University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada course an important “catalyst for change”

As a child, Dr. Paul L. Gareau didn’t learn much about Indigenous history in school—even though he grew up near Batoche, Saskatchewan, an important site in Métis history and for the Métis nation. 

In 1885, Louis Riel led the Northwest Resistance, fighting for the rights of Métis and other Indigenous peoples in what we now call western Canada to govern themselves. After only a few days of armed conflict, Canadian forces defeated the Métis at the Battle of Batoche—which led to Riel’s trial and execution for treason. 

“I am Métis,” said Gareau. “Growing up in the ‘90s, we barely had any mention of Batoche in our curriculum and we were those people. We lived there, my ancestors fought in that war.” 

He believes many Canadians—whether settlers, First Nations, Métis or Inuit—didn’t receive adequate, if any, education about Indigenous peoples. According to a 2020 national survey by Research Co., 45 percent of respondents said they didn’t learn about residential schools when they were students.

Indigenous Canada 

Gareau is now part of a team of educators trying to fill in those gaps for Canadians. 

As an assistant professor, he’s helping thousands of students learn about Indigenous history as part of a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies. Indigenous Canada is a free 12-module course, developed by Dr. Tracy Bear, which explores subjects such as the fur trade, the Indian Act, and Indian Residential Schools, which were set up to eradicate Indigenous culture and languages. More than 150,000 Indigenous students were sent to these schools, run by the Canadian government and churches, between 1831 and 1997. 

“Our main focus in the faculty is to unpack the legacy of settler colonialism and its impact on relations between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples,” said Gareau. “There’s so much complexity to that.”

Screenshot from the University of Alberta’s online course, Indigenous Canada. The course is free to take. Artwork by Leah Dorion, a Métis artist based in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Close to 400,000 people have signed up for Indigenous Canada since its inception in 2017. About 3,500 students enroll per week, but more than 39,000 registered in the days after the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered at the site of a former Kamloops residential school in 2021. Not everyone finishes all 12 lessons—about 1,000 students complete the entire course each week.

Truth and reconciliation

Gareau hopes more Canadians will sign up as a result of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, a day to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools. It’s also a day to reflect on or learn more about how Indigenous communities were affected by these schools and other settler institutions. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recommended 94 calls to action—including a national day of awareness and mandatory Indigenous history in grade schools to stop the perpetuation of racism and start the process of reconciliation.

“There’s always been this misunderstanding that it’s up to Indigenous peoples to reconcile, and that’s deeply, systemically wrong,” said Gareau. “I think settlers and white Canadians are finally realizing that there’s been a lot of heartbreak and violence for the sake of the state, so let’s take a moment to reflect on what we can do as settlers to make better relations, to give more sovereignty, and to give up our space, to not speak for but stand with our communities.”

Taking the Indigenous Canada course had a “significant impact on me,” said Emil Tiedemann.

“A significant impact” 

Emil Tiedemann is an Edmonton photographer and blogger. He signed up for the U of A’s course after Schitt’s Creek star and co-creator Dan Levy posted about it on social media and asked fans “to relearn history” with him last summer.

Tiedemann is also Métis. He knew about residential schools as a child but not the true extent of their impact. His maternal grandmothers were both survivors and didn’t talk about their time as students. He said the U of A’s course was a revelation. 

“The experience had a significant impact on me, beyond just learning more about what happened in the past and even what is happening right now in Canada,” said Tiedemann, who runs, a website devoted to local happenings.  

“It allowed me, for the first time in my life, to truly understand and comprehend how the people in my own family emotionally responded to each other. I recognized some behaviour that was common in family dynamics within Indigenous communities I grew up around, while also better understanding the true depth of the substance abuse that I witnessed growing up. It was eye-opening, to say the least, and I am not embarrassed to admit that I shed some tears at one point during the course as a result of what I can only explain as a personal revelation.”

Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy invited the Twitter world to take the course with him.

“Catalyst for change” 
Tiedemann was one of 64,000 students who signed up to take the course with Levy in 2020. Each week, the actor would attend online study sessions with instructors from the Faculty of Native Studies and other students. Levy later donated $25,000 to the faculty, while fans responded by crowdfunding another $53,000. (He’ll be reuniting with two of the course’s instructors for another online chat on Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. Registration is free.)

Dr. Paul Gareau, top left, takes part in an online study session with (clockwise from top right) Dr. Tracy Bear, Dan Levy, and Tanya Harnett, an associate professor of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta.

Tiedemann thinks the U of A’s course is essential to the work of reconciliation—the healing of relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples. 

“It’s immensely important for all Canadians to understand the entire history of Indigenous peoples, so that they have a better understanding of where Indigenous communities are today and why it’s important to ensure that all Indigenous Canadians have the same opportunities, resources, and respect as all other Canadians,” he said. 

“This course, and others like it, can be that catalyst for change.”

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows a screenshot from one of the video lectures in the University of Alberta’s massive open online course, Indigenous Canada. Artwork by Leah Dorion, a Métis artist based in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.