A Conversation With Keith Lickers, Part 1

Keith Lickers began teaching senior elementary classes in 1963, and in 1972 became the first executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario. From 1974 until his retirement in 2006, he worked at the Ontario Ministry of Education. There he participated in the development of multiple curriculum guidelines for native studies, including the original People of Native Ancestry (PONA) curriculum guide, two subsequent revisions and a new program launched in 2005.

Since retiring, Lickers has continued to be involved in education, writing textbook chapters and consulting. In July 2012 he began working on a forthcoming Ontario Teachers Federation resource that will include tips for elementary and secondary school teachers of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.

I interviewed Keith Lickers about his experiences in public education at his home near Brantford, on August 29, 2012. The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity. It appeared as the fourth chapter in the book NO SCHOOL FOR SUCKERS: Textbooks, political censorship and mind control in a democracy.


KEITH LICKERS: When I joined the Ministry in 1974, it had really strict rules about textbooks. We felt, those of us who were developing the native studies curriculum documents, that non-native teachers were very nervous teaching about Indians because they didn’t know that much about them. I had been brought into the Ministry to develop curriculum guidelines for teaching native studies. That was the expressed desire of the deputy minister of the day, George Walter. There had been no teaching [about] native people in the Ontario curriculum before then. There was just nothing available.

In 1968 it was a first for the Ministry of Education to hire a native education officer. That was Walter Currie.1 In the late 1960s there was a Toronto[-based] group called the Indian-Eskimo Association [of Canada]. A number of influential native people were part of that urban group and he was their leader, very well-spoken. I’m not sure how he joined the Ministry, but he was the first native educator to work for the Ministry in ’68.

JEREMY TOMPKINS: Were you the second?

KL: Actually fourth. At that time, there was a sort of national resurgence about Indian education. The teaching of Indian kids had always been left to the federal government, and all the provinces were doing relatively nothing in that area.

JT: Does that suggest the poor state of history and native studies [curricula] is a result of the provinces getting into the game late?

KL: Yep.

JT: Why didn’t the provinces think that aboriginal voices were important for white kids’ [learning] history? How is it that history before Columbus never got considered, whether oral history or archaeology?

KL: If you talk to a lot of native people, it’s what they are referring to as the colonial attitude of suppressor – “It’s our way” – and they [non-natives] were the historians. History was viewed from that point of view. And if you look now at what’s going on in the courts, when you look at the treaties and how the treaties are in fact interpreted, you’ve got a divergence in beliefs [between] what the treaties are [as written documents] and what they are saying [when interpreted]. You have the governments’ position of defining treaties, that the Indians surrendered the land.

JT: For most of Canada there are no treaties at all.

KL: No, exactly. This area [the Haldimand Tract near the Six Nations reserve] is an example. But where there are treaties, that’s the understanding that non-native people have, that when Indians went into those treaties [those areas] were handed over to the government. The Indians are saying, “Oh no, no, no, that’s not what we understood the treaties to be. The land is Mother Earth. It’s nobody’s land to actually own. It belongs to the Creator.” As long as you have got that split in interpreting the treaties, that simply manifests itself in why Indians and the Indian worldview has never really been understood, taken seriously.

JT: So the idea that there really is no ownership, whether by Europeans or indigenous people, is just so foreign that it cannot be understood?

KL: Right. And moving into the teaching of teachers, then that [misunderstanding] is simply just perpetuated because there just wasn’t the interest. And there were these stereotypical images and understandings about Indians: they live on a reserve, they are on little plots of land, and the government pays for their education; they don’t pay taxes. They are set aside and what we don’t know about them is okay.

This [native education] resurgence started in the 1950s but manifested itself with [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau in late 1968/69 with his notion of assimilating Indians and the [federal government’s] “White Paper.” That to me, and I think to a lot of Indians who have looked at this, is the key turning point.2

A lot of people say, “well no, it was the end of the Second World War that was the key turning point for Indians.” And I suppose in a sense it was, by virtue of the Indian Act [of 1951] that set them apart: if Indians became lawyers or doctors or educated or soldiers, they were then, according to the Indian Act, to become enfranchised [have the right to vote in Canadian elections]. After the Second World War there were guys, and women as well, who had gone to war, who simply had the notion that they wanted to fight for their country. At that time, from what I understand there wasn’t a mass enfranchisement for [Indians] that went off to war. When they came back, from the Second World War especially, they wanted to be treated like any other soldier. When [most] soldiers came back they were given land and recognized as veterans, but that wasn’t the case with respect to the Indian soldiers. They still came back with this notion that they had rights, and making demands of the federal government.

You could say that 1945 was a watershed, but it really came to fruition in 1969 with the White Paper. The Minister of Indian Affairs then, [Jean] Chretien, and I suppose Trudeau to some extent, had a different attitude to Indians than [prevailed in] the early part of the century. Duncan Scott as the deputy minister of Indian Affairs in the early 1900s, who was responsible for the establishment of residential schools, said “we are going to get the Indian out of the child.”

Being in the [Ontario] Ministry, I felt I could do some educating on my own of people I was working with. And a number of people admitted they didn’t know anything about Indians. The talks we had over lunch were quite enlightening for people who wanted to know more. As Indian issues were picked up by the media, they therefore became more subjects of conversation.

JT: I found that education officers, in some cases, also didn’t know much about Western [Canadian] history.

KL: There was this stereotyped view that if it wasn’t happening in Ontario, it wasn’t happening – which I felt was too bad. And yet these education officers considered themselves to be good educators because of where they were working. And that in a crazy way was always in the back of my mind. My first teaching position was here in Ohsweken [on the Six Nations reserve] teaching grade 7 history. The federal government was never in the [curriculum] business at all.

JT: Besides funding, right?3

KL: That’s all. As far as the curriculum was concerned, in all federal schools across the country, the federal day schools followed the curriculum of the county that they were in. When I started teaching grade 7 history I had to teach what all the schools in Brant County were teaching,4 and in grade 7 it was British history.

JT: Here on the reserve?

KL: On the reserve. We were following Brant County curriculum. And so that first year I taught colonial history, British history. And I thought this is crazy, the Indian kids need to know their own history. I went to J.C. [Hill, Superintendent of Education for Indian Affairs] in May of that first school year and I said why don’t we teach our own history? I’m willing to spend the summer developing a grade 7 curriculum of local history. His eyes lit up and he said, “Go for it.”

So I did. I spent that whole summer developing a local history course for grade 7. In late August I said, “this is the course I’ve developed but you can’t [teach] it all in a year. You really need to do something for eight years. Here’s grade 7.” And I said, “Here’s the makings of something for grade 8 to continue on, but there’s all kinds of stuff you can do for six years preliminary to that.” And Hill said, “I think you have struck on something. So I’ll move you from grade 7 to grade 8, and do that grade 8 course.”



JT: When did Ontario decide to develop an Aboriginal Policy Unit?

KL: 2005.

JT: What existed before then?

KL: It depended on what branch I was in. Walter Currie joined in 1968. Then in 1972 Al [Alton] Bigwin was [the second indigenous education officer], and at that time there was a Curriculum Services Branch and a Curriculum Development Branch. Al was in the Curriculum Services Branch in 1972. When I came in, another chap in the Curriculum Development Branch was working with Al trying to satisfy the deputy minister on developing an overall plan for native studies, a guy by the name of Gerry MacMartin. He and Al Bigwin were working together on establishing the writing committee of the first People of Native Ancestry (PONA) guideline for primary-junior, grades 1 to 6. That was when the government had lots of money and it was a committee of close to 20 people. Most of them were education officers in the Ministry who didn’t really have any clue except that they had an interest in educating Indians. That seemed to be the only criterion for being on this development committee.

When I came in in October, the deputy minister was quite blunt with respect to that’s my job, to fix it. But I was in the Curriculum Services Branch on the implementation side of things working with Al Bigwin. Al and I were both in the Curriculum Services Branch for 10 years because the last of that PONA series, the guideline for the senior division, came out in 1981. All of the native education stuff came down to Al, and we sort of co-chaired different activities if they were native-focused. [After] he retired in 1985, there was a restructuring in the Ministry, and [the Services and Development branches] collapsed into just the Curriculum Branch. That’s where I was, responsible for both elementary and secondary.

JT: In your experience, were there differences in the focus between Conservative, Liberal and even Bob Rae’s [NDP] administrations?

KL: Yes, and I don’t think you will find anybody in the Ministry who won’t agree that the minority NDP and Liberal government we had in the mid ’80s was the best [Ontario] government. Everybody agreed that those were good times. And then [1990–94] there was the NDP. With the NDP, as far as the Indians were concerned, it was just unbelievable support, unbelievable. But I have to agree that the Bill Davis Conservatives were nowhere near Mike Harris. Mike Harris was just the opposite of Bill Davis. It was just unbelievable. He [Harris] set everything back 50 years. All the gains that had been made in native education with the Liberals and with the NDP were all taken away under Mike Harris.

Bette Stephenson [Davis’s Minister of Education in the late 1970s] felt so deeply about native languages and that link with culture that she called me in one day to her office and told me she wanted a cabinet submission on the teaching of native languages as a language of instruction and a subject of instruction.

JT: For everybody?

KL: For Indian kids, it would be a language of instruction.

JT: That’s something I find strange. We claim to be a bilingual country but the original languages of the country are not taught in schools.

KL: Well, they are taught. It’s interesting that there’s not only an increase in the teaching of native studies but there is also an increase in non-native kids learning a native language. That was happening when I was still with the Ministry.

KL: She’s the one that got it started, which to me was a natural thing. That it came from a Minister, and that she wanted it to be a language of instruction – the lawyers in the Legal Services Branch were doing somersaults because they thought this was unheard of, this was crazy, this isn’t a provincial responsibility. How can we make something like Mohawk a language of instruction in an Ontario school? But she had it in her head, this is what she wanted. I don’t know how much time I spent [on it], but it was a lot.

JT: What was your impression? Was it something that could fly?

KL: One part could fly, there’s no doubt about that: it’s okay if they want to teach the language. But to [make it] a language of instruction is going to be one hell of a job, because to get a person who is a Mohawk speaker to have those kinds of qualifications is a nightmare. And to teach all these different subject areas – math, history, geography, social studies – in the language, the curriculum would have to be developed.5

JT: That would mean children would have to be learning the language from kindergarten, from grade 1.

KL: Yeah. This is what she wanted, so I said, “Okay.” So part A of that cabinet submission was language of instruction, part B was subject of instruction. Of course, part B was easy because that’s what they were doing anyway in federal day schools where the language was being taught. We went ahead. At the eleventh hour [before] this was going to go to cabinet, everybody that I had to work with thought this really isn’t going to get supported by cabinet.

At the eleventh hour, [Stephenson] called me up to her office. Somebody had gotten to her and said, “You are in an area that is a federal responsibility.” She said to me, “I want you to go to [the federal Department of] Indian Affairs and feel them out as to a language of instruction. But don’t go into any details about what we are doing about a cabinet submission.”

So I arranged a meeting with the regional director [of] Indian Affairs and told him why I wanted to meet. He couldn’t believe it, that the province would be even thinking about that. And he said, “there is no way we will give you any support. We’ll support you all you want for developing a program for teaching the language as a subject.” There had to be teacher training, curriculum development and everything else. “And we are prepared to help you there. But you aren’t going to get any help from us on it as a language of instruction.”

I went back to the Minister and said, “There is no way you are going to get any federal help.” They, the feds, thought that there had to be some kind of ulterior motive for moving in that direction. It was an outright no, I told her. She said, “I’ll give you two days to revise the cabinet submission.” With cabinet submissions, there’s a process. And it had gone through that process before it actually got to cabinet by having to rewrite the submission that took out any reference to part A, and move it strictly as a subject of instruction. And it passed, went through cabinet.

So there is a policy in Ontario of teaching native languages as a subject. Three months before this became policy, the Ministry announced that the teaching of French was compulsory beginning in grade 4. The native language [instruction] was open to any kid; it wasn’t just for native kids.

JT: This is in the 1980s, right?

KL: This is 1985, ’86. And that was the policy. If there were Indian kids who were being taught the native language in grade 1 all the way through to grade 12 – if they had been taught Mohawk, for example, for the first three years – by the time they had got to grade 4 when they were supposed to be taught French, they could be exempt from taking French in their school life and continue on with that native language through to high school.


Walter Currie served from 1968 to 1971 as president of the Indian-Eskimo Association, predecessor of the Canadian Alliance in Solidarity with the Native Peoples (CASNP), and from 1969 to 1971 as chairman of the Toronto Indian Friendship Centre. He was the first chair of Trent University’s Native Studies Department, from 1971-75.
2. In the summer of 1969 Keith Lickers’ father and retired lawyer, Norman Lickers, was one of the first to protest the Trudeau-Chretien “White Paper” on behalf of the Six Nations Band Council. Jacqueline Briggs’s paper for the Law Society of Upper Canada, “Legal Professionalism in the Life and Career of Norman Lickers” is available from the Law Society of Ontario.
3. The Canadian federal government has a ‘fiduciary duty’ as inheritor of treaty and other crown obligations to sustain native people, including providing for education. But within the Canadian state, education is constitutionally a provincial responsibility, and provinces may further ‘contract out’ the operations. Churches provided the day-to-day administration, and got to “save souls” doing it. The provinces developed curriculum but no real native studies curriculum because they didn’t believe it was useful and didn’t want to implant any foreign or unknown ideas. Churches relied on municipal boards of education for extra textbook materials, followed local teaching plans except for religion.
4. In Ontario, the provincial government develops and issues curriculum standards. Municipal boards, such as Brant County’s Board of Education, organize and deliver day-to-day teaching.
5. For more about Keith Lickers’s views on language policy, see his journal article “Native Languages and the Role of Research in Formulating Language Policy,” originally published in the TESL Canada Journal (vol.5, no.2) in March 1988. Available at http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ387334.pdf.
6. Photograph of female student at James Bay area residential school, c. 1970, by Mildred Young Hubbert.