Mathematics and First Nations in Western Canada: From Cultural Destruction to a Re-Awakening of Mathematical Reflections

Conference paper
Part of the Trends in the History of Science book series (TRENDSHISTORYSCIENCE)


The history of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and European colonists in Western Canada is one fraught with longstanding unresolved disputes that have typically led, since the forming of Canada, to unilateral action on the part of the Canadian national and provincial governments aiming at reaffirming the rights of the newcomers over native rights. For a long period of time the principal aim was one of cultural destruction, as evidenced by the mandated residential schools. These began in the nineteenth century as private entities, but were transformed into a national program that was aimed at ending the “Indian problem”; the last were closed in the 1990s. The treatment allotted to those who did not learn mathematics well was the same as that given for not speaking English or failing to adopt other required norms: beating. The attitudes to learning mathematics (and formal learning generally) that this produced over several generations was quite naturally negative, and efforts to provide a renewed system of education that addresses the bad feelings while providing a full range of opportunities to Indigenous students have met with many obstacles. Yet it is our contention that the native cultures of Western Canada are not “non-mathematical”. Experience both in examining older traditional sources and in discussing mathematical ideas with elders, teachers, and students provides many examples of mathematical questions and procedures that are culturally based. In this paper, following a brief description of the historical roots of the present situation, we describe the current situation with the education of Indigenous youth and give an account of the “Math Catcher” outreach program which seeks to identify and build on this base. Its accompanying production of learning materials in Indigenous languages is one effort to resituate mathematics at the core of a forward-looking yet traditionally acceptable education for the fastest-growing school age population in the region, Indigenous youth.


Indigenous People Indigenous Community Indigenous Language Indigenous Culture Residential School 
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of MathematicsSimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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