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Discussion of aboriginal issues shouldn't cause discomfort

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With a sigh of relief, the Rotarian stuck his hand out and thanked me for not asking him to pick sides.

"That's what everyone does," he said, after hearing me describe why I believe it's important for all of us to learn more about treaties and the role they played as a building block of Manitoba.

His feedback stuck with me as a stark reminder of just how uncomfortable many Manitobans feel discussing aboriginal issues. Yet, without opening up the dialogue and allowing people to form their own opinions, how can we ever build stronger, more tolerant relationships?

Hope may just lay in the hands of Manitoba teachers and their students who have started a discussion in our classrooms about the history we all share and how, in better understanding our past, there is hope for changing stereotypical thinking in the future.

The program is called the Treaty Education Initiative and it's a pilot that started two years ago in grades five and six. This year, it is being expanded to include kindergarten to Grade 4 students, next year grades nine through 12, with a full province-wide roll-out, if all goes as planned, as early as 2014.

Although in the early stages, it's already safe to say that things have not gone as planned -- they've gone far better!

Most surprising is how open-minded and fearless students are about treading into topics and territory that would frighten the average adult.

As a teacher myself, I long ago learned that the tougher the question, the deeper the understanding and that's the guiding principle: to engage students in a discussion that allows them to be curious and naturally able to search out and discover answers to so many of the questions that we all have but are afraid to ask.

"How do treaties affect me?"

"Why is Kapyong Barracks sitting empty?

"Why are we all treaty people, even if I'm not native?"

Even more transformative is the self-reflection and confidence booster the initiative provides for First Nations students who are finally welcome to openly discuss both the significant historical contributions and suffering of their own peoples.

"They are interested and starting to look at themselves from the perspective of where they came from," one teacher said. "With more emphasis on the aboriginal perspective, all the students, including those who are First Nations and those who are not, have an opportunity to look at things differently and in a positive framework."

Already, the TEI has earned broad support from participating teachers, schools, education authorities, and divisions as well as from the Manitoba Teachers Society, the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents, and the Manitoba School Boards Association.

In fact, in a recent survey of teachers who integrated TEI into their classrooms, one of the most important findings is how easily they were able to weave treaty topics into discussions in a wide range of courses such as math, social studies, science, art, and history.

For teachers, the TEI resource materials were among the most useful supports they have encountered because they were developed from the aboriginal perspective and help teachers deliver the Manitoba curriculum with hands-on practical activities and materials.

This proves the success of providing teachers with the in-service training and classroom support materials to allow them to comfortably introduce treaty topics, not as a required course in an already crammed curriculum, but as a seamless topic for integration and discussion across a variety of subjects, and on a totally voluntary basis.

Looking ahead, one only has to imagine discussions on residential schools, traditions, languages and customs to understand the potential and community-building impact this initiative will have over the coming decade in Manitoba.

In new public service announcements being unveiled this week, Dave Costello of Ralph Brown School said it best. "Learning about the history we all share helps us better understand each other and that, in turn, will help us build bridges and create stronger communities."

So now that teachers and students, encouraged by the provincial government, are taking up the challenge, perhaps it is time for the rest of us to follow suit, even if it makes us uncomfortable. In the days and months ahead, join young Manitobans in tearing down the barriers that divide and constructing bridges that unite.

To learn more about the Treaty Education Initiative and upcoming in-service workshops, educators are asked to visit the Treaty Relations Commission website at www.trcm.ca. Or, if you're looking for a speaker to spice up your next meeting, look fear in the face and contact us for details.

It's time we all joined the discussion and searched for solutions that are so obvious, even a child can see them.

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2012 A13

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