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Burnaby School District apologizes for exam asking how First Nations benefited from colonial relationships

The superintendent of the Burnaby School District has issued an apology after a question on a Grade 9 social studies test asked students to describe how First Nations people benefited and took advantage of their relationship with colonizers.

“We often study the tragic effects on the First Nations people of North America as a consequence of colonization. However, many of the people who were here were not just victims. Many took advantage of their relationship with the colonists. Explain some of the ways the First Nations people of North America benefited from the relationships with European colonizers,” reads the question.

The question is paired with a sketch drawing titled “Innu at HBC Trading Post,” which shows First Nations people being given guns and boots.

Sofia Milandri, a 14-year-old Grade 9 student, provided CBC News with a copy of the test question, which was part of a social studies exam at Burnaby Online schools.

“The question was horribly worded and, honestly, like most other questions in this course, it was a way to try to trick us into justifying the actions of the colonizers,” said Milandri who, instead of responding to the question, submitted a paragraph explaining why it was inappropriate.

“If someone sets your house on fire, steals all your stuff, and takes your kids, you don’t benefit from that, so I kind of got really angry.”

On Thursday, Burnaby School District superintendent Gina Niccoli-Moen sent a statement apologizing for the question, saying she was “deeply saddened and upset to learn that this question was put on a student exam.”

“It is inappropriate and, worse than that, this kind of question is harmful and could be trauma-inducing for Indigenous youth and damaging to meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” read the statement, in part.

“This does not represent our values or the true impact of colonization on Indigenous peoples. And yet it happened.”

The statement said the school district is reviewing appropriate learning resources and will be reaching out to students and families.

On Friday the district said the material was not written by a teacher, but was taken from Western Canada Learning Network — curriculum developed for a consortium of school districts across several provinces.

The district also said the teacher was using an old version of the course. In the newer version, the test asks students to identify “positive effects” of the relationships between First Nations people and European colonizers. 

Curriculum ‘outdated’

Milandri said it wasn’t the first time she felt her social studies curriculum was outdated.

“The links to the resources that we’re supposed to use go back to the early 2000s and, the questions that are presented, they’re worded very insensitively,” she said.

“Honestly it feels like we’re just learning how to make excuses for colonizers and for how horribly the Canadian government and the churches were treating people…. If the entire curriculum was supposed to have changed to teach us about Canada’s dark past, then why didn’t they change it?”

Sofia Milandri, a 14-year-old Grade 9 student, provided CBC News with a copy of the test question, which was part of a social studies exam. (Submitted by Sofia Milandri)

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued 94 calls to action as part of its final report documenting the history and legacy of Canada’s residential school system, with four measures specifically focused on the education sector.

The TRC called on governments to collaborate with survivors, Indigenous groups and educators to develop mandatory, age-appropriate curriculum for K-12 students about residential schools, treaties and Indigenous contributions to Canada, and to fund teacher training.

Shannon Leddy, an assistant professor with the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education, said the incident is not isolated. In November, homework assigned in the Abbotsford School District asked students to list “positive” stories and facts about Canada’s residential school system.

“It has the effect of upholding some of the key mythologies about Indigenous people that have been created as a product of colonization, including the notion that Indigenous people didn’t really have culture or civilization prior to the arrival of Europeans […] and that Indigenous people take advantage of the government,” said Leddy, whose work focuses on decolonizing education.  

“Those are colonial mythologies that are repeated again and again within formal curriculums in schools and in informal curriculums that happen outside of schools.”

Leddy said that since 2010, teachers in B.C. have been mandated to take three credits of Indigenous education within teacher education programs.

She said that while the B.C. school curriculum has been updated since 2015, curricular resources used by schools differ between districts.

 “I’m really glad when students and parents react to these moments, because it gives us an opportunity to have this conversation,” said Leddy.

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