A Conversation with Keith Lickers, Part 2

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.



Jeremy Tompkins: You were director [and head of the Woodland Cultural Centre], right?

Keith Lickers: Yeah. In 1970 the federal government decided to close down residential schools.

JT: Including the one in Brantford.

KL: The one in Brantford [the Mohawk Institute] was the second one to close. It was the first to open as a residential school, but it was the second one to close. The one in Blue Quills, Alberta, was the very first one to close. They closed two months apart from each other. This one closed in June of 1970, at the end of the school year.

JT: The transition between Anglican ownership and Mohawk ownership was a lot smoother than at Blue Quills.

KL: Yeah.

JT: Blue Quills was occupied, right?

KL: Yeah.1 But it was because of Indian Affairs policy of shutting down residential schools. It was a brand new policy. So here in Ontario, they simply just made the decision that at the end of this school year we will shut it down.

JT: And that school housed primarily Aboriginal kids from elsewhere?

KL: There were a lot of kids from northern Ontario. There were a lot of kids from northern Quebec, a lot of kids from northern Manitoba. When the school closed, the Department of Indian Affairs had budgeted $18,000 to buy plywood and board up all the doors and windows of the administration building and the school. (They were two separate facilities.) $18,000 worth of plywood would have closed it all up. But [the Six Nations band] council had gone through their records and found something that said when the school was no longer used as a school it would be handed over to the band. The council brought out that piece of paper that committed the federal government, and so Indian Affairs said, “Okay, what are you going to do with it?” The band council said, “Give us a little bit of time and we’ll figure it out.”

I was asked by the band council, “Would you leave your teaching job and come and work for us for a year for $18,000 and do a feasibility study for us?” I thought about it for a week and then went back and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

I finished it in 10 months. It became the Woodland Indian Cultural Education Centre. Brantford needed a postsecondary facility that was Indian-focused. It was set up as a museum. It was set up with an audio-visual department and was also set up as a research/reference library. And we got money from the federal government, a lot of money, to establish it. I was hired on as its first executive director in the fall of ’72.

When Joseph Brant was around and created the Mohawk Chapel, there was a falling out between him and John Deseronto. At that time, there was a Queen Anne’s communion service. There was a chalice, a plate. There were four pieces. So when John Deseronto broke off and established the Tyendinaga reserve, he took half of the communion service with him. And so these became two separate pieces. Because both of these reserves were part of this Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) and it was the official opening of the Woodland Centre, and because funding was based on the support of all those [AIAI] reserves, they wanted to kill two birds with one stone. There was the grand opening and there was also the presentation of the AIAI position paper [responding to the White Paper] at the same time. So Jean Chretien was invited to attend and he came. And the whole Queen Anne’s communion service was on display, the first time that had happened in 65 years. It was quite an event.



JT: This new policy framework that was launched in 2005 – what was your role?

KL: That was the last project that I did. It helped solidify native education with respect to a commitment by the Ministry.

JT: These books published last year [Pearson Education and GoodMinds.com jointly published Aboriginal Beliefs, Values, and Aspirations and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada] that you were an author and advisor for – do they flow from that guideline?

KL: Not really.

JT: I ask because it seems there was a gap between these books and there being anything available on aboriginal studies for several years.

KL: That was why we got the approval, why we broke rules with respect to bibliography. As soon as you identify books to be used in teaching that subject, you are right away overlooking or overcoming Circular 14 [called the Trillium List after 2002] as well as giving a big push to publishers for those particular textbooks, which again was a no-no. You are not supposed to [show] any kind of favouritism by naming their books in a guideline. And that’s why the other guidelines do not [name] textbooks.

JT: Could you say this framework is a later edition of PONA?

KL: Yeah. There was PONA up until 1981. And there have been two revisions of the secondary curriculum for native studies, [grades] 7 to 10 and 11 to 12. We could only get approval to revise the secondary documents and not the first one, which was for [grades] 1 to 6.

JT: Do you know how these books came to be finally published and approved by Ontario? They had to be commissioned. How much money had to be waved in front of publishers before they jumped?

KL: I don’t know, but it had to be sizable. I don’t know how Alayne [Bigwin, director of the Aboriginal Education Office] did it to have that kind of money available as a small branch. I understand that because of the framework, more and more schools are getting involved in teaching native languages and native studies.

JT: But they must be using other materials.

KL: That’s one thing we have always said about native studies. Because different teachers over the years would say, “Give us a textbook.” And there wasn’t a single textbook simply because of the nature of native studies. It touches on history of course, touches on geography; if you are looking at the secondary level, [also] law and politics. [There were] so many other subject areas that it can be part of that there was never a push to develop a textbook specifically for native studies.

With native languages it is even more difficult. You would never get a publisher moving into the native languages area simply because the market is too small. Basically Ojibway, Cree, Mohawk and Cayuga are the native languages that are taught, plus Oneida near London. Oneida isn’t that difficult because the language is spoken on one reserve and there’s agreement among those Oneida speakers as to the language and how it is written. With the Mohawk language you’ve got Akwesasne, you’ve got Tyendinaga, you’ve got Six Nations.

JT: Would these be dialects? Are they mutually intelligible?

KL: Oh yeah.

JT: But there are key differences?

KL: Very much so. When we brought all the Mohawk teachers together for a month to agree on a system for writing Mohawk, at the end of that month we had the Akwesasne dialect, we had two guys at Tyendinaga who were teaching Mohawk phonetically – and therefore had their own system for writing Mohawk, which was different than Akwesasne – and then we had Six Nations. And you have got within the Mohawk community here two dialects. So we had four versions of Mohawk. And there are two versions of Cayuga.

JT: Is Cayuga closely related to Mohawk?

KL: No, it’s totally different. If there was agreement among the speakers to agree on a writing system for Cayuga and a writing system for Mohawk, we would have enough speakers that a publisher might be interested, like Fitzhenry and Whiteside. But as long as we have that split – when [a language is] localized to a reserve – there wouldn’t be enough sales to warrant the cost and there never would be a textbook for native languages. The publishers would have to do their own survey, would have to be convinced themselves that there is in fact a market, and that it is worth the financial outlay to produce a textbook.

JT: How far away do you think we are from a point where native studies isn’t required; so that OUR history, Canadian history, is so inclusive that there aren’t two tracks?

KL: It would be really helpful if the mind-set changed in faculties of education.

JT: Are you talking university faculties?

KL: No, faculties of education, teacher training. That really is the core of where any changes will be made in schools: what teachers are taught. If native studies and the teaching of native studies aren’t done at that level, then the people who actually teach Native Studies in the classroom are only those who have a sincere interest in aboriginal people and do their own research.

1. According to Blue Quills First Nations College (BQFNC), organizing for the peaceful occupation of Blue Quills Indian Residential School followed administrators’ failure to employ First Nations faculty. After the school closed in June 1970, demonstrators began a sit-in that concluded only when the federal government agreed to financially support the residence and school under First Nations administration.
2. 1917 Image of the Mohawk Institute by John Boyd, Library and Archives Canada.