Newcomers to Quebec need more opportunities to learn about Indigenous history, activists say

·4 min read

When Muzna Dureid moved to Canada in 2016, she could name most of the provinces, understood the levels of government, and spoke French.

But she soon realized there were things about her new home that she had never been taught; namely, about the nuances of the country's relationship with Indigenous peoples.

"In Montreal, there is Francisation, which is like the core language courses they give … and it was like, 'Now we have Quebec, the French province, and English provinces, and Indigenous people.' But without mentioning anything about history and colonization and reconciliation," the 29-year-old Syrian refugee said.

Talking with other newcomers, she realized there was a gap in understanding when it came to Indigenous culture and history. People were often shocked to find out about things like the residential school system, she said.

So Dureid, a human rights activist, created the Indigenous - Refugees Movement, a workshop-based platform that aims to bring both groups together to learn and converse.

Her organization is part of a movement that's trying to bridge the gap between newcomer and Indigenous communities, while teaching the full scope of Canadian history.

Conversations around reconciliation and racialized Canadians are lacking because a lot of education efforts place white Canadians and people of European descent at the centre of the discussion — or as Shanese Steele puts it, the groups we typically think of as settlers.

She's the director of national programming for Canadian Roots Exchange, a non-profit that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to learn about reconciliation, Indigenous history and culture.

"I think that's a conversation that we've been missing," she said. "Reconciliation isn't just about settlers of European descent and Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation means all of us understanding each other."

"[We need to] ensure that when newcomers and refugees are coming here, they're getting that information," Steele added.

So far, Dureid isn't convinced that they are, at least not through government programs.

In Canada's citizenship test study guide, written by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, mentions of Indigenous history and culture account for about 500 words — out of 68 pages.

Nor is it a point of emphasis at the provincial level. In information sessions for refugees awaiting resettlement in Canada, Indigenous history and culture are "generally discussed," a spokesperson for the Quebec Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration said in an email.

Similar, integration-focused sessions offered in Quebec touch on the same themes, it said.

No easy answers

The conversations in Dureid's workshops, in which she aims to have a 50/50 ratio between newcomers and Indigenous people, sometimes get heavy, she said. There are discussions about race, and bonding over shared experiences of trauma and violence. Often, there isn't a perfect answer to everyone's questions.

"Each session, I had the same question from the participants, for the Indigenous teachers, like, 'Do you see me as a settler in your country?' The answer is pretty emotional sometimes," said Dureid.

It's a delicate question, said Yann Allard-Tremblay, a professor of political science and Indigenous studies at McGill University, and a member of the Huron-Wendat First Nation.

"The question, I think, is not so much about whether someone came to the land, it's about relationship," he said, referencing a paper by Ruth Koleszar-Green on the differences between a guest and a settler.

"A guest is someone who recognizes their presence on Indigenous lands and acts accordingly, in respect towards the original inhabitants," said Allard-Tremblay.

He also emphasized that though efforts to educate newcomers are important, the level of knowledge and understanding of Indigenous issues among most Canadians is still "very remote."

Expanding the effort in 2021

For now, Dureid's workshops are on hiatus because of COVID-19, though she hopes to restart and expand the program later in 2021, when the situation is safer.

And despite the success of grassroots movements like her own, her next goal is to push government programs to be a little more thorough. She argues superficial lessons don't help newcomers to properly integrate.

Being a citizen "is not just about papers or ID … You need to be part of the solution and to be part of the future," said Dureid.

"As long as refugees don't have the correct information and knowledge about the history, they're going to feed the circle of stigma and stereotype."