“I’ve had friends say Shakespeare is irrelevant”: Meet the Grade 12 student who changed the TDSB’s English curriculum

“I’ve had friends say Shakespeare is irrelevant”: Meet the Grade 12 student who changed the TDSB’s English curriculum

Eighteen-year-old Isaiah Shafqat successfully advocated for a mandatory Grade 11 Indigenous literature course across Toronto schools

This week, the TDSB voted to replace the standard Grade 11 English curriculum—which typically features classics by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare—with a course focused on the work of contemporary Indigenous authors. The decision has a lot of critics clutching their dog-eared copies of The Great Gatsby. But Isaiah Shafqat, the 12th grader and student trustee who advocated for the new class, says it’s the perfect time to study Indigenous culture, history and politics.    

Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, but I grew up in the GTA. I’m a member of the Mi’kmaq and Loon Clan, and I’m in Grade 12 at Kâpapâmahchakwêw—Wandering Spirit School in East York. In my spare time, I enjoy reading human rights constitutional law, anything about proceedings and litigations.

That’s intense. Do you read anything a little more leisurely?
I also like reading Indigenous authors like Chelsea Vowel, who wrote Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. It’s an excellent book.

You’ve been an Indigenous student trustee for the TDSB for the past three years. What does that involve?
At the beginning of every term, a student is appointed to the role by the Council of Elders. My job is to represent Indigenous students at the board level, bringing their voices to the table at board meetings and committee meetings. I’m also the chair of Indigenous relations at the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which involves leading Indigenous education initiatives for about 100 student trustees across more than 70 school boards.

Most students can barely finish their homework. How do you juggle all of that?
It’s not easy. The most important thing is prioritizing my school work, making sure I’m on top of everything.

With an 18–3 vote, the TDSB just swapped Grade 11 English for a mandatory course called English: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices. Can you tell us about it?
Students will learn the same skills that they would in a traditional English class—writing, oral communication, analyzing literary texts. But, instead of studying the classics, they’ll be reading Indigenous literature, including All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward by Tanya Talaga, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline. Those books cover important issues like land rights, residential schools and treaties, and they reflect the world we live in today better than Oliver Twist or Hamlet do.

Shafqat holds copies of two books by Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers and All Our Relations, and Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

A lot of critics will see this change as an affront to what they might call “traditional Western education.” How would you respond?
It’s not. Canada is a country on Indigenous land. It’s only right that we include Indigenous perspectives in the classroom. And it’s important to clarify that we’re not replacing Dickens and Shakespeare. Their books can still be taught in grades 9, 10 and 12. The purpose of making this class compulsory is to include Indigenous voices in the high school curriculum, to make it a little less Eurocentric.

Have you taken the class?
Yes, last year, which inspired my passion for making it mandatory. The course introduces students to Indigenous world views, values and traditions, enriching the learning process. Before teachers lead the class, they’re offered professional education from the TDSB Urban Indigenous Education Centre, which teaches the “four Rs”: respect, relevance, reciprocity and responsibility. Then the teachers can bring those core values into the classroom. My non-Indigenous classmates enjoy the class too. They find that the literature feels more current, which is refreshing. And it’s easier to understand than, say, Shakespeare, which has pretty dated language. I’ve had some friends say that Shakespeare is irrelevant.

Is it safe to assume that you aced the class?
Yes, I got an A.

Is the course offered elsewhere in the province?
Right now, 29 out of the 110 schools in the TDSB teach this course. About 1,700 students are enrolled. And it’s already compulsory at other school districts in the province, including Simcoe County, Essex County and the Lakehead District School Board.

Why make the change now?
Responses to recent events like the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, controversy over the Indigenous lobster fishery in Nova Scotia, and pipeline protests show that Indigenous issues aren’t understood as well as they should be. This course will encourage informed conversations. When the stuff students learn about in the classroom is reflected in the world around them, the learning process becomes more enjoyable. It’s time to bring Indigenous perspectives to the forefront. Toronto is home to people from many diverse cultures, but this city was built on stolen Indigenous land. It’s a key part of truth and reconciliation to educate people on Indigenous issues. Education is the starting point of all change.

What happens next?

The director of education will present a report to the TDSB board of trustees by June, providing a timeline for the course’s rollout. It won’t happen overnight. Right now, I’m just absorbing the results from Wednesday night. I’m really excited it passed.

You graduate in the spring. What are your post-secondary plans?
I’ll be pursuing law, at either Trent or Laurier, with the goal of becoming a lawyer focused on treaty rights, constitutional law and human rights.

Changing the TDSB curriculum is a pretty big deal for an 18-year-old. If you keep this up, one day, you’ll change the world.
That’s the hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.