Reconciliation in a different key: contemplations from abroad

Much like others who have posted on Reconciliation Syllabus, I began my teaching career as the TRC call to action was announced. As a new hire in the Department of Child Law at Leiden Law School in the Netherlands, I wasn’t bound by the TRC’s 28th recommendation, but felt, in my own way, morally bound to engage with it. Perhaps this was because, as a 2015 DCL Teaching Fellow at McGill’s Faculty of Law, I had already been thinking about the place of chthonic legal traditions in the context of Legal Traditions, a graduate-level compulsory course for students of the Institute of Comparative Law. And perhaps, this was also due to my research interests in law and religion, constitutionalism and education law, as well as a long-term engagement with cultural competencies and law (by way of Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens and Diane Labrèche’s project on cultural competencies for the Quebec Bar).


But how do you talk about, and engage with, the TRC and reconciliation from abroad? And more importantly, how do you do so in a meaningful manner?


In the context of my appointment, I was expected to teach in the newly minted advanced LL.M. on international children’s rights. We currently have eight students enrolled for the first year of this program, which makes for an unbelievable student-teacher ratio, but also, allows us to go into deeper conversations about various subjects. One of the modules that I have been co-teaching is on children’s socio-economic rights, which includes a class on the right to education. I had also been asked to contribute to a general introductory class on children’s rights, which again, included a course on the right to education. My reflections therefore concern my experience teaching the right to education and the TRC at both graduate and undergraduate levels.


I was asked to teach a class on the right to education at the undergraduate level, to a class comprised mostly of exchange students and others interested in an introductory class in children’s rights (about fifty students in all). While the first half of the course focused on the right to education (international provisions, UNCRC general comments, etc.), the second half was dedicated to talking about the right to education as rights subjects. It is in the context of the second half that I chose to engage with the TRC. My aim, in the forty-five minutes I had, was to introduce students to the TRC; I had prescribed a small portion of the TRC report (pages 2-24) to students in advance, as a way to engage with “education” in the context of western dominance of children’s rights scholarship as well as education about one’s rights. None of the students in the class were Canadian; none, it seemed, had heard of the TRC prior to my class. This gave me pause for thought. While I had been living in Canada, the TRC made headlines routinely, but it made me wonder how (or whether) this was translated abroad – or whether, for those in Europe (as I am now), the discussions of vulnerability and marginalization were reserved for the burgeoning refugee crisis. Within the context of the class, I introduced the TRC by way of the “Aims of the TRC” video by Commissioner Marie Wilson. I then wanted to contextualize this by talking about Recommendations 27 & 28 with students. I asked them how, beyond the context of cultural competencies and a compulsory course on indigenous legal orders, could we engage with and think about this within our greater legal studies? As a rejoinder, I also asked how we could better engage with this story in the context of primary and secondary school, as I was teaching a class on the right to education. The answers I received went in different directions: within the context of law, a student from the UK suggested it could be included in a foundations class (for him, foundations was a capstone class at the outset of his legal studies); another student from South Africa proposed that it could be within classes on constitutional law (as she had, for discussions on apartheid). Outside of law, one Dutch student in education studies proposed that this could be addressed in civics classes at the primary and secondary school levels – while another student in political science also made a similar suggestion. While these ideas were interesting, they required much prompting on my part, which made me think perhaps I needed to give students more context about Aboriginals in Canada if I wanted deeper answers.


Armed with these insights, I taught the right to education again, a few weeks later, within my advanced master’s class on children’s socio-economic rights. I thought, as I was putting this class together, of the irony of “education” in the context of residential and industrial schools. Two quotes haunted my preparations:


When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (Sir John A. Macdonald, as cited in TRC Principles, p.6)




if you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people. (Public Works Minister Hector Langevin, as cited in TRC Principles, p. 29)


While again, I spent the first half of the class on the international and regional instruments that protect the right to education, the second half of the class was dedicated to thinking about, and discussing, how the right to education can also be a vehicle for understanding our rights as rights subjects. Like the undergraduate class I had taught, I had prescribed a portion of the TRC report (this time, pages 1-55) and had introduced this portion of the class with the TRC video. I took care in explaining afterwards, what where some of the long-term repercussions of the residential school system (including challenges in meeting basic needs, health challenges, education, disproportionate engagement with the justice system). Again, I spoke of Recommendations 27 & 28 of the TRC report to explain my interest in pursuing this subject further within the context of this class. Unlike my undergraduate class, however, I focused on the TRC recommendations that spoke directly to education (Recommendations 6-12). I asked students what they thought of these recommendations in light of the first half of the course, where we had focused in great part on Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects, amongst other things, against corporal punishment (and links to Recommendation 6, which recommends repealing Article 43 of the Criminal Code), but also, other international instruments that protect a child’s cultural heritage in the face of education and Canada’s difficult relationship with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Interesting questions came up from students, such as “what the difference is between Aboriginal children being educated on reserve, as opposed to off reserve?” That is not a question that can be addressed in two minutes. It requires – and deserves – deeper attention. Another student asked how (or whether) non-Aboriginal early education would address the questions of cultural competencies, as noted in Recommendation 12? This question also raises important questions of how these issues are tackled in mainstream early education. I also received some very engaged answers from students who come from countries dealing – or have dealt – with historical injustice. A student from Israel said it depends on whether you go to an integrated school or not. If you do, she said, there are discussions about how do you deal with Independence Day, for instance. But she noted that if you are a non-integrated school, there is no real impetus to address the question in a practical sense. A student from South Africa noted that apartheid was addressed in history classes when in primary/secondary school and then through constitutional classes later on. Interestingly, that he said that learning about apartheid in a post-apartheid setting actually had a nation-building effect for him (but a caveat is made about schools in townships not being as integrated and therefore unlikely to engage with this as a positive identity-crafting experience).


Introducing the TRC in the context of children’s socio-economic rights revealed the challenges in addressing this multifaceted issue in such a short time frame, without being able to engage more deeply with the socio-historic underpinnings. But at the same time, it enabled me to speak about inequality, justiciability and the educational project –all central to discussions on socio-economic rights – in a different key than other examples. Reconciliation and the reconciliation syllabus project therefore invite us to think (even) more critically about how and why we teach, wherever we are.

Author: Dia Dabby

Assistant Professor, Department of Child Law, Leiden Law School

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