Decolonizing Our Classrooms, Ourselves: A Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action

Hilary A. Rose, Ph.D., CFLE, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Human Sciences, Concordia University, Montréal
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

Hilary A. Rose
Hilary A. Rose, Ph.D., CFLE

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In Brief

  • Truth and reconciliation is an ongoing process.
  • Decolonizing the academy starts with decolonizing ourselves.
  • Relearning history and geography is a necessary step in decolonization.


After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (but before the 2015 NCFR Annual Conference in Vancouver), I had an exchange with Terry Point, museum curator for the Musqueam First Nation in Vancouver. Oh,” I said, remembering, “the Musqueam Nation sponsored the 2010 Olympics.” “We hosted them,” Point quietly corrected me. The Musqueam people (and three other First Nations) hosted the 2010 Olympics on lands that were never ceded nor treatied. Vancouver, where the NCFR conference met in 2015, is on Musqueam territory. This realization, facilitated by Point, set the stage for my personal decolonizing process, an ongoing effort that is essential if we are serious about truth and reconciliation, and specifically about decolonizing our classrooms. In this article, I address how Family Science academics can take specific steps (land acknowledgments, as just one example) toward decolonization in the North American context.


Truth and Reconciliation

Why decolonize the academy? In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published its report about the history and aftermath of Canadas residential (i.e., boarding) schools. Inspired by the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Canadian residential schools operated for 150 years (Rose, 2018). As in the United States, the goal was clear: cultural assimilation of Indigenous children into Christian society (TRC, 2015). Children were removed from families for years, and they were punished for speaking their language or practicing their culture (Fontaine, 2010; Knickerbocker, 2015; Sellars, 2013). Beyond discipline, the TRC (2015) documented child maltreatment—neglect and abuse leading to death in thousands of cases (e.g., Dickson & Watson, 2021)—and concluded the schools were instruments of cultural genocide.

As part of our truth and reconciliation process, Canadian universities are asked to develop curricula to ensure that our students (e.g., in child and youth care, Family Science, and social work) are educated about Canadas First Peoples (e.g., Calls to Action #1.iii, #62.i; TRC, 2015). With colleagues at Concordia, I embraced the TRC’s recommendation to decolonize our classrooms. As I attended workshops about decolonization at Concordia (e.g., KAIROS, 2020) and participated in an EdX MOOC at the University of British Columbia on reconciliation through Indigenous education, a realization slowly dawned on me. While I was learning about decolonizing the academy, I discovered I had to start by decolonizing myself.


My Epiphany About Decolonization

Decolonizing means unlearning myths (e.g., doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny) and mantras (e.g., Pratts Kill the Indian . . . save the man,” 1892, p. 46), and relearning history from an Indigenous perspective (e.g., Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). It also means acknowledging one’s privilege to engage in this self-reflection and one’s own role in settler colonialism—and that of one’s governments and ancestors (including American pioneers who traveled overland in 1847). As my niece and I documented in a collaborative critical family history (Rose & Knickerbocker, 2020), I continue to benefit from systems that privilege people like me, a White Euro-Canadian woman. Most recently, my grandparents, immigrants from England, were given farmland in the Okanagan Valley in the early 20th century—land that was taken from the Syilx (Okanagan) people without negotiations or treaties.

I am not alone. At the institutional level, NCFR member Stephen Gavazzi (2021) had an epiphany about the history of the Morrill Land-Grant Act. A year ago, Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone published an exposé about land-grab institutions,” detailing a research project that examined how expropriated Indigenous lands form the basis of the land-grant university system (Lee & Ahtone, 2020). Gavazzi (2021) wrote: The proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Everything I knew about the 1862 Morrill Act [providing land for postsecondary education] . . . was turned upside down” (p. 157). Gavazzis epiphany, like my own, leads to an inevitable conclusion. As settlers in North America—like me, like my great-great-grandparents—if we truly ascribe to social justice and equality for all, we have some work to do. Where to start?


Relearning History, Recognizing Responsibility

I recently chatted with a retired American colleague. We both claimed national responsibility for germ warfare via smallpox-infected blankets given to Indigenous peoples during the French and Indian War (resulting in British North America in 1763). The architect of infected blankets as biological warfare was Jeffrey Amherst, governor-general of British North America and namesake of both Amherst, Massachusetts, and Amherst, Nova Scotia. Amhersts germ warfare is well documented (e.g., dErrico, 2020; Gill, 2017), and has implications for both the United States and Canada (Montreal recently changed the name of Amherst Street to Atateken Street, Mohawk for brothers and sisters”). Following our chat, I remembered our history is shared history, as Canada and the United States have been separate nations for only 245 years.

I realized, too, that “history” is inaccurate. There is no single history or narrative that captures all our experiences, just as there is no single knowledge that we share. There is only a plurality of histories, a plurality of knowledges; both are social constructions (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Different peoples, in different times and places, have created different ways of looking at the world and explaining how the world works. Some write about Indigenous ways of knowing (Battiste, 2013; Sánchez et al., 2019), a systemic and environmental way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. Others write compellingly about North American history from Indigenous perspectives (e.g., Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Sellars, 2016).

I reconsidered geography. Contrary to the concept of terra nullius (i.e., empty land”), newly explored North America was not void of people. These lands were inhabited by peoples with many different languages and cultures. Thus, I consider myself a settler in Canada (and previously in the United States where I lived for 14 years). To be sure, many place-names in North America are Indigenous, but many are not. Do you know where you live? Chances are that before your location was named after a White European (e.g., Vancouver, Columbus, Lafayette, Cincinnati, San Francisco), or given a European name (Halifax, Calgary, Baltimore, New York, New Jersey), it had an Indigenous name. In 1535, Jacques Cartier renamed Hochelaga—an Iroquois village at the base of a mountain—Montréal (Chartier, 2009). The island where I live, Île Perrot (in the Ottawa River, or the Kitchissippi), was traditionally known as Teionnhonskwronte.

As part of our truth and reconciliation process, it is now common at universities and conferences to make territorial acknowledgments: to open by acknowledging that we are meeting on traditional territories of Indigenous peoples (who may or may not have been removed from, or compensated for, their homelands). I have made territorial acknowledgements at conferences in Vancouver, British Columbia; Montreal, Québec; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; San Diego, California (2018 NCFR Annual Conference); and St. Louis, Missouri (2020 NCFR Annual Conference held virtually). Although some consider such acknowledgments examples of political correctness, I view them as opportunities to increase the visibility of, and bear witness to, the traditional custodians of these lands (e.g., Native Land Digital, 2021).

Some Recommendations for Personal and Professional Decolonization

  • Relearn your history: If you read only one book, consider Dunbar-Ortizs (2014) powerful, informative An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

  • Relearn your geography: Take time to learn about the traditional custodians of the land where you live. Refer to (2021) as a starting point.

  • Make a territorial acknowledgment: Refer to the website ( for information and assistance.

  • Make a personal acknowledgement: If you, or your ancestors, were settlers in North America, you have benefited from a colonial system of cultural genocide.

  • Follow truth with reconciliation: Acknowledging that you and your ancestors have benefited leads naturally to reconciliation. What will it look like? What can you do?



As I write, Canadian flags are at half-staff. We are grieving the loss of 215 children recently discovered in unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia (Dickson & Watson, 2021); we know there will be more. A decade ago, Canadas TRC began documenting the history and impact (i.e., historical trauma; Brave Heart et al., 2011) of residential schools on Indigenous children and families. The truth” was detailed in the commissions final report (TRC, 2015); reconciliation” is ongoing. One approach to reconciliation involves decolonizing the academy (Battiste, 2013). Here, I have outlined how a key step in decolonizing our classrooms involves decolonizing ourselves. This means, for example, relearning our history and geography. It means acknowledging how colonial settlers, and their descendants, benefited from a deliberate system of cultural genocide. Ultimately, although I write from a Canadian standpoint, these conclusions likely have implications for many Americans as well.



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