Four questions with Greg Henhawk

Greg Henhawk is a Mohawk of the Bear Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Southern Ontario. He spent 32 years working as a secondary school teacher in Ontario before transitioning into his role as Manager of Indigenous Projects at Sport for Life. We sat down with Greg to talk about the importance of Truth and Reconciliation, the current state of the education system in Canada and why physical literacy is so important. 

#1. In the physical literacy world, you’ve earned yourself a reputation as a truth teller, unafraid to make uncomfortable observations or bring to light inconvenient facts. When it comes to engaging Indigenous communities and advancing physical literacy initiatives, what are the realities on the ground that most people don’t understand? 

From my perspective, anytime a person becomes aware of new information regarding social issues, what they do next can be more impactful than they realize. Especially with respect to broad-reaching social issues. Do they dismiss it / ignore it and move on without further action? Do they challenge the information and look to correct it or even change the perspective of others in their favour? Do they accept it and look to change their own perspective and possibly the perspective of others? Does it motivate them to find out more?

When new knowledge challenges the heart of a person’s belief system it will always be difficult to agree, accept and change. The effects of colonization on Indigenous people revealed in Truth and Reconciliation proceedings and findings is a difficult reality to reconcile in many peoples’ beliefs on both sides of the equation. I have wrestled and will continue to wrestle with the best next steps in this narrative. However, I do believe focusing on the impact of the past will bear far greater results than focusing on the intent of the past. 

Asking non–Indigenous people to reconcile colonization and past atrocities leads to dismissal because they do not have that mindset (intent) now and find it difficult to accept it existed in the past. In fact, the intent at the time has been framed as being for the  perceived “greater good” and there was a shared belief that the impact of the actions would be positive. It is very difficult for many to accept that the actions and impacts weren’t positive and not for the greater good. 

Asking Indigenous people to reconcile colonization and the true atrocities of the past tends to lead to anger. Anger because of past perceived intent and a  perceived present resistance (by many but not all non-Indigenous institutions) to acknowledge the impacts of the past. It also leads to a path of separation rather than a future of cooperation and positive mutual relationships.

What role does Physical Literacy have in this complex past, present and future? Physical Literacy is about “Wellness in a Holistic way”, which speaks to Indigenous people. Physical Literacy is a growing concept for all people. What most people do not understand is that there is/has been a lack of common ground between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities  because of colonization and actions of the past. I believe there has to be an understanding that we are all people first and we are dependent on each other more than we often want to admit.

#2. You spent over three decades working with secondary school students, so you know their particular needs and how best to reach them. How do you think the education system can best incorporate physical literacy concepts into their curriculum and day-to-day lives to ensure future generations of students have the opportunity to really learn how to move their bodies?

High school students are at a point in their lives where they are testing  and exploring the boundaries of their individuality and of their independence. Authoritarian leadership and guidance works for some but falters with most. Traditional pedagogy has been predicated on “telling” students (on the premise it is synonymous with guiding and quality learning)  what they need to know and also how they need to learn it. 

No doubt there are life skills and knowledge they need to learn and they need assistance and guidance obtaining it; there are many valuable life lessons that time does not change. However, there are skills and knowledge that have changed with time. This is not a new phenomenon. 

A mistake that almost every older generation makes in delivering those skills and knowledge is assuming conditions must/should be exactly the same as when they grew up. Not only what they learned but also how they learned it. It is a well-researched and documented fact that people have different learning styles because of their individuality. There are also different learning styles because of the changes in time (specifically to technology and information technology). Curriculums and pedagogy (although it is acknowledged) struggle with truly applying the concept of different styles and at the same time rapidly changing technologies. 

Now more than ever in this fast-paced age of change and readily accessible information we need to ask students their thoughts on what interests them and how they wish to be engaged. There is a great book by Harold Stolovitch and Erica J Keeps called Telling Ain’t Training. In my mind “training” is easily interchanged with “teaching”. The same “change” concept applies to culture, except it isn’t change but respect for difference that needs to be reconciled. 

Pedagogies need to be flexible and adaptable to fit the needs of ages and cultures. The one size fits all or must fit all is a precept of business, fiscal responsibility, and governance; mainly because it makes it easier and economical. We should be focused on adaptive teaching and delivery styles rather than simply telling. The goal should be the best impact, not simply the easiest (or cheapest). Also, what better way  to reach youth than by asking their thoughts? As opposed to assuming and dictating we know what and how they should be motivated and engaged. 

#3. Physical literacy is a fledgling concept that’s just beginning to gain international interest from places such as Sweden, Australia and Ireland. But there’s still a lot of work to do here in Canada, particularly in Indigenous communities. How do you think the physical literacy movement needs to evolve to successfully engage a larger population?

Few people in the general public know that in the early 1800s any activity or concern had to increase the productivity of the workforce: the ultimate grounds for the attainment of worthwhile ends. Or they had to be justified on moral or religious grounds. If they did not, they were rejected as frivolous and unnecessary. 

Further, the basis of Canadian morals and values is rooted in Victorian society, in which there were two basic tenets: “work and Liberalism”. In the Victorian era “work” was the cornerstone of morality and it was regarded as the ultimate meaning of life. Liberal morality was based upon individualism, science and progress. In essence, during this time period the societal code was based upon the interlinked concepts of work, perseverance, and self-help.  

During this era physical activity, recreation and sport (athletics) was denounced as frivolous and unnecessary. Athletics and sport  (initially called “muscular Christianity”) was deemed of no value, as it was not a means to an end. Later in the 1800s to be active in sport was seen as a means to be a “good Christian”. The beginning of athletics being identified as a valuable educational tool goes as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s. A research paper in the early 1970s by Canadian professor Alan Metcalfe stated there “is little doubt that the ideals in muscular Christianity have throughout the last 100 years provided one of the basic rationales for the educational use of games in a school and within the inter-school competitive situation”. 

Athletics are not just a means to an end, they are a process. A process with valuable intrinsic values that is necessary for physical health and wellness.

So where did things go awry? Unfortunately, despite compelling supportive research we’re still in a situation where physical activity / sport / and recreation is still predominantly viewed in a very Victorian light. Often viewed as “kid’s games” and something you leave behind when you “grow up”; its’ value in Ontario illustrated by the fact that physical education is only mandatory for one credit in four years of secondary curriculum. In the elementary context, opportunities for physical movement and activity are often still cancelled as discipline for poor classroom behaviour. So-called kid’s games are not valued in a monetary / business or “work” approach.

Physical literacy is conceptualized as different from physical education and sport in that it is holistic. That means it has intrinsic value beyond competition and positively impacts well-being, potentially becoming an aspect of self-help. These are certainly not new concepts but we are still struggling to overcome the mindsets of the past. The physical literacy movement needs to continue to search for the outlier concept that will not only galvanize it’s value in the minds of the general public, but also move the general public to change the minds of business and policy makers. 

In Indigenous communities (pre-Contact) physical activity and sport always had a holistic, multi-faceted meaning but that is one of many realities that changed under the influence of colonialism. In the past Indigenous people were not permitted to pursue their cultural practices, including physical activity celebrations and traditional sports. Today a resulting impact on Indigenous communities is that modern games are more attractive than traditional games in the minds of many Indigenous youth, which is not entirely negative but does concern many elders. Renowned Hungarian scholar Csikszentmihalyi characterized the benefits of play as “allowing an individual to be prepared for the requirements of the culture in which one lives”. For many Indigenous people modern games and sport do not represent a connection to their culture. In addition, there are mixed feelings towards accepting practices of another culture or preparing to live in that culture (now that they somewhat have a choice).

Modern practices and culture are often shunned on principle rather than on merit.   

However, I believe there is merit and valuable lessons from  past and present, no matter the culture they originate from. It is my hope that there does not have to be a victor in which only one culture or philosophy must prevail. Unfortunately the very nature of colonization often means things must be done only one way; and quite often today that is the “business way”. There needs to be a choice and the positive values of each need to be presented and emphasized correctly. There needs to be a new mindset that respects differences and builds relationships across cultures.

Recent projects in Indigenous communities designed to incorporate traditional games and practices as well as the use of more modern physical activity practices has one key feature: choice. Participants now have the choice to be educated in the traditional games and knowledge, or modern sport and its’ training methods and practices, or both. Choice and developing the skill of self-help in Indigenous communities as well as emphasizing the holistic aspect of physical literacy has the power to revitalize, heal and possibly improve self-identity. Most importantly, it is an aspect of self-help that individuals of all cultures can practice when it is pursued for the right benefits, the original reasons and true purpose of physical activity. These reasons do not include being rich or famous or any of the other factors that prevent people from embracing lifetime physical activity and physical literacy.

#4. In the Truth and Reconciliation Report, there are 5 specific calls to action regarding sport and physical activity. How well do you think Canadians have responded to these calls to action, and what progress has been made?

There is a powerful quote in the TRC Final Report summary. An unnamed non-Indigenous  woman who was bearing witness to some residential school survivors’ life stories said “by listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change.”

The more the truth is told, the more healing can occur. One of the mandates of the commission is “to guide and inspire a process of truth and healing … a process that works to renew relationships on a basis of inclusion, mutual understanding and respect.”

The average Canadian is still not very aware of the findings and recommendations  of the Commission but they may be aware of its’ existence. The calls to action tend to be better known to a specific sector of professionals, academics and special interest groups. These sectors tend to only be familiar with the ones for their specific sector. The TRC report is an incredibly large and extensive document and even being familiar with all 94 calls to action is a daunting task. However, the holistic lens of Indigenous philosophy (as opposed to the segmented / silo approach of mainstream) is required to fully understand and implement the Commission’s recommendations. 

It is this narrow lens that I believe slows the progress of greater awareness and understanding when it comes to the impact of residential schools and colonization. This is mainly due to self-interest, and if specific calls to action are not in a person’s  area of interest or involvement they do not pay attention to them. Life is an inter-connected journey and always requires a holistic approach. I believe the calls to action have been broken into sectors for ease of understanding. It was never intended to promote a unilateral sectoral approach for implementing or addressing the actions. 

When it comes to reconciliation, many can’t see the forest for the trees and that has inhibited understanding and progress. This narrow lens prevents non-Indigenous people, and governing bodies, from understanding that the TRC and residential schools are not the only aspects of colonization. A holistic approach to understanding history is needed. 

To take this challenging landscape even further: there is too much focus on the calls to action for sport and recreation as the only things that people working within the sport and physical activity ecosystem can do to affect positive change. Physical literacy is holistic in nature and a more holistic approach is needed. 

I’d like to borrow the words of the woman I quoted at the outset of this answer: “Listening to and understanding the whole TRC story as well as other aspects of Colonization  can change the single story of Indigenous people and the minds of non-Indigenous people. Listening to and understanding the story of Colonization, TRC and Physical Literacy can potentially change all people.”

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