TDSB makes Indigenous authors course mandatory for Grade 11 English credit

Animal pelts hang over a table at the CNE in August 2022, draped with a mural that tells the story of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. The Toronto District School Board voted Wednesday to replace its current mandatory Grade 11 English course with one titled Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Metis and Inuit Voices. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC - image credit)

Canada's largest school board will make a course on Indigenous texts its compulsory Grade 11 English credit in a bid to ensure students graduate with a greater understanding of Indigenous culture and history.

Trustees with the Toronto District School Board voted 18 to 3 Wednesday to replace its current mandatory Grade 11 course with one titled Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Metis and Inuit Voices.

"This will give students a sense of Indigenous voices, of Indigenous authors, of the Indigenous experience in Canada, which is part of our responsibility in fulfilling the calls to action in truth and reconciliation, but also a great opportunity for students to have that learning that the vast majority of Canadians never had growing up," TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

"It's not meant to replace, it's meant to enrich," she added.

"We need to make sure that our students are graduating, having learned about residential schools, having learned about the Indigenous experience. And there is no one Indigenous experience. There are many. And this course will provide students with some of that history."

Colleen Russell-Rawlins, the board's education director, said in a statement that the course is an "exciting opportunity" for students and will give them a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures and history than their parents have.

"Indigenous Elders and scholars have reminded us that truth must come before reconciliation, yet the TDSB and the Ontario education system have no mechanism yet for ensuring that all students learn the truth about Indigenous brilliance, contributions, history, and learn from contemporary Indigenous voices in Canada," Russell-Rawlins said.

The decision follows recent moves by several other school boards, including those in York and Durham regions, to make the course the compulsory Grade 11 English credit. The course is taught in 29 out of 110 secondary schools in Toronto.

A course statement on the website for Lambton Kent District School Board, where it's been the mandatory since 2017, lists Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water as resources.

Ontario curriculum materials indicate the course was designed as an alternative to compulsory English ones and shares the same learning areas, while exploring a range of Indigenous literary, oral, media and cultural texts.

TDSB staff to report in June on course rollout

The TDSB says staff have been directed to prepare a report by June outlining how and when to roll out the new required course to all of its 110 secondary schools. Teachers will be given professional development to help them teach the course, the board says.

Ontario students are introduced to classics of the Western canon throughout high school English classes, but are not commonly assigned Indigenous masterpieces.

"By incorporating Indigenous authors and texts into Grade 11 English, students are not only meeting the Grade 11 English expectations, they are being exposed to a whole range of remarkable First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature that they may not otherwise learn from in other courses," Chernos Lin added in a statement.

Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works Photography
Nadya Kwandibens/Red Works Photography

Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers, said the course marks an "incredibly needed change." Seven Fallen Feathers has been taught in the course, which she said is an honour to children who died while seeking an education in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"I think it's really important that Canadians, no matter how old they are, know the true history of this country," Talaga said.

"If our children can be taught the true history of our country through our literature, I think that's incredible."

Talaga said she is thrilled with some of the literature that will be taught in the course, including books by Lee Maracle and Joshua Whitehead. Maracle's books, including Celia's Song, are "absolutely stunning," she said.


'This is a really important change'

Isaiah Shafqat, the Indigenous student trustee on the TDSB, said he spearheaded the effort to make the Indigenous course mandatory for Grade 11 students, and is "very happy" it will be taught.

Shafqat said discussions about the course have been going on for about two years.

The course will be "trauma informed, culturally responsive and sensitive," he said.

"This is a really important change that is happening. Including Indigenous perspectives and world views in a mainstream course in the largest school board in Canada sends a strong message and one that I hope ripples throughout the province" he said.

"Indigenous resurgence is a key part of reconciliation ... And when people are interested in reconciliation, that's when we can ... see change that is transformative and that really honours Indigenous peoples and the lived experiences that we have."

"Indigenous histories are often hidden," he added.

"And being the largest school board in Canada and having this course mandatory, people will have to listen and they'll have to learn."