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Defenders for Human Rights
Karihwakè:ron Tim Thompson

Karihwakè:ron Tim Thompson Equitable Education for All

GRADE LEVELS = 5 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Four 60 minute class periods

“In 1972, Indian Control of Indian Education spoke of parental control and community control. It meant that we would ultimately approve the standards of education in all respects. We still haven’t achieved that yet. We’re continuing to work within frameworks that are set elsewhere. We continue to strive. We continue to try to break those bonds that hold us.”

After more than a decade of learning, Karihwakè:ron Tim Thompson was done with school.

He “had a distaste for it” – a resentment of his education, which had begun in elementary school.

Raised in Wahta Mohawk territory, a community near Bala, Ontario that was too small for its own school, Tim had gone off reserve every day for class.

It took some time for Tim to see someone who looked like him in his history books. When he finally did, he didn’t like what he read: graphic descriptions of Mohawk people torturing European fur trader Pierre Infinity Radisson.

“I asked myself, why?” Tim says. “Why would the kind people I know, why would my ancestors, do something like that? It inspired me to learn more about my history. Why weren’t they telling the good stuff? Why were they only telling the bad?”

Things didn’t get better as the years went on – through high school and university.

“It was as if history only existed, or knowledge only existed across the ocean. It didn’t exist here. I almost got the sense that our existence was being covered up.”

Left to his own unsatisfied curiosity after more than fifteen years, Tim was discouraged.

In a path that he finds almost “ironic,” Tim searched for his Mohawk history on his own – seeking out elders who knew the oral histories and reading papers – and, along the way, found a taste for fixing the system that had disappointed him.

Karihwakè:ron Tim Thompson was always going to be an activist.

“I was dragged along,” he says, laughing fondly. “My mother was the activist … a single mother who dragged me to meetings and dragged me to protests.”

Throughout his childhood, Tim had watched his mother work with First Nations organizations. She involved herself with the patriation of the Constitution, getting First Nations’ rights and treaties recognized.

When she came back from residential school, Tim’s mother had translated the Mohawk spoken by her uncle, Tim’s great-uncle, into English. On his behalf, she wrote letters to the Queen in her 12-year-old handwriting in defence of Mohawk land.

“So I already had that (inspiration),” Tim says. “It’s when you end up trying to decide what you’re going to do with your life, what doors open? Which path do you follow?”

It was through his work with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres that Tim found his way. Many more communities were seeing their cultural needs and identities ignored in schools.

But those same communities were working from the bottom up to create their own school programs. Within the system, they were working to make teachers and principals more aware of indigenous cultures, and to encourage the government to make room. “I was inspired to help.”

Tim’s belief in an indigenous person’s connection to their culture and their beliefs dominates his work as an activist.

“It arises from our existence. Every people has an inherent right to be self-determining. It's something that we should be asserting in a manner that reflects our visions of what we need in order to succeed, in order to have a good life, to live in balance with whoever’s around us. Seen and unseen.”

For his own part, that connection takes many forms. The crash of the turtle rattle in ritual, a sound that “shakes me to my soul.” New like-minded friends on the road. Or, his favourite: arriving back in Wahta after the long drive home. (“I never leave home. I’m probably guilty of a lot of carbon dioxide pollution from driving home all the time.”)

In his work, that belief translates to indigenous people taking ownership of how they learn and from whom they learn.

“I think we still have a gap between the colonial understanding of education and what First Nations strive for. I think we’re very clear on the First Nations side that we’re striving for First Nations control, and that includes all aspects.”

It’s an autonomy that exists in treaties, Tim says, but doesn’t exist in practice.

“Education is the one place where we can make great strides: not only in affirming a positive sense of self-image for our young people,” he says, “but also to create understanding with everyone else who lives here.”

It’s been frustrating. Sometimes not quite making the grade comes down to a matter of being a few hours too late.

“We’ve been at it for many, many years. We could throw our hands up and walk away from it all, but the key thing is to not give up, to continue to press forward.”

The progress that’s being made – schools where classes are taught by First Nation teachers in First Nation languages – brings him hope. Maintaining that hope comes from within.

“The first thing you try to change is yourself. You try to become a stronger person. You try to become a better person. You tackle those burdens as they come up in front of you.”

Tim’s path has carried him through many projects. His work has been invaluable on projects like Ontario’s Native Studies curriculum, which he helped develop in 1996.

“It was so much fun, because it was giving all these kinds of things, whether it was history, our ways of thinking and doing things, First Nations authors, anything like that,” Tim says. “Put it all on the table and it’s getting built into these courses.”

He’s been a leader at the First Nations Technical Institute, and at the Assembly of First Nations, where he contributed to the 2012 version of the Indian Control of Indian Education paper. He’s had doors slammed in his face, and he’s watched once-locked doors open.

The process makes him proud every time, no matter the barriers and the outcome.

“I feel like that whether I’m standing at the back of the room or standing at the front of the room. If you have a common cause, if you have a group of people moving in that same direction, there’s nothing like that feeling. It’s incredible.”

“I think what spurred me to become somewhat of an activist was becoming aware of incidents where power was used unfairly on the less powerful.”

“You find these wonderful successes that are occurring everywhere. They’re not occurring at a systemic level as fast as we’d like, but you find champions all over the place. It’s inspiring. Everybody chips in where they can.”

“I have so many heroes, both still walking the earth and those who have gone on as well.”