to shine light on Indigenous issues, both through his teaching at Queen’s, and throughout the community. And when the Canada 150 celebrations began to take shape in 2016 (to take place in 2017), Lovelace found himself in a bit of a quandary.
“I’ve been involved in Aboriginal politics for most of my life, and I was feeling a little bit cynical about celebrating the British North America Act. Because it really wasn’t the birth of Canada,” Lovelace said.
“I thought ‘Well, you know, rather than sort of being grumpy about it, why don’t I do what I think I think is probably the best thing,’” he expressed. “And that was take the introductory course that I teach at Queen’s and condense it a bit, and make it available to people in my own community.”
And that’s precisely what he did. About two and a half years ago, Lovelace began teaching an Aboriginal and Indigenous course called ‘Understanding Canada’s Indigenous/Aboriginal Histories.’ To date, the course has been offered Sydenham, Perth, Westport, and Kingston, free of charge to anyone who wants to learn more. Knowing he wouldn’t be dealing with university students when offering the course to the community, Lovelace designed the course to be more accessible – there are no assignments, no grades, and no compulsory reading, though Lovelace does send out an email of suggested reading for those who are interested.
“This is about participation and a learning process,” Lovelace said.
With the idea of community accessibility in mind, the course begins with the basics, Lovelace explained.
“The first section is just about ‘what’s the right language that we use in Aboriginal studies?’ For instance: What does indigenous mean? What does Aboriginal mean? What does Indian mean?” he said.
“The students develop an understanding of, when I’m using the language, what it refers to. And then, when they look at the newspapers, or listen to the radio and hear reports about Aboriginal people or people of indigenous heritage, they understand why those words are being chosen.”
The course continues into some of the problems involved in Aboriginal studies because, unlike math or English literature, “it’s a course that carries a lot of baggage, both historical national baggage, and also personal baggage,” Lovelace said.
“A lot of people today, whether they’re Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, have a pretty strong emotional feelings about what has happened in the past, and what’s going on today, too,” he continued.
“So we talk about some of those problems that exists in Aboriginal studies, the political spin and the way media has often soft-sold what has happened in the past… the fact that we have statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, which was who was responsible for the residential schools in large measure, and then we have an apology for residential schools, and a big compensation package. So, how do we work through some of those paradoxes?”
The course, which takes place one night weekly for eight weeks, also looks at indigeneity, the development of humankind, Indigenous and Aboriginal storytelling, and “the contact period,” when the initial contact with Europe was made.
“Every Indigenous culture has contributed so much to what we have today, and, you know, we don’t celebrate that very much,” Lovelace noted.
For Lovelace, the hope is that those who take the course learn more, and feel empowered by that knowledge to continue learning, or to take action.
“The course pulls back the curtain to a lot of the mysteries that people have had, and all of the misconceptions that they’ve had about Aboriginal people, or about Canada’s history and Aboriginal people’s relationship with that history. By doing that, it’s pretty tough work, but when they do the work, they feel a lot better about who they are, their position. And I hope they have some capacity to begin to act independently and act locally,” he said.
When teaching the course in Westport, a gentleman approached Lovelace after their weekly session when they’d been discussing a lot of the 20th century.
“He came up to me afterwards and said ‘I lived through this, but I never knew how to analyze it.’ The course actually helps people do that, it helps them sort out ‘How did these things actually happen?’ and ‘What were the conditions of the time?’” Lovelace expressed.
It’s that kind of reaction and that kind of realization that makes Lovelace want to continue offering such courses to the public.
“I’ve been privileged, I’ve made a professor’s salary for a number of years now, which, I’ve been happy to do, but I’ve been privileged to be able to spend time researching and studying this knowledge, and I kind of owe it to my community to give it back,” he said.
“I’m semi-retired now. I’m still doing research, I still have research students, and I teach one seminar in indigenous theory, but… Yeah, I plan to be doing this for the next 20 years.”
The Understanding Canadian Indigenous/Aboriginal Histories course begins Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019 and takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays for eight weeks at Trinity United Church in Verona. The course is free, but space is limited. Register now by emailing [email protected], or calling 416-786-3400. The course is sponsored by the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and the South Frontenac Museum.
With files from Michelle Allan.