Walking through a Building on Fire

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq Globe and Mail, Thursday June 17th

On June 17th, two articles were published that really struck me. A third piece, written in the winter of 2019/20 by Dr. Timothy Stanley about the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in Victoria in 2018 acts as an important piece that links these two events. They all have to do with belonging – who belongs here and who is honoured and respected. Who feels like the ‘other’ and whose history do we understand.

It seems to me that we are going through a radical transformation right now in Canada. The first article about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s decision not to run again in the next election doesn’t seem to have received too much attention, but I think it is really important. She talks about the House of Parliament as being an ‘uneasy place’

It’s a place where they make laws that result in Indigenous death and result in turmoil for a lot of our communities. I feel that.

Globe and Mail June 17, 2021

There is a connection to this very brave declaration by this Inuit lawmaker and the movement to roll back the symbols of racism and genocide from our places of honour and prominence. To me, it is intolerable that a young woman who represents all of Nunavut should be stopped by security guards while in the Parliament Buildings and questioned whether she really belonged.

The statues of John A. MacDonald really do not belong – if there is a lingering spirit of the man circling around the statues and buildings with his name on it, it is this spirit who should feel like it does not belong.

The CBC article – Kingston to move Sir John A. Macdonald statue from City Park is significant because Kingston is seen as the home of Macdonald and many people feel that the removal of the statue offends their sense of community. Plans seem to be in play to move the statue to his gravesite also in Kingston. I have a better idea (not my own), but more about that later.

The article by Dr. Stanley is really important here. This statue removal he writes about took place in 2018 so we have gained a bit of perspective on what the removal means in Victoria, the community where it stood. His article Commemorating John A. Macdonald: Collective Remembering and the Structure of Settler Colonialism in British Columbia ( BC studies, no. 204, Winter 2019/20), available here, it an important read especially now.

There are so many issues circulating around Macdonald and the central role he has played developing the institution of Residential Schools in Canada. You would think that we could all get behind a rethinking of his place in our history, but we are a nation in conflict. We seem unwilling to understand the implications of colonial politicians like Macdonald.

It is not as simple as the removal of the statues of Confederate Generals from sites in the United States – even though this is not all that simple. MacDonald never made war on Canada, but you could easily say he did make war on the different Indigenous and Metis populations his government encountered.

One idea that Dr. Stanley explores is the whole notion that by removing statues of Macdonald we are somehow erasing history. This is usually said by people who really have a really poor notion of what history really is.

What we emphasize and retell changes over time. The history we look to tells us much more about the messages governments want put out there at a particular time. It has little to do with faithfully rendering a clear narrative.

The statue of former Canadian prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald is covered by a red sheet in Kingston, Ont. on June 11, 2021. On Wednesday, Kingston’s city council voted to move the monument to Cataraqui Cemetery. The city will also spend $80,000 for the transportation and installation of the statue. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

There are so many interesting ideas in Dr. Stanley’s article I encourage you to take some time to go through this. He does sum up early in the article the idea of ‘settler colonialism’ a label used to describe the opposition to challenging the traditional narrative that Macdonald, Ryerson, Cornwallis or Langevin were simply good public stewards doing the best they could with the resources at hand.

This form of colonialism exists today in Canada and is manifest in all those who are currently opposing the removal of Macdonald’s statues.

While the structure of settler colonialism is all too real for Indigenous peoples, for most settlers it is largely invisible until such time as monuments get taken away or dominant systems of representation get challenged. 

Stanley p. 2

The council debate in Kingston illustrates how far apart Indigenous voices are from those espousing a colonial settler mindset. Delegates against the removal used arguments including ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and that the removal of the statue was a harsh judgment of a historical figure, and that such a move would constitute “cancel culture.” (Kingston Whig Standard, June 16).

For sure there will be more of this type of talk as the statue is scheduled to come down this Friday ( June 25). It was the same in Victoria as Dr. Stanley quotes from a CBC report:

Matthew Breeden, reported as having travelled from Vancouver to protest, told CBC: “It’s part of our history I feel is being ripped right out and gutted down. I think that’s just terrible.” He continued: “They just pushed it right through – the public wasn’t allowed to have a say.”

John A. Macdonald Statue Removed from Victoria City Hall,” CBC News, 11 August 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/john-a-macdonald-statue-victoria-city-hall-lisa-helps-1.4782065.  

An interesting side note, Doug Ford, then the newly elected Premier of Ontario called on Vistoria to send the statue to Ontario. In their official request they noted:

As a Father of Confederation and our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald holds a significant place in the hearts of many Canadians and should be honoured accordingly

Globe and Mail August 14, 2018

These reactions, especially about not having ‘our say’, really shows the state we are still in as a country. When we talk about ‘our’ we are still talking about colonial settler mentality. When we think again about Mumilaaq Qaqqaq , it becomes clearer how alienated she must feel being at the center of colonial power in Canada. The lack of any noticeable reaction to this story is telling. Our House of Parliament is not inclusive, it does not speak for all; it still speaks, as it did in the days of Macdonald for the colonial settler.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s grave, located in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, seen here on Thursday. PHOTO BY JULIA MCKAY /The Whig-Standard

The new resting spot for the Kingston statue is supposed to be at his grave site at the Cataraqui Cemetery just outside of Kingston. There was no consultation with Indigenous groups about this, just a last-minute vote of council to move it to another place of honour.

This is not the right decision on what to do with the Macdonald statue. If we want to develop a holistic historical narrative, one where a young Inuit MP feels like she belongs, we need to do some radical retelling of the story of this land. First, when it comes to honouring people responsible for genocide, Dr. Stanley has a suggestion to pass along:

In this respect, the controversy over Macdonald shows that there is much work to be done in encouraging Canadians to come to terms with their own complicity in settler colonialisms and racisms. Here are two suggestions regarding what to do with Macdonald monuments. One comes from a man from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan who has the unfortunate name of John A. McDonald. He suggests melting the statues down and making medals to give to residential school survivors: “He stole a piece of you, here’s a piece of him … you survived, and he didn’t, and let’s give it to every survivor of residential schools, everybody that survived the cultural genocide that he attempted.”

Stanley p.25

We are a building on fire, but many of the occupants are not smelling the smoke. We need to start with a new idea about what ‘our history’ is and at the same time stop honouring the men of power who have so much to answer for.

When it comes to mental health in Canada, the gap is still too wide

The story of Clement Gascon, the Supreme Court Justice who bravely went public this week about his mental health struggles is a story we should all pay attention to.

Last week the Justice disappeared for a few hours after suffering a panic attack brought on by a change in medication and the stressors of his job. Thankfully, in this case, this story had a relatively happy ending. He was found and embraced by his community and has received nothing but support since the incident.

Today, the Globe and Mail’s editorial, In Canada, the mental-health gap continues, picked up the story and used this as an occasion to shine a light on the problems that still exist here in Canada when it comes to treatment for mental health issues.

The gaps are significant and go well beyond what is reported in the editorial.

The World Health Organization reports that in low- and middle-income countries, between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for their disorder. In high-income countries, between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation. In today’s Globe and Mail article, a 2016 joint statement on access to mental-health care from the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Psychiatric Association estimated that, of the 20 per cent of Canadians who suffer from a disorder, fewer than one in three will seek treatment.

Many can’t seek treatment. Unless you are fortunate to have a very good health plan, counselling, which can be as expensive as $200 an hour, is out of reach. Even the medication which really helps people to focus on talk therapy is out of reach for many.

It is good however that at least attitudes are changing. In my own case, my admissions of struggling with anxiety and depression were met with stony silence. I remember actually admitting to a superintendent that my condition could easily be exaggerated by undue stress. She was happy to add the stress but ignored my clear message that this could do harm. For me, this was an unforgivable misstep for someone in a position of authority.

In Canada, we need to realize that the gaps in treatment are wide unless you are well off and well connected. I have been extremely fortunate because I have friends in the medical system and a great drug plan. Most, however, are nowhere near as lucky.

As an administrator, I came in contact with many children and adults who needed really good mental health care. It was rare that they received it and I don’t know how they survived. In a society as rich as ours, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to suffer from the silent killer of mental illness.

We are, unfortunately, at a downturn in compassion in our society right now. We are going through one of those awful cycles where the artificial budgetary bottom line reigns supreme. This is tragic and people with untreated mental health illnesses will suffer even more than most during these times.

It is really too bad that we need stories like Justice Gascon to remind us how terribly many people suffer in silence. We are a superficial society that rarely takes the time to consider the real suffering of others.

I am happy for Justice Gascon. I am grateful for the wonderful assistance and support I have received from family and professionals. I worry about the many parents and children who suffer in obscurity and I really hope for the day when we point our priorities firmly in the right direction.

Has inclusive education gone too far? – The Globe and Mail debate

When I started this series of articles for the Class Struggle Podcast, I wrote that public debate on important public issues is sustained and encouraged through our media. A strong public press is essential in a healthy democracy and we are very fortunate here in Canada to have a vital and responsive media.

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter Caroline Alphonso wrote an important feature on the problems surrounding inclusion in Canada’s schools – Educating Grayson: Are inclusive classrooms failing students?

The article is an intelligent and sensitive report on the problems that take place every day in Canada’s schools surrounding inclusion. As a former elementary principal, I am well aware of these issues. Although I have not been in schools in the last two years, the problem obviously persists and the solutions remain elusive.

The Globe and Mail is sustaining this debate by publishing some of the comments to Saturday’s article. I have included two of them here:

From the comments: Has inclusive education gone too far? Educators and parents share their experiences

In 2018, I retired after 17+ years as an Educational Assistant (EA) in elementary schools. Over those years my job changed dramatically; from helping students (with varying needs) achieve their potential in class, to keeping students with often volatile behaviours from being a threat to others while in a “regular” classroom. Most, if not all, children want to belong and succeed at school. Teachers and EAs also want to make this happen. Too often, I have seen principals and parents put their own interests and opinions ahead of the best interests of the student. It becomes a fight about which adult is right, and the student’s true needs get overlooked. It is a terrible waste, made even greater when “experts” are brought in to observe briefly, and then chime in on what is best.

Please, parents and administration, gather and listen to the student, and the teacher and the Educational Assistant together. Set a few goals, be consistent at home and at school, and be kind and respectful of each other. You will see improvements almost immediately. Unfortunately this rarely happens. – MacKenzie96

Ms. Kahn is not wrong to want better services for Grayson. It is sad that services for children like Grayson are so limited. Underfunding special education programs pits parents against teachers and administrators. This undermines an education system that is the envy of the world (we rank #5 internationally according to the OECD). Please keep in mind that funding for education has been frozen for the last few years and special education in most boards has been cut. There are fewer Educational Assistants in my classroom than ever before. My fear is Mr Ford’s austerity measures aimed at health care system, social assistance and education will only make things worse. – Daysofmiracle

I don’t know if I have anything useful to add to these comments, but I do know that educators need to be part of this discussion.

This Thursday for this week’s Class Struggle on VoicEd Radio we will weigh in on this issue. As I have been saying, educators need to be heard on this issue and it would be great to see more writing from those who are active in the profession. We know there is a lack of resources when it comes to education and there are real human consequences to the underfunding that has been going on for years.

the next Class Struggle podcast will be this Thursday (January 10) at 8:00PM

The problems with inclusion are well known. Principals, especially in elementary school have been excluding special needs students from their buildings for years. These exclusions are hard to trace because they were never documented and were never part of any formal process. I remember many times as an administrator asking parents just to keep their child at home. They weren’t suspended, we just didn’t have the resources to keep them and others safe in our school.

These actions are taken by principals every day. When I excluded I always did this on my own authority. No one above me was willing to take any responsibility for these actions and when things went badly, I was the one who suffered the consequences.

Here is the problem. There are nowhere near the resources in the schools to deal with many special needs cases. As Caroline Alphonso mentions in her article, there are situations where a gifted teacher may be able to accommodate a special needs child, but such a situation is not sustainable, and not all schools have the talent to work successfully with challenging children.

More often the lack of adequate resources leads to disruptions and sometimes violence in the classroom.

In most cases, it is the educational assistant that suffers the direct consequences for the emotional outbursts of the child, but I know the results of poorly thought-out inclusion affects the entire school community, including children and parents.

The solution calls for a rebuilding of the inclusion model. Generally, the practices in Ontario at least are haphazard. Inclusion needs to be rebuilt from the ground up with a sharp focus on how best to accommodate the special needs child, their parents and the wider school community. Inserting the student into a regular classroom with some support and hoping for the best is just not good enough.

Such a rebuild will be expensive and I really don’t think we are there yet as a society to make the financial investment that it will take. Patching is cheap, rebuilding takes lots of resources and intelligent design.

I hope we have a good debate on Thursday. This is a problem that will just get worse until we face it head-on. Again, good for the Globe and Mail for keeping this important issue in the public eye. As educators, we need to do our part to make sure it stays there.

Where is the Political Voice of Educators?

Educators no longer have a political voice and that is a problem.

I have written about this before, but now I propose to do something about that. More on this later.

I am not entirely sure why this is the case. Part of the problem is that most of us work for overly bureaucratic school boards where having a political opinion is anathema. Part of the problem, I think, is that educators have gotten so caught up in their professional discourse that they have forgotten that they still play a public role as opinion leaders in a democratic society.

There is no question that the popular leadership in our society is now played exclusively by the media. This week in Ontario the Globe and Mail is leading the opposition against a corrupt newly elected Progressive Conservative government who sees no problem with selecting underqualified cronies to the top position in the Ontario Provincial Police – see their latest editorial here – Globe editorial: To end the OPP scandal, Doug Ford has to make a U-turn.

The same government seems bent on dismantling new initiatives focusing on indigenous education, after-school programming and in-school tutoring. The earlier assault on the 2015 sex-ed curriculum still remains in effect even after consultations in Ontario overwhelmingly rejected the substitution of the outdated 1998 program. Now it seems the government is considering walking away from the consultation saying that it was ‘flooded by unnamed groups‘.

In the United States, media outlets like CNN and the Washington Post daily speak truth to power as they cover the chaos in the American political system. Today they are tweeting and broadcasting about the American pullout in Syria that has led to the incredible public falling out between Donald Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis. If you haven’t seen the astounding interview Wolf Blitzer did with Stephen Miller you really need to witness this.

I listen to lots of podcasts and read my fair share of education blog posts and one thing I can conclude is that teachers are not publically commenting on these stories – with the notable exception of Andrew Campbell. At this point, Andrew is holding the political mantle for all Ontario teachers. There needs to be more public discourse where educators express their opinion on the political issues of the day. There is a notable political vacuum out there.

So, here is my proposal. A weekly political column or podcast by an educator (me) on one political issue that needs more discussion. Maybe I will be alone on my show, maybe it will only air on Sound Cloud, but it needs to be done. I am not saying that I have anything really new to offer to the political debates swirling around us, but educators need to at least express an opinion.

Maybe people will join me, maybe not. No matter, teachers need to exercise their political voice and this needs to be done in a public forum.