Canada, Classroom Perspectives, Indigenous & First Nations Peoples, Social Studies and History, Technology

Learning from History: Teaching the Treaties to High School Students

Learning from History: Teaching the Treaties to High School Students

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 100 Years of the Williams Treaties Special Issue, 2023

By Joseph Filiplic

All people living collectively in Canada are “treaty people,” meaning that we all have rights and responsibilities for this land we call home.

Treaties are a foundational part of our country. Every city, town, road, and building that exists in a treaty area today is only possible because of a treaty that was signed in the past. Today, these treaties reflect an ongoing relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

As treaty people, we must take the responsibility of learning about our past so that we can renew these relationships and better orient ourselves in the present and, ultimately, steer ourselves towards a positive future of meaningful reconciliation.

Education for Reconciliation

I was never taught about Indigenous history as a child. When the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, I was attending junior high in Edmonton. At that time, I didn’t have the slightest idea what a residential school was, nor that one had still been operating in Saskatchewan, a mere province away. I was also unaware that Edmonton was located within Treaty 6 territory or that I was living on the traditional territories of the nêhiyaw (Cree), Dene, Anishinaabe, Saulteaux, Alexis Nakota Sioux, and Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), as well as the Métis homeland.

In fact, it wasn’t until I became a teacher myself and started teaching Grade 9 social studies for the Edmonton Catholic School District that I began discovering these parts of Canada’s history. When I first learned about the residential school system, I was horrified. I couldn’t believe this had never been talked about in classrooms when I was growing up.

Fortunately, education in Alberta has changed a lot since I was young. The current social studies curriculum has an Indigenous component woven throughout, so that students are now taught about the cultures, histories, and contributions of Indigenous peoples, including the legacy of residential schools and several of the numbered Treaties.

Edmonton Catholic Schools is a very diverse school board with students of all faiths and backgrounds. A high number of students are identified as English as Additional Language (EAL) learners. We also have many Indigenous students. But as different as we are, we all have one common goal—to understand and respect the different cultures that exist within our school district.

An obvious starting point to accomplish this is by discussing the histories of this country’s original inhabitants. Familiarizing ourselves with these histories helps to foster more intercultural awareness, empathy, and respect between students.

As an educator and a treaty person myself, I quickly recognized that I had an important role to play in conveying this information to the kids I teach. And to do so, the right tools would be necessary.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released 94 Calls to Action to repair the harm done by residential schools and provide an inclusive framework for organizations. I felt I could respond to Actions 62–65, which call upon governments and educators to develop mandatory, age-appropriate curriculum on Indigenous peoples in Canada. This includes creating educational resources for students from K–12 and sharing best practices for how to teach the material.

The Treaty Handshake

While reaching out to various supports made available by our school board and province, I came across the concept of the Treaty Handshake. It was a symbolic gesture that represented an agreement made between Indigenous peoples and the British Crown when the treaties were initially signed. The handshake was a physical expression of the two parties coming together in mutual respect and understanding.

To begin any discussion of treaties with my students, I first teach them about the Treaty Handshake. It makes for a good starting point because a handshake is something tangible that students can understand, and once I reiterate that handshakes symbolize a promise between two individuals, I can move into deeper conversations about treaties and whether the Canadian government has upheld the promises made in them.

The Numbered Treaties

We start by investigating modern movements such as Idle No More, which began in 2012 as a protest against the Canadian government’s dismantling of environmental protection laws and resource exploitation on First Nations territory, citing this as an abuse of treaty rights. The movement laid a crucial foundation for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and impacted the social and political climate in Canada. Apologies from the government and the Church are also areas we discuss.

Next, we look at the Numbered Treaties in more detail—especially Treaties 6, 7, and 8 because they have a presence in Alberta. I take a “5W+H” approach to teaching the treaties:

  • Who is involved in the treaty?
  • What specifics are covered?
  • When did the treaty negotiations take place?
  • Where does the treaty apply?
  • Why is the treaty important?
  • How are treaty rights administered?

I encourage my class to find answers to these questions by searching online and reaching out to our school board’s Indigenous Learning Services department, or by visiting the Indigenous Peoples Experience at Fort Edmonton Park, so they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history, culture, and experiences of First Nations and Métis peoples—both before and after Canada became a country.

Teaching with Technology

Working with junior high-aged students, I like to incorporate technology wherever possible. Our social studies department is made up of many innovative teachers, and our lead teacher always comes up with meaningful assessments that challenge students to think beyond the classroom.

One such project developed by our lead involves students creating an interactive display similar to the virtual tour offered by the Canadian History Museum. Living in a country as vast as Canada, we cannot simply board a plane and travel to Quebec to visit the museum in person. Thanks to digital resources like this, however, students are still able to experience what the museum has to offer, and gain valuable knowledge from its many galleries and exhibits.

I’ve adapted this digital learning project for my own classroom, utilizing it as a way for students to showcase what they have learned about Indigenous history and treaty rights. They are tasked with creating a digital display that must reflect three key elements:

  1. An understanding of the historical context surrounding the various legislations that affirm Indigenous collective rights in Canada (i.e., the treaties, the Indian Act, land claims, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, etc.).

  2. An explanation of what is affirmed by these collective rights in the present day and how they affect Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

  3. An analysis of recent events/issues that have either improved the situation or still provide challenges to Indigenous communities, the government of Canada, and our country as a whole.

Often the project lends itself to PowerPoint presentations where students further expand on the above requirements. Other times, students get creative and end up designing interactive games in programs such as Scratch.

Some have gone so far as to make mini museums in Minecraft where the “player” can explore the different rooms and learn about several of the treaties, the Indian Act, various apologies, and any current movements taking place. These mini museums even contain paintings to look at, other characters to interact with, and plaques that can be read.

Moving Towards a Positive Future

Through their research, students typically uncover some tough truths about the Indian Act, residential schools, and other aspects of Indigenous history. This leads to valuable class discussions about our past and the process to right the wrongs that were committed.

Learning about these difficult parts of our collective history is crucial because it helps students build a better understanding of the relationships between Indigenous peoples and our country. It also provides context for the issues and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada today.

I often survey my students at the end of the year. When asked about highlights and what units of study stood out to them, the treaties are frequently mentioned. Students note that they enjoyed having the opportunity to be creative for the interactive display project, and that they were able to expand on skills they have learned in other areas of their education as well. Perhaps most importantly, they appreciate having gained a deeper understanding of where our nation began, what has happened along the way, and how to improve it moving forward.


Joseph Filiplic works with the Edmonton Catholic School Division as a teacher and tech coach. He provides students and staff with a variety of supports for digital teaching and learning, as well as online class management. Passionate about the past, Joseph loves to spend time travelling, exploring, and learning about the vast histories that make up our world.