Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 62: Education for Reconciliation (62-65)

To be, or not to be? TDSB to vote on swapping out Shakespeare for Indigenous authors in Grade 11

February 1, 2023

Trustees looking at replacing Grade 11 English course which typically focuses on literary classics with one amplifying Indigenous voices.

Toronto Star: All high school students know who Shakespeare is — but not Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Richard Wagamese or Tanya Talaga. That could change.

Toronto’s public school board is considering replacing its compulsory Grade 11 English course, which typically focuses on William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and other literary classics, with one that is centred on the works of Indigenous writers in Canada. 

Trustees with the Toronto District School Board will vote on the matter at a Wednesday night board meeting. If it passes, the new mandatory course would be gradually implemented so that it can be rolled out across all high schools and teachers have time to undergo training. While one trustee praised the shift in focus away from Eurocentric content, concerns were raised that the proposed changes would push the classics to the sidelines and put traditional English education in second place.

But Isaiah Shafqat, the Indigenous student trustee who’s been the driving force behind the proposal, stressed the importance of revamping the course content. “Education is the starting point for a lot of critical and transformative change,” said the Grade 12 student, who attends Kâpapâmahchakwêw—Wandering Spirit School.

“When we educate students on the lived realities and experiences of Indigenous Peoples is when we as a society can become more aware of the injustices that have taken place, and continue to take place, and that leads towards reconciliation and truth,” he told the Star.  Shafqat said the proposed course “represents the world we live in today,” rather than one involving the study of texts that are hundreds of years old “and have no relevance in today’s society.”

Grade 11 English students often find themselves studying books like George Orwell's "1984," Shakespeare's "Macbeth," and "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens.

A motion to adopt the course was presented at a committee meeting last week, but must go to the board for final approval. It calls on the director to present a report before the end of June on how to gradually implement the course — Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Voices, which has the course code NBE3 — as the compulsory Grade 11 university, college and workplace English credit in all high schools; and to explore how to embed Indigenous education into the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

The proposal aligns with the board’s commitment to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. And the Ministry of Education already recognizes the NBE3 course as an English credit. If the change is implemented, the board would get an additional $1,200 in funding from the ministry for each student taking this course. The ministry has committed to improving Indigenous education and gives boards extra money for courses that are coded with an N, which is reserved for Indigenous studies. So, any such course is a revenue generator. 

The TDSB currently offers this course in 29 schools, and this year about 1,775 students have signed up. In total, it has 110 high schools and 72,000 secondary students.

A proposed Grade 11 English course centred on the works of Indigenous authors could include the likes of "Indian Horse" by Richard Wagamese, left, "Seven Fallen Feathers" by Tanya Talaga, and "Noopiming" by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

In a statement to the Star, TDSB director Colleen Russell-Rawlins said “staff strongly support” the goal of offering the Grade 11 Indigenous voices course to all TDSB students. “This decision, if approved by the board of trustees, will expand the learning offered in this course to students beyond the 29 TDSB secondary schools that are now offering it,” she said, adding the course has been taught “with great success for many years and is supported by the Elders’ Council, the Urban Indigenous Education Centre, and Indigenous writers, poets, and artists.” 

“It is an important action toward achieving the Calls to Action in Truth and Reconciliation and in educating students about Indigenous brilliance, contributions, history and contemporary voices in Canada.”

When it was proposed at the planning and priorities committee last week, lively discussion ensued with most trustees supporting the motion. 

Russell-Rawlins said at the meeting that the proposed compulsory course will “enrich (students’) understanding of the world and meet all of the skills and understandings that are required in a Grade 11 English course.” Other boards have already made this course compulsory, such as the Greater Essex County, Lakehead, Simcoe County and Upper Canada, and she noted they have “received very positive feedback from their students and families.”

The Indigenous voices course has the same expectations and students will learn the same skills as in the current Grade 11 compulsory English course, which has the course code ENG3. The only difference is that it would include First Nations, Métis and Inuit perspectives. 

Trustee James Li of Ward 13 (Don Valley North) voted against the motion in committee; trustees Dennis Hastings of Ward 1 (Etobicoke North) and Weidong Pei of Ward 12 (Willowdale) were also opposed. Li asked why the current compulsory Grade 11 English course isn’t modified to include Indigenous content, and if moving ahead with the proposed change would give Indigenous voices more prominence over others in English courses. 

While Li supports compulsory Indigenous education, he said he’s not yet convinced this is the best way forward and worries this change puts traditional English language education “in second place.” He called on staff to provide more details.

Executive superintendent Jim Spyropoulos said the purpose of the motion isn’t about putting the current Grade 11 compulsory course in second place; “it’s about giving primacy to work that has been neglected for far too long by formal systems of education, like the one that we’re a part of.” 

He said the goal is to ensure that every student who graduates from the TDSB has some understanding of Indigenous culture — not because they were lucky with the teachers they had, or came across books in the school library, but rather, it’s “systemic change that will achieve that goal.”

Shafqat noted that the aim of Indigenous education is about “bringing Indigenous Peoples to the forefront” and that “to add Indigenous literature, or text, to the (current compulsory course) … (sends) a message that Indigenous People are an afterthought.” 

He also pointed out that students can still take the more traditional English courses in grades 9, 10 and 12, but this would be one course — among the 30 required to graduate — that would be dedicated to learning from Indigenous Peoples. 

Shafqat, who has taken the Indigenous voices course, said “being reflected in the curriculum, in the texts used in the classroom, really enriches the learning experience of students.” 


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Student trustee Naomi Musa, who attends Central Toronto Academy and has already taken the regular compulsory Grade 11 English course (ENG3), called it “Eurocentric and not reflective of different intersectionalities,” noting “the purpose of this motion is to combat that.”

Similarly, trustee Neethan Shan of Ward 17 (Scarborough Centre) said “education can be the greatest equalizer” but it can also do the reverse and “be one of the processes in which we can keep reinforcing the inequities in our society.”

He noted that current English classes are dominated by Eurocentric content, with certain communities viewed more favourably than others, calling it “heavily problematic” because it can make students feel “less” and “inadequate.”

“This is a form of decolonizing ourselves,” said Shan, who’s in “full support” of the motion. He said his nephew took the course last year in York Region and the entire family benefited because they too learned a great deal, noting, “This is the transformative process we will get.”

“Racialized communities, who are non-Indigenous, need this content because they are often kept away from content related to Indigenous histories, education and ways of living,” he said. “Those couple of questions in the citizenship guide — that tends to be the only extent to which most of our communities know (about Indigenous Peoples). So this will really be a breakthrough for families to learn more.” 

Trustee Shelley Laskin of Ward 8 (Eglinton-Lawrence and Toronto—St. Paul’s), who moved the motion with trustee Michelle Aarts of Ward 16 (Beaches—East York) on behalf of Shafqat and two student trustees, called this “tangible action that we can do in the (TDSB) towards reconciliation.”

Trustee Dan MacLean of Ward 2 (Etobicoke Centre) said he “enthusiastically” supports the motion and used his time during the committee meeting to share the quote by Murray Sinclair, the former senator and judge who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.”Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74